Halfway down the passageway I realized I wasn’t going to make it through to the other side. I squinted as the tunnel narrowed to a seemingly impossible perspective point. Curiouser and curiouser.
I crawled on as the walls closed in. Attempting to squeeze through, I became wedged at the shoulder and slumped to the floor. I exhaled. The Alice in Wonderland whimsy began to fade as I mulled over my options.
“Guys?” I said, to an absent audience.
The others had made it through the tiny crawlspace and were now somewhere ahead of me in the labyrinth. I conceded defeat and shuffled backwards.
We were at The Forbidden Corner in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Started as a private garden in the 1980s by owner Colin Armstrong, it was opened to the public in the ’90s.
Following a battle over planning permission, the garden was threatened with closure. Armstrong triumphed however, on the proviso that the attraction limited visitor numbers via a pre-booking system.
The mystery and ancient folklore of the English countryside is hinted at in the small details dotted throughout. Surreal statues and gargoyles seem to be hidden on every corner.
Climbing up to the ramparts of the folly, the vistas of the Yorkshire Dales stretch out on all sides. I felt a mix of confusion and childhood wonder that I had not felt since eating what must have been a bad batch of mushrooms-on-toast in Amsterdam in 2012.
Evoking magical worlds from Wonderland to Hogwarts, a classic hedge maze is always a draw for me. There is a certain mindset you develop inside a maze, as you take a wrong turn or two and end up having to think your way out – which inevitably gets you even more lost. The maze here maintains the eccentric feel as a miniature game of cricket is revealed at one of the dead ends.
Outside the maze we discovered a doorway and descended into the stygian catacombs below the garden. Entering a pitch black room, I was jolted by maniacal laughter.
The circular room with a devilish statue at its centre manifested as dim lighting emerged.
“Which one is it?” Dave said, frantically pulling at one of the many doors which ostensibly led out of the dungeon.
I opened one of the doors to reveal another grotesque statue replete with recorded scream.
The aesthetic of The Forbidden Corner draws from a variety of sources, from the Green Man, horned pagan gods and Arthurian legend to the societies of Ancient Rome and Greece. It feels almost as if it was built in the spirit of a trickster god.
We advanced up climbing spiral staircases before dropping further into darkened passageways.
“Argh.” Brad said, rubbing his eye. “Something squirted me.”
A recorded bird squawked above.
Dave chuckled. “Brad just got pissed on by an angry raven.”
The humour woven into the animated element of the attraction is decidely scatological, from the squirting birds to a huge belching mouth and the entrance port to the interior of a dragon that really should only be an exit.
We emerged from a Roman-esque corridor to find a walkway only traversable via a series of stepping-stones. This time I was the butt of the jokes, as Si worked out that standing on one of the last few stones triggered a jet of water directly to the face to the person behind.
Looking back, one of the most striking things about the place was the tranquility. Perhaps it was partly because it was a weekday in late September, that the crowds had diminished? The policy limiting entry numbers appears to be a great way of ensuring both a better experience for visitors and is likely a positive for the general maintenance of the garden and surrounding area.
The economic drawbacks of limiting visitor numbers to attractions in areas of natural beauty are obvious, but perhaps it will become necessary in the future as increasing wealth and decreasing travel costs pave the way for an influx of selfie-snappers.
Either way, The Forbidden Corner is a unique experience. A place with mystery and humour – and a good sprinkle of creepiness thrown in. A trip I won’t soon forget, it makes me wonder what other secret gardens are hidden away, beyond the claws of the planning permission office.