The Heritage of York Gate

Everyone at Perennial, and especially the York Gate Garden team, were delighted to be successful in their bid for a grant in 2016, from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The application was put together by local bid writer Chris Shaw. Read the news story here.

The funds were assigned for a volunteer led research and interpretation project to capture the unique history of the house and garden at York Gate, with the aim of showcasing its vital place in garden history.

In 2016 a volunteer coordinator was appointed to recruit the right volunteers and develop a training programme to support them in their journey through the project. A fantastic group of 36 volunteers were assembled over the course of the first year. They formed sub teams to concentrate on the various aspects of the heritage project.

  • Garden History (Arts & Crafts Movement) team
  • Oral Histories team
  • Family History team
  • Presentation / Interpretation team

They were offered training and development in the areas of oral histories, conservation, archiving, cataloguing, research and leadership among others.

The former garage on the site, recently converted into a visitor area and gift shop was allocated as a space for a permanent exhibition, enabling the showcasing of information and background about York Gate and the story of the Spencer family who created it.

It is undeniable that the Arts and Crafts movement had a significant impact on York Gate’s design whether intended or not. This was a movement developed in reaction to mass industrial production. This international movement promoted craftsmanship and advocated economic and social reform.

The Spencer family didn’t begin to develop York Gate into a garden until some 40 years after the movement had dissipated but York Gate has so many typical features of a garden of this style that particular attention was paid to its inspirations from this era. The volunteers researched the history of other gardens in the UK that exist within this style and heard from local expert speakers and garden historians who helped them piece together the influences of York Gate. Ruth Cooke, Volunteer Coordinator at York Gate, said:

“The more we learned about the Spencer family, the more we all fell in love with their story. We have each learned a lesson about the value of preserving the present for the future, and the family history team in particular were grateful for the journals and manuscripts of all three of the Spencers throughout their lives at York Gate. The Oral Histories team arrived at a critical point in the garden’s heritage where we were able to speak to people within the local community who had wonderful stories of visiting the garden many years before. They were able to record these memories to be preserved within our garden archive.”

The project is scheduled to end in December 2018, but it is vital that the hard work of this dedicated volunteer team continues well into the future, preserving the ongoing story here for generations of visitors to enjoy in the years to come.

It is hoped that the project will inspire visitors to share their stories of York Gate, get more involved in gardening, and learn more about Perennial, the Gardener’s Royal Benevolent Society.

History of York Gate

When Frederick Spencer bought York Gate in Adel near Leeds in 1951, it was nothing but a house surrounded by farmland.

York Gate Pre-Garden
York Gate, just after its purchase by Sybil and Fred Spencer. Sybil’s horse, Moonshine, can be seen in the foreground.

He laid down the bones of the garden, but after his death in 1963, it was his son Robin who took over the development and design.

Inspired by some of the outstanding gardens of the Arts & Crafts movement such as Hidcote, he created in just one acre, a garden which by the early eighties was regarded by many as one of the best small gardens in the world.

York Gate in the 1980s
The same view back to York Gate 50 years later, this time with the garden having been created and reaching maturity.

Like Hidcote, York Gate is divided up into a distinct number of ‘garden rooms’, using yew and beech hedges. What makes this garden exceptional is the exquisite detail Robin incorporated within each part, while using his great skill to unite them into a coherent whole through a continuous succession of vistas and focal points.

Robin died suddenly and prematurely in 1982 at the age of only forty-seven. For the next twelve years his mother, Sybil nurtured the garden. A gifted plantswoman, she continued to develop the fascinating plant collection, which remains today.

On Sybil Spencer’s death in 1994, York Gate garden was bequeathed to Perennial. A programme to develop areas in need of restoration is ongoing but the charity will continue to maintain the garden in sympathy with the Spencers’ design and in accordance with Sybil Spencer’s wish that it will continue to attract visitors for both education and pleasure.



Snow Drop Week 2018

Tuesday 20th to Friday 23rd February

12.30pm – 4.30pm

Garden Season Spring/Summer 2018

1 April – 30 September 2018

Sunday to Thursday (and Bank Holiday Mondays): 12:30 – 4:30pm

Friday and Saturday CLOSED

York Gate Garden features a bright new shop stocked with a lovely range of gifts.

Our popular Tea Rooms serve sandwiches and savoury platters as well as a selection of freshly baked cakes, including a daily gluten free choice.

Visitor groups are welcome but please book first. Contact us at


York Gate Garden leaflet 2017