Shot! The 2017 Arundel Castle Tulip Festival

The tulips came early this year in the Earl’s Garden

This year’s tulip festival was Arundel Castle’s biggest ever. Beginning last November, the castle’s garden team began planting the first of 38,000 tulips — 6,000 more than the previous year — making it, arguably, the country’s biggest tulip festival. Even so, few people actually know about it, including many of those who visit the castle. It’s one of Sussex’s best kept secrets because beyond a few sentences on the castle’s website, it’s not promoted at all.

Like most flowers, tulips are only at their prime for a short while, so knowing precisely when to go see them makes all the difference, as does the weather on the day.

This Spring, due to exceptionally mild weather, the tulips bloomed early, looking their best almost a full two weeks ahead of 2016. Having contacted head gardener, Martin Duncan, I knew that time was running out for me to photograph them at their optimum. But with other things getting in the way, when I eventually visited Arundel it was in the knowledge I was probably a week too late.

Last year, the photographic high points were outside the Earl’s Garden. I loved the swathes of tulips planted in the adjacent American Ground and along the castle ramparts. Indeed, my favourite photos from the 2016 festival were taken in those locations. Despite pots of vibrant tulips at the Lower Lodge entrance, approaching the Earl’s Garden it was immediately obvious that I was too late to shoot the massed tulips alongside the castle walls or by the ancient cork tree in the American Ground.

Fortunately, when I entered the garden itself, the one thing I was keenest to see and shoot this year was looking splendid. For the first time, the largest space in the Earl’s Garden, was filled with tulips. This grassed area had been partially planted last year, but this time the entire space, known as the Labyrinth, had red tulips planted in narrow curves on the grass with the precise same width left empty between the rows.

It was a memorable first impression. With its vivid colours, strong lines and well-defined shapes it also made for a striking image. In some ways, it reminded me of Blood Swept Lands and Seas, Paul Cummins’ iconic poppy installation at the Tower of London in 2014.

Of course, to get the real effect, you needed to be gazing down on the Labyrinth, not looking across it. Unfortunately, there was no ideal vantage spot from which to see it…or photograph it. A temporary raised viewing gantry would’ve been perfect, but without one, there was nowhere elevated enough that provided sufficient height to look down on it. And that was a real shame considering it was without doubt the most iconic part of this year’s festival.

The Earl’s Garden’s most visually spectacular feature is the Arun Fountain. I’ve photographed it numerous times and on each visit I try and challenge myself to find a new way to shoot it. This time I focused on a few close-up shots, rather than capturing the entire fountain square on, which is what most people do.

Apart from those in the clay pots at the Arun Fountain, the Labyrinth was also the only area to feature blooms in a single colour. Elsewhere, throughout the gardens, the tulips were planted in combinations of colours, usually with three or four varieties grouped together.

Last year I thought the Stumpery — the most naturalistic part of the garden, consisting of gnarly old tree stumps from the Norfolk Estate, surrounded by ferns and woodland flowers — looked superb. Stumperies were a favourite of the late-Victorian era where they were used to create picturesque woodland scenes. On this visit, the Stumpery was bereft of colour with few flowers and no tulips. Another highlight from last year was the wildflower meadow that was filled with mixed varieties of tulips. This time, there were none to be seen.

One has to remember that looking after a garden such as this involves many complexities. Your plans can be dashed by unexpected weather and you need to constantly be thinking about what will next come into bloom and give those plants every opportunity to thrive and look their best.

The gardener and writer Alex Dingwall-Main eloquently referred to this as “dancing with the seasons.”

He wrote: “Timing is of the essence because plants need continuance to come to fruition. They have limited lives, grow at different rates, and come out and go in at different times. Working out the equation to keep a balance that will last for more than a season, whilst remembering to allow space for their development, harmony for their shape and colour as well as time for their maturity is a juggler’s act.”

Away from the Earl’s Garden, the castle’s most spectacular display of tulips were to be found in the courtyard at the Duke Henry entrance. Here, half a dozen or so large wooden planters were filled with stunning blooms in shades of shocking pink, ruby red and deep purple, which looked splendid against the grey stone of the castle walls.

As good as the festival is — and apparently many visitors from Holland think it’s as good if not better than their own Tulp Festival— one can’t help but think it has the potential to be so much better.

If there’s one gripe I have with the Earl’s Garden, it’s the lack of information, both on the castle’s website and on-site.

With minimal signage in the garden and no signs at all alongside the tulips themselves, visitors have no idea as to which of the 72 varieties planted in this year’s festival, they are looking at. Without any words of explanation, the visitor experience is limited to what you see. And that’s a missed opportunity.

A simple leaflet with a garden map would have helped identify the blooms. Perhaps using a scannable QR code may be the best answer, allowing visitors to interact with the garden with their phones and enjoy a self-guided tulip trail throughout the grounds.

But the real missed opportunity remains the same as previous years: many visitors to the castle have no idea the tulip festival was even happening. Indeed, I suspect, many are unaware of the existence of the Earl’s Garden altogether. It’s the furthest away from the entrance and not promoted anywhere (at the entrance, in the grounds or in the restaurant)

For me, what’s needed is a little more ambition and lot more promotion. Personally, I think the tulip festival would benefit greatly from having a different theme each year and extending the planting throughout the adjacent American Ground, an area that would almost double the available space.

The planting in the Labyrinth demonstrates how much visual impact can be created when you creatively fill a large space. I’d like to see a lot more tulips planted more artistically in specific areas around the castle grounds, with each treated like an art installation.

I’m aware of course that the castle only has a small garden team and increasing the space for a temporary event would be challenging, but I’m also convinced a bigger, better promoted event would attract many more paying visitors. And if you think 38,000 is a lot of tulips, this year’s Tulp Festival in Amsterdam had over 500,000 in various areas around the city!

With 2018 marking the 10th anniversary of the opening of the Earl’s Garden — it was opened by The Prince of Wales on 14th May 2008next year’s Tulip Festival should be something extra special.

Behind the image: All these images were shot handheld with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 and either the 12–40 2.8 Pro or the 75 1.8 lens. Having previously photographed the Tulip Festival and the garden numerous times, what became immediately clear was that the Labyrinth was the biggest difference, yet it was somewhat challenging to get good compositions of from ground level. Nothing else tulip-wise in the Earl’s Garden really caught my eye, apart from a few open blooms that I noticed cascading over a wooden bench. I really liked how the flowers looked against the wood, so I decided to get in close to capture the detail. The other area I focused on was the potted tulips up at the castle’s Duke Henry entrance. Again, the backdrop of the dark castle walls worked well against the bright coloured blooms and I experimented by shooting one display pot with my lens actually inside another pot. Whilst I arrived not expecting great results, I came away with considerably more good images than I thought I’d get, something I put down to spending more time thinking about my compositions. I especially like the painterly quality I achieved with the Labyrinth shots, where the bright red tulips look like something from an impressionist’s canvas. Shot in Arundel on 23 April 2017.

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