Sunday, 25 July 2010

My best of the West (so far!) garden list!

I was lunching with family and friends today and several said they read my blog because they like visiting gardens. Then I was asked what would go on my "Bucket List" in terms of gardens! An interesting question and one that's difficult to answer, because although there are many plots and spots I long to visit, most are so far from home that I'm unlikely to see them in the next 10 years! But as I leave for India, I thought I'd leave readers with the 10 best gardens I've seen yet this year, so if you're passing you can fit them in on your summer travels - who knows ... you may just be in the area and these are the ones not to miss! They're not in any order of preference, but all rank as favourites for me.
Sussex Prairies (above) ranks as one of my favourite gardens in the world - it's incredibly close to home and there are times when I just can't resist dropping on in wonderful owners, Paul and Pauline McBride, just to take a look at what's in bloom. It is, just as the name implies, a wonderful open space, with great drifts of plants and grasses and looks wonderful whatever the weather. 
Veddw had been on my "wish list" since I started writing this blog, so when I finally made it to visit Anne Wareham and Charles Hawes in May this year I was incredibly excited. And the garden really did live up to all my expectations! It's an incredibly unusual design, with fabulous garden rooms and hedges (above) that have you wondering just how they find the time to keep them in such good shape. But most importantly, this garden has got a real heart and you can sense the time, effort and commitment of the owners, who have carved this amazing space out of little more than an overgrown Welsh hillside. Well worth making a special effort to go and see!
Charts Edge in Kent, was another delightful surprise when I visited in the spring this year, with its rainbow border (above). A really lovely garden, very much in progress at the moment, but worth making a detour for because I suspect that it looks good throughout the season. You'll also find wonderful sculptures here, although these are not for sale - just to make you stop and ponder as you wander round the garden. Definitely worth checking to see if the garden is open if you're visiting others in the area.
I only discovered Larmer Tree Gardens in Wiltshire (above) by accident, and I'm very glad I did! This is an extraordinary and very beautiful landscape, filled with fine specimen trees and green spaces, near Salisbury Plain. You won't find immaculate borders here, because there aren't any, but you will find absolute peace and you can see why this was such a popular "pleasure garden" in days gone by.
It doesn't matter how often I return to the Peto Garden at Iford Manor, because it occupies a very special place in my heart. It's stunning at any time of year, but my last visit was in May (above) when the wisteria was quite spectacular. This is a very special garden and well worth going out of your way to see if you're on your way to or from the West Country. It's an extraordinary feat in terms of landscaping, since it's perched on the edge of a valley overlooking the river Frome, and the planting is quite magnificent. Definitely one to put on a garden "bucket" list if you have one!
Best of the botanical wonders here in the UK for me is the University of Oxford Botanic Garden (above) where you've got views of the city's spires as you walk through the gardens, brimming with flowers - some 6,500 species representing more than 90% of families of flowering plants and all crammed into just 4.5 acres! That's a feat in itself and this is definitely a garden worth making a special trip for, because it's also got amazing glasshouses, but somehow it's scale is manageable, and you feel as though you're in a private garden. 
The Hannah Peschar Sculpture Garden (above) wins my vote for spectacular architectural planting and brilliant sculptures. This is a constantly changing exhibition in the grounds of Hannah's home, and it's a wonderful haven in the middle of Surrey. I visit often and am always amazed by what I see and how much I missed last time! Go with an open mind and you'll have a wonderful day out - this is another garden with a soul.
The Wave Garden in the San Francisco bay area (above) was on my list of must-sees when I visited California earlier this year. It's very difficult to find because there are no road signs, but well-worth getting lost to see. This is an extraordinary architectural feat - a garden built into a hillside, with curving paths carved through the garden from top to bottom. Magnificent views over the bay and wonderful planting - once you're inside the garden, you feel that you're part of it. This garden also has personality.
And whilst far from home earlier this year, another sight I'll never forget was the spring flower display at the Allan Gardens Conservatory (above) in Toronto in March.  It was bitterly cold, with temperatures well below freezing when I visited this wonderful secret garden in full bloom (all thanks to Helen of Toronto Gardens!). It's a sight I'll never forget and I couldn't believe what I saw, when the rest of eastern Canada was covered with a layer of snow!
Little Wantley in Surrey (above) gets my vote as the best NGS garden I've visited so far this year, with its lovely watery scenes and unusual planting. Only open for two days earlier this year, it is one of several UK gardens that just open once or twice for the National Gardens Scheme. One to watch for when next year's "Yellow Book" comes out!

**By the time you read this, I'll have left for India, but will be posting from there on a blog that I've set up for easy access from abroad, especially as internet connections can be difficult during monsoon - if you'd like to check it out, here's the link - Galloping Gardener (Gone to India). 

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Saved by new owners and open to all again!

When Bourton House in Gloucestershire changed hands earlier this year, there was some doubt about whether the glorious gardens surrounding the mansion would remain open to the public, but the new owners have decided to go on sharing their award-winning 10-acre garden with the public during the the summer season. It's lucky for us because this is an exceptional garden, which provides something quite different for seasoned gardened visitors, with its bold herbaceous borders and interesting knot garden.
Large manor houses are nothing new in the Cotswolds and the original property here was built in 1598, but re-built at the beginning of the 18th century and given the huge, Georgian sash windows that overlook the gardens today.  Much of the land was sold to the neighbouring Sezincote estate in 1851 and today the property comprises just three acres of formal gardens and seven acres of pasture, but it's one to be added to any visiting list with its sweeping views, well-kept lawns and knot garden (above).
The white garden (above) is delightful in June, with its abundance of roses and magnificent views over the surrounding countryside, and the immaculately clipped topiary at the front of the house (below) mirrors the formal design of the house. It took the previous owners some 25 years (thanks Edith!) to make the garden what it is today, so when they closed their gates to visitors at the end of 2008, there was a great sense of loss in gardening circles! But Bourton House is open to visitors again this year and head gardener, Paul Nicholls, is back in the driving seat with the new owners.
The garden is open from June to early September on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 10.00-5.00 and is easily combined with nearby Sezincote, which opens on Thursday and Friday afternoons. Located near Moreton-in-Marsh in glorious rolling Cotswold countryside, this is another lovely garden well worth visiting.
I'll be doing a full round up of Gloucestershire gardens in the next few weeks, with suggestions on which to combine in a day, but if you want ideas for the summer holidays, you can check out all gardens reviewed so far in my UK Garden Directory.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Great gardens for kids!

The summer holidays are here and there are already many parents and grandparents wondering what to do with the kids in the six week break ahead of them! So I'm featuring a couple of gardens here that may appeal to families, with some tips for getting the best value out of them. Most of us are all too well aware that a day out with the kids is expensive, and by the time you've put the fuel in the car; the food in the kids and paid admission prices, a family of four is likely to get little change from £100 here in the UK!
One of my favourites is the Rare Species Conservation Centre near Sandwich, which has an amazing collection of animals including snow leopards (above) and sun bears; fantastic rare birds, including a very bad-tempered toucan; rope gangways to entertain the kids while they're viewing the animals and it's close enough to the coast to fit in a visit to the beach if you're so inclined! Open every day from now until the end of August (10.00-18.00), tickets cost £10 for adults and £8.00 for children, but you do feel the money's going to a good cause.
Hever Castle (above) is another good bet, because you've got a moated castle (above); marvellous gardens for the grown ups; plus water maze for the children; and if you're already a member of the Historic Houses Association, it's free for members. Otherwise the family ticket offers an inclusive price for either 2 adults and 2 children, or 1 adult and 3 children, which means you can go with a friend and pile six kids into the car and pay £36.00 per family for castle and grounds, or just £30.50 for the grounds - if it's a nice day, there'll be more than enough to keep them occupied in the grounds, with the maze, lake and masses of running about space!
Pensthorpe in Norfolk is my personal favourite because you've got great garden design (Piet Oudolf's Millenium Garden, above), combined with fascinating birds. This is home to an ambitious and successful crane breeding programme and I suspect that both adults and children alike will enjoy the wide variety of rare birds on offer here - including many different cranes. These birds are bigger than most children under 10 so have great appeal to kids! A family ticket (2 adults and 2 children) is priced at £27.00 and under 4s go free.
Another lovely garden to visit is Hall Place just outside London at Bexley, where the topiary exhibits (below) will entertain the kids (albeit for a short while), and the show gardens and glasshouses will make mummy happy. The best news though is that this garden is free! There's plenty of open space to run around in and you can always take a picnic if you're planning to spend the day there.
We're incredibly lucky in the UK because there are so many parks and gardens in all our major cities and they're all free, so with the good weather, there's always a chance to take a picnic and sit out in the sun while the kids run around!

Monday, 19 July 2010

Bored with borders! You won't find any here!!

Most gardens I've visited recently are about borders .... borders .... more borders and lovely as they look, I'm getting bored with borders! So imagine my joy when I visited one of my favourite gardens in the world yesterday - the Hannah Peschar Sculpture Garden - and didn't have to look at a single, perfectly-planted border. This is a glorious garden - a true touch of Jurassic Park in the middle of Surrey - with huge clumps of architectural plants including gunnera, bamboos and giant hogweed, which provide a wonderful setting for the sculptures on display there. 
Brainchild of Hannah Peschar, who has lived here for nearly three decades, this amazing haven in the heart of Surrey's commuter belt is an idyllic setting. I was on my way home from yet another deeply mediocre NGS garden (more on that in another blog post later) and needed to lift my weary spirits, so what better venue than this? The sculpture exhibition changes as exhibits sell; the garden is magnificent; and it's a wonderful place to visit even if you're not planning to buy. 
There's even a little summer house for rent (above) if you want to stay here. But the clever planting - conceived by Hannah's husband, landscape designer, Anthony Paul - is ideal for the role the garden plays - a magnificent stage set for sculptures large and small, that need to be displayed sufficiently far apart so as not to crowd one another. And right in the middle of the garden is the black and white cottage that dates back to the 15th century and is home to the owners (top), which could easily be a ginger-bread house, surrounded by water. 
Sculpture gardens aren't for everybody, but this one is worth visiting even if you don't intend to buy and it's a far cry from the rather austere Cass Foundation at Goodwood in nearby Sussex. You can happily spend hours here, just enjoying the gardens, and wandering through the vast expanse of greenery, which includes a bamboo garden and many open spaces connected by bridges. Open Fridays and Saturdays from 11am to 6pm and Sunday afternoons from 2pm-5pm, this is one worth making a detour for!

Sculptures on display here are Walter Bailey's "Sophia" (second from top); and "Journey Work" (outside the cottage); and Tony Heywood's "Super Outdoor Bloom" (above).

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Finally made it to Goodnestone Park!!

Goodnestone Park in Kent has been on my "wish list" for more than two years ... it was one of the gardens I wanted to see before I even started blogging, but somehow circumstances conspired against me and it was only this week that I finally got there! Read any garden guide and Goodnestone will be there ... "1001 Gardens to see before you die", "The Good Gardens Guide" where it has a two-star ranking; and the newly published "Dream Gardens of England"(one to put on your Christmas list!). 
So I arrived in the tiny village of Wingham in Kent last week wondering just what I was going to see at this Palladian-style mansion, which may have inspired Jane Austen to write 'Pride and Prejudice' after staying here in 1796. The setting is certainly idyllic, with a glorious Norman church overlooking the three interlinked walled gardens that are such a special feature of the property (above and below), but it is also the ambience that makes this place so different from other gardens. It is as though time has stood still here in the village.
Yet current owner, Lady FitzWalter, has spent more than 40 years restoring the grounds to their former glory, even though her family has been in residence here for more than 300 years. She has also introduced many new features like the box parterre in front of the main house (top), and the new gravel garden created recently by Graham Gough. There is also a new rill in the middle walled garden (above), added just last year, yet all these changes have been designed to complement the ambience of an old  house and garden steeped in history.
Trees are another major feature here at Goodnestone, and you'll be amazed by the magnolia grandifloras here - where the blooms are almost a full foot in diameter! There is also a majestic lime walk at the rear of the property.This is a garden to savour - you could easily spend half a day here just soaking up the atmosphere!  Combine this with Godinton House, just a short drive away, and you will understand why English gardens are so special.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Glorious Godinton in Kent

After weeks and weeks of glorious sunshine, England has reverted to rain (much needed around the country, but not ideal for garden visiting). This weather suits me fine because I'm currently doing a total immersion Hindi language course in preparation for my next India trip in a couple of weeks time.  This requires long periods of study and although I love the challenge, it's a bit like having a python in your mouth! There are days when I just scream with frustration as I struggle to learn a Sanskrit alphabet and a completely alien language, but I do know the Hindi words for "flower" and "rain", so a visit to a new garden seemed like a good idea yesterday.
Godinton House near Ashford in Kent took my fancy, although Sezincote would have been more appropriate to my studies, and I set off to see one of the finest gardens I've seen yet this year - with roses that made me stop in my tracks because the scent was so glorious; an Italian garden (above and below) to soothe my muddled brain; a walled garden filled to bursting with stunning blooms; and the chance to blow the cobwebs away as I wandered through the adjoining parkland. I even had a visit from the sun  later in the day!
Godinton House was built in the 17th century, but the 12-acre gardens were redesigned at the beginning of the 20th century by architect - Reginald Blomfield - and are essentially formal in style. This is certainly a garden with lots of space and wonderful views over the surrounding countryside, which contains many smaller garden areas within including a rose garden, wild garden, walled garden and Italian garden. There is also a parterre, overlooked by a statue of Pan and a lovely water garden.
The walled garden (above) was formerly a productive kitchen garden, but today is used primarily as a cutting garden and is filled to bursting with wonderful flowers at this time of year, including a magnificent collection of delphiniums, maintained by the Delphinium Society. There are also large greenhouses at one end of the garden housing tender plants.
Godinton also serves as home to many interesting garden courses, including one run by fellow Blotanist, Marian Boswall, which starts in the New Year.  This is definitely a garden to make a detour for - it's quite charming, free of crowds and close enough to many other gardens to combine on a day out. I also visited Goodnestone Park yesterday, which I'll be reviewing later this week.  But for now, it's back to the Hindi for me, to learn more useful phrases and tame the python!

Monday, 12 July 2010

To the Manors Born - Mottistone and Snowshill

England is well known for its glorious manor houses, and when they have gardens to go with them, they provide a little piece of heaven! Two that I've recently visited are Snowshill in Gloucestershire and Mottistone on the Isle of Wight - both under the stewardship of the National Trust - but quite unique in their own way, because you've got the added bonus of visiting an ancient house alongside a stunning garden!
Mottistone is a lovely property, nestling in a valley on the south side of the Isle of Wight, with roses to die for and borders (below) that will lift your heart!  Former home of John Seely, a prominent architect  who was also the second Lord Mottistone, it passed into the care of the National Trust (NT) in 1963.  The Manor house is only open one day a year, but the garden is open to the public from March to October. You'll find wonderful stonework here (above) and a chance to soak up the glorious sunshine.
As the NT's southernmost "dry" garden, Mottistone has been selected to test which plants will respond best to climate change, and as a result, there's no watering done here.  But even though I visited on a very hot day at the end of a long, dry spell, you would never know that the gardens here are not watered because they are quite stunning and the borders (above) are certainly impressive, and you'll find grevilleas, callistemons and proteas here.  It's not a big garden, but well worth visiting, so combine this  with a visit to Ventnor Botanic Garden, and you'll have a wonderful day out.
Snowshill Manor in Gloucestershire (above) is a very different property - purchased in 1919 by another architect, Charles Paget Wade who restored the house to its former glory and filled it with musical instruments, theatrical memorabilia, masks, toys and suits of armour and this manor house is open on the same days as the garden. Wade called upon another architect friend, H.M Baillie Scott to help him design the garden, which falls away from the house on a slope. The result is a series of terraced garden areas, linked by stone steps and punctuated with fine stonework, ornaments and glorious views over the rolling Cotswold countryside.
The most unusual part of the garden at Snowshill is Well Court, created round an ancient Venetian well-head (above), divided into garden rooms with views over the village and hills behind the property (below), punctuated with striking "Wade Blue" benches and ornaments and painted inscriptions over gateways. The planting is Arts and Crafts cottage style and everywhere you look there are ebullient and densely planted flower displays that make this property a Cotswold idyll in the summer months.
The striking blue colour was created by Charles Wade and once his head gardener (who was actually better versed in stone masonry than gardening skills) had finished building a series of walls and gateways to divide the garden into smaller areas, the same blue was used to paint all seats and woodwork in the garden including the ornamental zodiac clock (below), which must surely be one of the most photographed objects in any Cotswold garden.
Given its proximity to so many other fine properties, Snowshill is easy to combine with Hidcote Manor, Kiftsgate Court or Sudeley Castle, but like Hidcote, it gets very crowded in the summer. There's little doubt that this is a truly charming garden and at this time of year you'll see incredible lavender displays on the rolling hills nearby that rival those of Provence. This is rural England at its best but you pay the price for this with the crowds of visitors here, so visit later in the day to avoid the coaches!
Do check opening times too, because Snowshill is closed on some days that other nearby gardens open!

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Great Comp - another delight in "The Garden of England"

When you arrive at Great Comp and start walking round the lovely gardens there, you'd be forgiven for thinking that you've stumbled across an ancient site where the owner has made the best of the land available around crumbling Gothic ruins to plant a magnificent garden. But the ruins were actually created over the years by late owner, Roderick Cameron and his wife and are a clever reconstruction of ironstone rubble found in the garden that they developed over the years they lived there. This is a really unusual garden with a fine collection of specimen trees, that not only survived the terrible drought of 1976, but also the Great Storm of 1987. 
The Italian garden, which shelters many Mediterranean plants
When the Camerons moved there in 1957 there was little to see and certainly no garden to speak of - just four acres of land that was hugely overgrown and much in need of attention. After 50 years of hard work and the acquisition of adjoining land, the result today is a stunning seven-acre garden providing year-round interest, with some of the finest magnolias and rhododendrons anywhere in England in the spring, and a collection of salvias that attracts visitors from far and wide in the summer. The "ruins" add interesting focal points to a very personal garden, serve to protect some of the tender plants and provide places for visitors to sit and reflect on the lovely garden around them.
Part of the joy of Great Comp is its serenity and simplicity. It first opened to the public in July 1967 and remained open just a few days a year for the Gardens Scheme (forerunner of the NGS).  It is now open daily from April to October and because of the Camerons' foresight in setting up a Charitable Trust, it will remain open, despite the death of its creator, Roderick Cameron in November 2009. Today the property is managed by Curator, William Dyson, who has been at Great Comp for 17 years and he also runs a very fine nursery where you can buy many of the plants you see growing in the garden. 
Great Comp is a very enticing garden, with its many paths curving out of sight and large areas of informal planting. There's an impeccably-mown lawn in front of the house, fringed with tall conifers, willows and oaks, and from here different paths lead off into areas of woodland. But everywhere you look there are splendid shrubs, underplanted with hostas, lilies and salvias, and you will find more than 3,000 different plants here as well as the heather and rose gardens, and an Italian Garden with its fine collection of Mediterranean plants. 
There are more than 70 magnolia trees here at Great Comp, so a visit in the spring is particularly memorable, especially when the Magnolia veitchii is in bloom!  But the summer months see glorious heathers and herbaceous borders, set against the backdrop of Roderick's "ruins" (below). Popular too is the Great Comp Garden Show, to be held on 7th and 8th August this year.
There are many other great gardens nearby including Chart's Edge, Hever Castle and Ightham Mote if you want to visit different gardens on the same day. No wonder Kent is known as "The Garden of England".

Monday, 5 July 2010

Glorious Cotswold Gardens - Cerney House and Misarden Park

If you're going to appreciate the glorious gardens in the Cotswolds, you need several days to see them all - there are many to see; they're not close together; and whether by accident or intent, they rarely open to complement each other, so you need to plan your trip, arm yourself with a decent road map and pray for good weather! And then, there's the question of "single track roads"! This is a strange English phenomenon where the roads are only wide enough for one car, so when you meet someone coming the opposite way you need to back to a passing place! 
Misarden Park, which is located between Cirencester and Cheltenham is a beautiful formal garden that makes you realise what life must be like when you don't have to do all the work in the garden for yourself - immaculately clipped hedges and glorious borders (above) that make gardening look easy! You enter the property through the walled garden which has double-mixed borders containing roses, shrubs, climbers and perennials - it's a glorious sight and you'll definitely want to linger here!
This garden is completely timeless, with its wonderful views out over the Golden Valley. There are many fine specimen trees and glorious views through pergolas and gates, that beckon you on through this floral feast. At the turn of the century a new rill with fountain and summerhouse (below) were added to mark the new millennium and there is further work afield here with new raised beds in progress, so this promises to be a garden that keeps up with the times in gardening interest, despite its long history.
Combine this with Cerney House, just a few miles away as the crow flies, and you'll see a very different style of planting in the marvellous garden there. But if you're planning to visit on the same day (and I suggest you do, if it's a Tuesday or Wednesday because both are open), don't attempt to make the journey cross country as I did, but use the main road.  What looks like a short distance on the map is actually a startling drive down "single track roads" that leave little room for manoevre when you meet a car coming the other way, and you could spend more time reversing into passing places than progressing forwards to your intended destination!  
This is a 10-acre garden laid out in a sheltered Cotswold valley and surrounded by woodland.  The walled garden here is quite magnificent - a 3.5 acre plantsman's paradise nestling behind the house and filled to bursting with ebullient borders, old-fashioned roses and many different clematis.  The scents are glorious, the atmosphere peaceful, the surroundings charming, and best of all for garden amateurs like me - the labelling on the plants is really helpful and  I left this garden with many new ideas for cottage-style planting at home.
Once you arrive at these gardens, you'll never want to leave.  It's not hard to think that you've found a little piece of heaven as you meander through the sumptuous flower displays, breathing in the scent of roses on a glorious summer's day. Cerney House hosts an annual tulip festival in May and is also another well-known snowdrop venue, so you can combine this with Colesbourne Park when the little white soldiers march out on parade in winter. I'll certainly go back next year.
I'll be doing a full round-up of all the wonderful Cotswolds gardens I visited in June when I've written about all those I was lucky enough to see on my recent trip, with suggestions on which to combine in a day and where to eat and stay on the way.