Originally hailing from Turkey, tulips get their name from the Persian word for turban. Ever since the Tulipmania of the 17th century elevated them to collector status, tulips have created a special place among the flowers of the world.
Not only do they come in almost every colour, but in many different shapes, sizes and styles. There are now some 3,000 registered tulip varieties, so many that when different varieties are seen side by side, it’s often hard to believe that any two are of the same specie.
Tulips in fact can be divided into no less than 16 different groups or categories from the classic six-petaled singles, to the more exotic fringed, lily and parrot tulips. But whatever the variety, they all share one trait: tulips are capricious flowers to grow and they don’t last long.
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 stewardship of award-winning Head Gardener, Martin Duncan, the castle puts on a spectacular tulip festival which takes over the 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 holding their own tulip festivals. This year, for example, marks the second year that Hampton Court Palace have held their festival. Now boasting over 120,000 blooms, it’s the UK’s biggest tulip display.
One of the biggest challenges in putting on a tulip festival is that different varieties bloom at different times. With a variety of bulbs planted to ensure the longest display time, it means either luck or judgement is needed if you’re going to see them at their very best.
I’ve photographed the festival every year since it began, making this my sixth time. Usually, it’s at its best around the second or third week in April, but this year the tulips came very early, coinciding with the castle reopening after its winter hibernation. The forecast said Saturday 9th was going to be the first good day weatherwise and so it turned out. With sunshine and blue skies, it felt more like July than early April and I wasn’t alone in choosing that day to visit, the castle grounds were teeming with tulip lovers.
Although 65,000 new bulbs embracing over 130 different varieties were planted last November, the truth is the tulip festival is much the same each year. The lack of room within the walled Earl’s Garden and the need to rotate much of the bedded areas from one year to another, means there’s little scope for doing much different apart from planting different specie combinations.
As it was on my last visit, the festival’s most impressive display — the Labyrinth — was once again dominated not by tulips but by white narcissus.
Whilst there were a scattering of Oxford Red tulips poking through, the Labyrinth looks so much more delineated when it’s filled with bright red blooms, as it was back in 2017 and 2018. I don’t think it’s been surpassed since then.
Looking at Instagram one week later, while the narcissus still dominates, there are definitely a lot more red tulips in the Labyrinth.
This year there were many more tulips in pots than in previous years, some four hundred I believe. And that’s no bad thing as they made for some stunning displays around every corner.
Perhaps the biggest difference this year was a subtle, but much needed addition. I’ve commented numerous times that the absence of identifying labels does not enhance the visitor experience only to be repeatedly told that the Duchess of Norfolk (whose family home Arundel Castle is) dislikes labels of any kind. Well, finally, this year she had a change of mind and tastefully hand-written labels made their debut.
Thanks to the labels, I was able to identify my personal favourite variety this year: the gorgeous Monte Orange. This full-bodied double early tulip reminded me of a ripe watermelon!
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.
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 grey stone. In the glorious April sunshine it transported you to medieval Italy.
Not far behind in terms of visual 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 especially lush. Occupying a space of only 17m x 22m, it’s just a shame there isn’t room for the Stumpery to be twice the size.
While the Earl’s Garden maybe small, it’s perfectly formed. Squeezed into two acres on the site of a former staff car park and kitchen garden, it was created in 2008 by Isabel and Julian Bannerman, who made their name with the gardens at Highgrove for Prince Charles.
Again 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 and at the Thatched Roundhouse which was surrounded by a combination of 14,000 Bastogne, Mistress, Passionalle and Paul Scherer varieties.
Being this is a tulip festival held in a castle, 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. The way they contrast against the castle’s towers always makes for a great composition.
With the majestic backdrop of the castle and cathedral, 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, there’s no better place 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.
That being said, the garden team at Arundel Castle cannot be complacent. If I had one complaint it’s that the tulip festival hasn’t evolved enough over the years. I believe there’s scope for more adventurous planting and more showpiece features. Introducing a different theme each year might help create an even more experiential event. And last but not least, why on earth are there no souvenirs available?
Behind the shot: All these images were taken handheld either with the iPhone 12 or with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 using the Zuiko 75mm 1.8 lens. 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. 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. 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. This year I did something I’ve not tried before and that was to spray some of the tulips I was photographing with a mister. Whilst a simple idea, I think it added something interesting to this year’s image collection. Photographed at Arundel Castle on 9 April 2022.
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. On the writing side, he has also penned deep dives into some of his favourite songs and has written a biography of Robert Palmer. All these can be found here on Medium, along with his reviews of gigs and events and chats with musicians.