Shot! The 2021 Arundel Castle Tulip Festival
Following a year shuttered by the pandemic, one of England’s most magical gardens finally burst back into life with a kaleidoscope of colourful blooms.
Originally hailing from Turkey, ever since the Tulipmania of the 17th century elevated them to collector status, tulips have created a special place among the world’s species of flowers.
Not only do tulips come in almost every colour, but in many different shapes, sizes and styles. In fact there are now some 3,000 registered varieties, so many that when different varieties are seen side by side, it’s often hard to believe that any two are the same specie.
Indeed, tulips can be divided into no less than 15 different groups or categories. The most rudimentary being the classic six-petaled single tulip. Other groups include double; cup-shaped, bowl-shaped or goblet-shaped; fringed, lily-flowered; long, slender-tepalled or star-shaped. Perhaps the most exotic looking tulip of them all are parrot tulips, known for their vibrant colours and feathery petals reminiscent of a tropical parrot.
No matter what the variety, tulips share one trait — they tend to be capricious flowers to grow. Most dislike excessively wet conditions and strong winds. While perennial, many gardeners grow them as annuals since it can be a challenge to get a repeat performance in the second year.
Seen at their peak, tulips make stunning displays, especially when planted en masse. And in the UK there are few better places to see them than at Arundel Castle in West Sussex.
Since 2016, under the auspices of Head Gardener, Martin Duncan, the castle puts on a spectacular tulip festival which takes over its award-winning Earl’s Garden and spreads less formally across much of the castle’s hilltop defences.
But whilst Arundel Castle was one of the pioneers, other gardens have followed suit in putting on their own tulip festivals. This year, for example, Hampton Court Palace — home to the RHS’s annual Garden Festival — launched its own event, one that boasted over 100,000 blooms, making it arguably the UK’s biggest tulip display.
One of the biggest challenges in putting on a tulip festival is that different varieties have different bloom times. These are generally divided into early spring (typically mid-March to late April), mid-spring (early to mid-May), and late spring (mid- to late May). And add to that the vagaries of the British weather. With different bulbs planted to ensure the longest display time, it means seeing them at their very best requires inside information.
I’ve photographed the festival every year since it began. Of course, like most things, Covid put paid to last year’s festival which, with the castle closed, could only be viewed online.
With the gardens only reopening to visitors on April 1st, my intention was to visit the castle a few days later. However, looking at the latest photos on Instagram, it quickly became obvious I needed to delay my visit. Martin advised me to wait until at least the 20th. Not having had the opportunity to photograph any gardens since shooting West Dean last July, I was itching to go and hoped the weather goods would be favourable. Following weeks of highly changeable weather, I was relieved that the 20th brought with it a bright sunny day, with blue skies and no chance of rain.
Martin suggested I arrive early so I could get some shots before the garden was teeming with visitors. It was the first time I had the entire space to myself, if only for half an hour, but it meant not having to endlessly wait for people to move out of the way.
Whilst there’s always something new to see, the truth is the festival is much the same each year. The lack of room within the Earl’s Garden and the need to rotate much of the bedded areas from one year to another, means that there’s little scope for doing much different apart from planting different specie combinations. Bear in mind too that when 60,000 bulbs were planted last November, there was no guarantee the paying public were going be allowed into the castle when they bloomed. Understandably, that resulted in a less ambitious display than previous years.
Nonetheless, Martin told me there were a record 180 different varieties and he reckoned around 80,000 tulips would be in bloom during the festival, which included some 20,000 reappearing from last year.
If you’d never been before, you’d still be mightily impressed with what was on show. But having witnessed previous festivals, I have to say this year’s was not as spectacular.
The most obvious difference was with the garden’s largest display: the Labyrinth. In past years this was filled with swathes of red Apeldoorn tulips, but this year it was dominated by 12,000 white narcissus.
Less striking than previous iterations, besides tulips, what this year’s display also lacked was the sharp delineation between the lines. There were tulips poking out among the narcissus, but far fewer than usual.
Martin explained that growing tulips in a lawn is far trickier than growing them in pots. Apparently, tulips are very susceptible to disease and a display the size of the labyrinth is difficult to repeat year after year. I assume the intention was to give the soil time to recover.
One consequence of this was there were far more tulips in pots than in previous years. And that was no bad thing as they made for some stunning displays around every corner.
Of course, knowing which varieties you were actually seeing remained a mystery as the Duchess of Norfolk (whose family home this is) dislikes labels of any kind. I’ve commented on numerous occasions that this doesn’t enhance the visitor experience and have suggested how a discreet QR code could easily aid people’s understanding of what plants they were looking at. With not even a pamphlet to guide you, I think it’s something that needs addressing.
For me — and I think for most visitors — the visual highlight of the garden and the festival is the display around the stunning Arun Fountain with its huge terracotta pots stuffed with equally huge Pink Impressions.
Pink Impression is a Darwin Hybrid, a tulip which produces one of the largest blooms. Its flowers are described as being veined empire rose on pale rose ground, with the edges flush shrimp-red on a broad feathered edge.
Designed to symbolise the start and strength of the river Arun, the Arun Fountain is the garden’s showpiece feature, its green oak now weathered to look like stone. In the glorious April sunshine it transported you to medieval Italy.
Not far behind in terms of impact is the more recent Stumpery. One of the garden’s most unusual features, it artfully uses the upended roots of ancient yew, sweet chestnut and oak stumps as a sculptural planting habitat. Popular in Victorian times — the first known stumpery dates back to 1856 — it creates an other-worldly landscape. And now that the naturalistic planting has had a few years to mature, it looks like it’s been there for ages. Occupying a space of only 17m x 22m, it’s just a shame there isn’t the room for the Stumpery to be twice the size.
Squeezed into two acres, the Earl’s Garden maybe small, but it’s perfectly formed. Created in 2008 on the site of a former staff car park and kitchen garden, it was designed by Isabel and Julian Bannerman, who made their name with the gardens at Highgrove for Prince Charles.
Being this is a castle’s tulip festival, arguably the most iconic images aren’t found within the walls of the Earl’s Garden, but alongside the ramparts of the castle itself.
Each year, the steep grass bank in front of the Duke Henry entrance is carpeted with red tulips and white narcissus. How they contrast against the castle’s grey towers always makes for a great composition.
Speaking of which, what really appeals to me is when different varieties are mixed together — especially when they are planted en masse.
My favourite combination was from 2018 when crimson, pink, lilac and deep purple blooms made for an eye-catching display on the American Ground just outside the Earl’s Garden.
Whilst this year there weren’t many examples of large-scale mixed planting, the best could be found in a few sections of the Bow Tie beds.
Looking ahead, I’d like to see more creativity applied to the tulip festival than simply adding more varieties. Indeed, in terms of visual impact one could question whether more varieties is the best way of achieving this. Take Hampton Court for example, where in a case of less is more, they have restricted their inaugural tulip festival to just ten varieties. Whilst I’ve not seen it in person, I can imagine masses of single varieties would have far more impact than small groups featuring numerous varieties.
Something else I’d like to see at Arundel is a changing large-scale central display, so that each year’s tulip festival is remembered for a specific artistic image formed with tulips.
Despite its lack of ambition, the backdrop of the castle and the whimsical nature of the Earl’s Garden, makes for a very special place to see tulips. And when it comes to modern day tulipmania, where better to see them than in a space inspired by the early-17th-century garden at Arundel House in London, the home of the 14th Earl, Thomas Howard.
Behind the shot: All these images were taken handheld either with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 using the Zuiko 75mm 1.8 lens or with the iPhone 12. Photographing gardens often means reacting to what you see, rather than planning for a certain shot. My aversion for not having people in the shot makes it that more challenging when the gardens are full of visitors, all of whom are taking pictures as they walk around.
It was certainly helpful to have some time in the gardens on my own and I was fortunate the sun shone throughout my visit. Within the confines of the Earl’s Garden it’s difficult to find new angles, especially as there’s no high vantage point to look down at the displays. In recent years, drone images have captured the garden in both top down and fly through views. But even though I was ground-based, I didn’t want to come away with just a bunch of seen-them-all-before images.
Beyond just getting shots of the tulips, the challenge for me was trying to get interesting compositions. Shooting the same subject in different ways, with much the same tools, is one of the most creative aspects of photography and one I really relish.
Despite my intentions to do something different, in the end, all I could do was seek out the best vistas and find the best angle to record them. I’m pleased to have come away with a selection of shots that I’m happy with. I especially like these last two painterly images.
About the author: Based in Sussex-by-the-Sea, on England’s south coast, Gary is a creative writer and image-maker. He specialises in out of the ordinary portraits of musicians and people with interesting faces, as well as photographing some of the world’s finest flowers and gardens. With no concerts or major events taking place during lockdown, Gary has turned his attention to creatively capturing the landscapes of West Sussex. On the writing side, he has also penned deep dives into some of his favourite songs beginning with Bryan Ferry’s ‘These Foolish Things’ ‘Ghost Town’ by The Specials and most recently, ‘All The Young Dudes’ by Mott the Hoople.