The Forbidden Corner, Coverham
An Englishman's home is his castle, or so they say. His own little world. The Forbidden Corner, near Leyburn in Wensleydale is a very English place, and indeed is its own little world. What the Forbidden Corner is, exactly, is hard to describe. A public garden, yes, but also a maze. A folly, but a folly hidden from site. A sculpture, and a piece of theatre; a fairground fun house that tries to unnerve as well as startle.
Getting in is itself something of an odyssey. Tickets must be booked in advance, to comply with National Park planning regulations; and once you have one, you must explore winding country lanes before reaching the car park and the gift shop, which looks like an ordinary, standard gift shop aimed at the holiday-souvenir and school-trip market. "Have you been here before?" asks the girl on the ticket desk, giving you a leaflet. "The clues are all in the leaflet, but not in the right order." And what you thought might be a plan of the site is a spread of cryptic ditties, each one hinting of treasures within. A sign at the door asks you to make sure you close all gates and doors behind you; and the next thing you find is a building with a wide, gaping mouth, inviting you to walk inside.
The Forbidden Corner was designed, originally, as a private folly. Tupgill Park, Coverham, is the family estate of a diplomat called Colin Armstrong. Over twenty-five years ago, he started clearing paths in a small wood originally planted as a windbreak. Things grew, and he hired a local architect called Malcolm Tempest to design a grotto. The grotto is still there, at the heart of the garden, but surrounded by a labyrinth of paths, glades, and formal gardens, on a site which feels much, much larger than a map would have you think. After a court battle with the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, Armstrong opened his folly to the public; and every winter it is changed, altered and extended, to keep the visitors coming back.
The garden is very carefully designed, with view breaks and vistas, dividing it up into scenes and giving you tantalising glimpses of places you can't quite reach. Round the first corner: a metal gate, where two paths cross. Opening it for one path closes it off for the second. Round the next: a formal maze; or a giant woodcutter; a family of bears playing poker; or a stone eye. A bridge looks down on a mysterious stream, and battlements look down upon you from a distance. A stone window in a wall turns out to be a mirror, and statues squirt water if you look at them too closely.
Eventually, you might find the entrance to the watery ravine leading into the grotto. A twist in the ravine reveals a neoclassical temple, a Yorkshire version of the city of Petra; but before you can enter, fountains spring up to block your way. Going inside, you find scenes reminiscent of Roman mysteries, dark chambers and sacred pools; a room with many doors and a disorientating, slowly revolving floor; doors leading to more dark corridors, dead ends, or maybe the way out. Eventually, you reach the sky again, high up on the battlements, looking down across the dale. There is still more to explore, and probably more detail that you haven't yet caught; but for now you can sit, watch deer grazing below you, and try to work out exactly where you've travelled to.
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How to get there
The Forbidden Corner, Tupgill Park, Coverham, Middleham, Leyburn, North Yorkshire, DL8 4TJ.
The Forbidden Corner is near Middleham, in Wensleydale, North Yorkshire, between Leyburn and Masham. It is well signposted; turn off the A6108 in Middleham market place. It is open from Easter to October, but visitor numbers are limited. Tickets should be booked in advance by phone, or spare tickets can sometimes be booked on the day from Leyburn Tourist Information Centre, Market Place, Leyburn, DL8 5BB; but visitors who arrive without booking will not be admitted.