Sunday, 30 September 2012

Goodbye sultry September - Autumn's on the way, so don't miss the great RHS garden freebie this coming Friday!

RHS Hyde Hall in Essex - open to all for free this coming Friday, 5th October
We're always accused of talking about the weather here in England, but as we say goodbye to September, I'm sorry to say that the long-awaited Indian summer never arrived and there are many parts of the country that have suffered more torrential rain and floods. Our gardens are looking sad and jaded after a long summer of rain and the leaves are turning on the trees, so hopefully we'll be treated to some spectacular autumn colours next month. But mark this coming Friday in your diary, rain or shine, because the RHS is opening all four of its gardens around the country for free!
The Exotic Garden at Great Dixter is still looking good despite the wettest summer on record
But I was lucky enough to see the sun on several occasions, especially early in the month and used those bright days to visit some of the notable gardens here in England - Great Dixter, where Fergus Garrett puts on a fantastic show throughout the year, and where the Exotic Garden was looking particularly good (open until the end of October so still time to visit this year, if you want to catch the autumn colours), Gravetye Manor, one-time home of William Robinson, where head gardener, Tom Coward is doing a fantastic job bringing the garden back to life (Tom came here from Great Dixter and certainly knows what he's doing after working with Fergus for a few years); and Sissinghurst, which always looks great from the top of the tower.
Tom Coward has breathed new life into the garden at Gravetye Manor in Sussex
My travels also took me in search of some new gardens in Gloucestershire and Norfolk. I managed to visit the greatest Arts and Crafts garden in the country - Rodmarton Manor in Gloucestershire, and paid homage to William Morris at his one-time home - Kelmscott Manor - a must-see for all Morris fans, although it's the house rather than the garden that deserves the praise. 
Rodmarton Manor has the finest Arts and Crafts garden in the country
And, having poured over the weather maps for the first part of the month, I managed to get up to see some of the great Norfolk gardens for the first time. The weather was cold, but sunny and I was treated to two days of stunning blue skies as a backdrop to the grounds at Sandringham House (where the Queen spends Christmas every year) and Houghton Hall, with its amazing five-acre walled garden. Other garden properties I visited in Norfolk were equally impressive, but I haven't had time to write them up yet.
There's always something to see in the glasshouses at RHS Wisley, even if it's raining!
As I write the weather's not looking too good for October, but I'm planning to visit some of the beautiful gardens famous for their autumn colours (plus umbrella and wellingtons). But if you want a real weather buster, it's well worth noting that all the RHS gardens - Harlow Carr, Hyde Hall, Rosemoor and Wisley are opening their doors for free this coming Friday, 5th October. If you're not an RHS member, and you live anywhere near the gardens, do take advantage of this special day, because you can see for yourself just how amazing they are!

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Kelmscott Manor - home of William Morris. A house and garden no Arts and Crafts aficionado can afford to miss!

First view of Kelmscott Manor, described by William Morris as "heaven on earth"
Kelmscott Manor in Gloucestershire was the country home of William Morris and no Arts & Crafts aficionado can afford to miss this one, even though most visitors come to see the house rather than the garden. Many people make a special pilgrimage to this property because of its connection with the founder of the Arts and Crafts movement, and the garden has all the hallmarks - a vine-clad pergola, tiled summer house and stone-flagged pathways - but the magic is here, and it would be harder to find a more perfect country idyll - the very reason that Morris chose it.
The garden at Kelmscott Manor bears all the hall marks of the Arts & Crafts movement
William Morris lived here from 1871 until his death in 1896 - he was a poet, calligrapher, printer, lecturer, writer, craftsman and above all a pattern designer - and when he first saw the property, he completely fell in love with it. Enclosed by high walls and divided by hedges, which was his ideal for a garden (see below), he wrote to his great friend Charley Faulkner in the May that he saw it, saying that he had found "heaven on earth". And in the last 25 years of his life, he wrote constantly about his home, because it symbolised the perfect lifestyle to him. 
No Arts & Crafts garden would be complete without a vine-clad pergola
Morris had no idea what a profound influence he would have on gardening in the post-Victorian era, but once wrote: "Large or small, it (the garden) should be orderly and rich. It should be well fenced from the outside world. It should by no means imitate either the wilfulness or the wildness or Nature, but should look like a thing never to be seen except near the house. It should in fact, look like a part of the house." And it is this credo that came to be reflected in later examples of Arts & Crafts gardens.
The Lawn Garden stands on the site of the former kitchen garden
Kelmscott is an Elizabethan manor house at the heart of a tiny Cotswold village, yet it has become a shrine to William Morris. After his death his daughter May continued to live here for a further forty years and she bequeathed it to the University of Oxford. The garden was eventually restored in the 1990s under the stewardship of well-known garden designer, Hal Moggridge, who was committed to making a garden that was representative of Morris' ideas, based on paintings and drawings that survived from his collections.
The garden is completely surrounded by stone walls and the entrance (top) bears a close resemblance to the drawing on the frontispiece of Morris' "News from Nowhere" (below left), published in 1892. A flagstone path flanked with roses runs across the lawn to the front door and there is a curious topiary dragon to the side of the house, shaped by William Morris himself - the 'Fafnir' of his Icelandic poems. The Lawn Garden at the rear of the house was once a kitchen garden, and it is here you'll find the pergola of coppiced chestnut. There is also an orchard, replanted with traditional Victorian varieties of apple an plum.

Kelmscott Manor is now owned and run by the Society of Antiquaries, who took over the running of the property when the University of Oxford could no longer raise sufficient income from renting out the manor house. It undertook all the major restoration work at the manor, with the help of William Morris' own Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. The house has been preserved just as Morris left it and is filled with his furniture and fabric designs.

It is only open on Wednesdays and Saturdays, from April to the end of October (11.00-17.00) and admission to the house is restricted by numbers when it's busy. Cost is £9.00 for adults and £4.50 for students/children. Free to HHA members. Well worth combining with a visit to Rodmarton Manor if you are in the area, since it is a short drive away and is definitely one of the finest Arts and Crafts gardens in the UK. Another good example is Snowshill Manor, which is also within easy reach. 

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Monday, 24 September 2012

Houghton Hall, Norfolk - where flaming fountains and serpentine hedges abound!

Houghton Hall was built for Britain's first prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole
Houghton Hall in Norfolk is regarded as one of the finest Palladian houses in Britain. It also holds some surprises for garden visitors because the current Marquis of Cholmondeley has turned the five-acre walled garden into a showpiece that thrills visitors throughout the summer season. It features miles of immaculately-clipped serpentine hedging and a fountain that flames - no mean feat for a man who found gardening "boring" when he first arrived here in 1989! Although he was no stranger to gardening because he grew up at Cholmondeley Castle in Cheshire, where his mother has created another impressive landscape.
The Italian garden 
The house has a long history and was built for the current Marquess' ancestor Sir Robert Walpole - Britain's first prime minister - and was also home to his grandmother, Sybil, who was a prominent society hostess. He grew up at Cholmondeley Castle in Cheshire, where his mother created another remarkable garden that opens to the public, so when he arrived at Houghton, plans were drawn up with the help of his head gardener, Paul Underwood (who has now moved on to Blickling Hall), to redesign the dilapidated walled garden. 
Rustic temple designed by the Bannermans, adorned with antlers
Julian and Isabel Bannerman (who created the Collector Earl's Garden at Arundel Castle and the water garden at Woolbeding House) were called in to help with the structural redesign in 2003, and their style is very much apparent in some of the more theatrical elements of the garden, like the rustic temple adorned with antlers (above) and the grotto fountain where water spills from giant clam shells. The garden has continued to evolve over the last decade and there's a potager, a formal rose parterre, a croquet lawn - open to guests - a Mediterranean garden, Italian garden and laburnum garden.
The Water Flame, designed by Danish artist, Jeppe Hain where flame erupts from the fountain
The 7th Marquess has also invested in a collection of modern art, including the remarkable Water Flame (above) by Jeppe Hain - a fountain that actually flames! There's a lot to see in the five acres, divided into several themed areas, using dense yew hedging to give protection against the Norfolk winds. A plan at the entrance (left) illustrates how the garden has been divided into four quarters of equal proportions, with a strong central axis, running north to south, featuring flower borders - with "hot" colours at one end and "cold" at the other. At the entrance you have the Italian garden, featuring rows of pleached limes and a large obelisk. Behind this is the kitchen garden, which includes espaliered fruit, a potager, a traditional orchard and a herb garden. 
The Mediterranean garden with its large central pond and box parterre
Each quarter of the garden stands as a separate entity and you wander between them, returning to the central flower border axis to get your bearings, before moving on to another area. The third quarter includes the Mediterranean garden with a large central pond and fountain surrounded by a box parterre (above), which is opposite the startlingly simple Laburnum garden (below), where the Water Flame is the eye catching centrepiece. This quarter also houses the croquet lawn, where guests are invited to play if they feel like it.
The fourth quarter of the walled garden houses the magnificent Rose garden with its arbors and sunken fountain area, against a backdrop of undulating and immaculately-clipped serpentine yew hedging, reminiscent of a giant Loch Ness monster. The design here is taken from the ceiling of the White Drawing Room in the main house. The roses are a combination of old-fashioned shrub varieties, modern, repeat flowering species and ramblers - all carefully selected to give a good display throughout the season.
The Rose garden replicates the design of the White Drawing Room in the Hall
Add to this the colourful borders and the restored glasshouses, where you'll find lemon trees and exotic orchids growing, and there's a lot to look at within the walls of the former kitchen garden. The Hall is also open, but not in the mornings, and there are six other major artworks in the grounds adjacent to the Hall, including a Cornish slate circle by Richard Long. But you cannot access the house or inner gardens until 13.30. Elsewhere in the 450 acres of grounds you will see hundreds of deer - memorable because they are white - and a church used by both residents of the hall and those who live on the estate. 
Immaculately-clipped serpentine hedges divide the walled garden and provide protection from the wind
Houghton Hall is open from April until the end of September, on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays - 11.30-17.00. Admission to the garden is £7.00 for adults and £2.50 for children (free to HHA members). The house is also open to the public, but not until 13.30. Located in the same part of Norfolk as the Queen's Christmas retreat at Sandringham House and Pensthorpe, (where the Millennium Garden was designed by Piet Oudolf)  you've got a glut of exceptional gardens to visit locally!

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Friday, 21 September 2012

Following in royal footsteps in the gardens at Sandringham House, Norfolk

Sandringham House in West Norfolk, with its 60 acres of formal gardens and parkland, at the heart of a 20,000-acre estate, is not just a country retreat for the Queen and her family, but also opens to the public for seven months of the year, providing a royal landscape for all to enjoy. The formal garden to the north of the house was designed by Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe; William Broderick Thomas created the sweeping lawns and lakes; and the  Woodland Walk, famous for its rhododendron displays in May is the work of Sir Eric Savill, former head gardener at another much-loved royal landscape in Surrey – the Savill Garden
Sixty acres of parkland and lakes surround Sandringham in Norfolk
The emphasis at Sandringham is on the landscape. It's a delightful place to walk and there are huge open spaces and many fine specimen trees; a charming formal garden designed specially for King George VI so he could see it from his rooms in the house; acres of impeccably kept lawn and a walled kitchen garden that provided all the vegetables for the royal kitchens in days gone by and which now opens to the public on Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the season. Sadly, I was there on the wrong day to see it.
The formal garden at Sandringham designed by Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe
This country retreat has been a favourite with the Royal Family favourite since its purchase in 1862 by Queen Victoria, although she bought it to lure the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) away from the temptations of London! The large lawns are studded by memorial oaks that she planted, and King Edward VII came to love Sandringham and its landscape so much that he's reputed to have said that, given a choice of career, he would have become a landscape gardener. Today Sandringham is where the Royal Family spend Christmas and it is from here that the Queen makes her annual speech on December 25th.
The formal gardens with house in the background - King Edward VII loved this view
The gardens at Sandringham are designed to have different highlights throughout the year, starting with a burst of colour in springtime with all the bulbs; followed by spectacular camellia and rhododendron displays; in summertime the trees and the lakes are the focal point of the estate, and there is a well trodden circular walk that visitors can enjoy, so they see the house and grounds from many different vantage points. In autumn, it's the changing colours that delight a rapt audience who wish to follow in royal footsteps. But in winter, the house and grounds revert to its owners, who enjoy a spell of privacy over the festive season.
The church at Sandringham, where the Queen and her family attend a Christmas service
Definitely a garden to visit if you're in this part of Norfolk - particularly if you're interested in trees. I saw some here that I couldn't even identify! Open daily from April until the end of October, from 10.30-17.00. Admission to the gardens and museum is £8.00 for adults and £4.50 for children (free to RHS members). There is a £2.50 supplement for the guided tours - available on Wednesdays and Fridays - which are walking tours of either the Woodland, Water or Walled gardens. And if you want to visit a very different garden locally during the summer season, head for Houghton Hall with its five-acre walled garden.
Bronze statue of Persimmon - a British racing legend - outside the Sandringham Stud

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Thursday, 20 September 2012

Thursday taster ... Norfolk gardens

The Queen's Norfolk home - Sandringham - has a fantastic collection of trees
I've just returned from two days in Norfolk visiting gardens and I've got many lovely treats in store for readers in the next few weeks - from the gardens of Sandringham (above), where the Queen spends as much time as she can, to the amazing acreage at East Ruston, where I was really impressed by the Exotic Garden (below).
Norfolk has some really spectacular gardens. I've visited six this week and will be featuring most of them in the next fortnight. I was really wowed by Houghton Hall; spent many hours at Sandringham admiring the trees; fell in love with the moated gardens at Hindringham Hall, and enjoyed the variety at East Ruston Old Vicarage.
The Waterflame fountain at Houghton Hall in Norfolk
Blessed with good, autumnal weather and the special light that comes with the equinox, I've got many new gardens to share with readers in the next few weeks. The Water Flame at Houghton Hall (above) is particularly impressive, as are the lakes and vistas at Sandringham; but so too are the moated gardens at Hindringham Hall (below).

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Rodmarton Manor - definitely the jewel in Britain's "Arts and Crafts" garden crown!

Rodmarton Manor was designed and built as a country retreat for the Biddulph family
Many English gardens are classified as "Arts and Crafts" style, but in reality, they're either poor copies, or capitalising on the popular style to attract visitors. But Rodmarton Manor, near Tetbury in Gloucestershire is the genuine article. Both house and garden were conceived and built at the height of the Arts and Crafts movement, using traditional methods, locally sourced materials and with skilled craftsmen working on site. Today the house remains in the ownership of family that built it and the gardens are open to the public throughout the summer months for all to enjoy. 
View of the manor  and the Winter Garden from the Leisure Garden
The house was designed and built for Claud and Margaret Biddulph at the turn of the 20th century. They originally wanted a small country retreat and although work started in 1909, the outbreak of war meant that it was not finished until nearly 20 years later, and it grew into a substantial family home. The Biddulphs commissioned local architect Ernest Barnsley to design the house for them and he also planned the garden, although credit for the planting must go to William Scrubey, who was head gardener there at the time. Much of the planting there today survives from 100 years ago, especially the hedging and topiary, although the borders (see below) were replanted in the 1990s. 
Topiary and herbaceous borders seen from the summer house
The Biddulphs were firm believers in supporting the local community and wanted to support and revive rural crafts. They stuck firmly to their principles throughout the construction of their home  - the workforce was local; the stone was quarried nearby; and the timber was felled and seasoned on the estate. If you take a tour of the house, you will see many fine examples of local craftsmanship in the furniture, the staircases, the fire surrounds and the panelling. The result is remarkable and although they had never intended to build such a large home, it just evolved. 
The Jekyll-style herbaceous borders (looking towards the summer house) were replanted in the 1990s
Both the manor and its eight-acre garden are fine examples of Arts and Crafts style at its best. You approach the property along a drive of immaculately-clipped hedges, and the garden is a series of outdoor rooms, each with its own particular character, but punctuated with a pergola, small sunken garden, clipped box topiary and brightly-coloured borders. but all in harmony with the house. This was the main ideal of the Arts and Crafts movement in gardening terms - to provide an extension of the house, rather than a separate entity, so the garden blends into the overall feel of the property. Nowhere else in England has it been as skilfully achieved as Rodmarton. 
The Trough Garden is filled with immaculately-clipped box topiary and stone animal troughs
On arrival at the manor you walk into the gardens at the side of the house and stroll through the Leisure and Winter gardens, which lead onto the Trough Garden (above), so called because of all the animal feeding and drinking troughs. The formal topiary is the strongest feature of this part of the garden and much of the box here is part of the original planting. At the front of the house you have a terrace, the sunken garden and a typical Arts and Crafts style stone pergola (below), covered with a rampant Vitis cognetti. Each of these garden areas is very different in style, but they provide a cohesive whole and various elements including the stone walls which divide the different areas are found throughout the garden.
Pergola covered with Vitis cognetti - just beginning to don its autumn colours
Elsewhere you will find the cherry orchard, planted in the late 1950s, a rockery and croquet lawn, a wild garden leading onto open farmland and a magnificent kitchen garden, filled with vegetables, fruit and flowers for cutting. But perhaps the most charming place to sit and reflect is the summer house (below) with its views over the long borders. The Biddulph family still live at Rodmarton Manor three generations after the house was built and are committed to keeping both house and garden alive. This garden is definitely worth making a special trip to see, as is the house.
Rodmarton's charming summer house looks out over the Jekyll-style borders
Rodmarton Manor gardens are undoubtedly the jewel in the Arts and Crafts crown and if you want to see the style for yourself head to Gloucestershire on a Wednesday or Saturday from  the beginning of May to the end of September - the gardens are open from 14.00-17.00 and entry is just £5.00 for the gardens (£8.00 to include the house). Also open for snowdrops in the winter and on Bank Holiday Mondays throughout the season. Check website for details. Other gardens worth visiting nearby include Misarden Park and Painswick Rococo.

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Saturday, 8 September 2012

Gardens for "Ladies who Lunch" - Gravetye Manor

Head to Gravetye Manor for lunch if you can - the garden is glorious, as is the food
The children are back at school, the sun's shining and what better way to see a glorious garden than combining it with lunch with a girlfriend? England has more than its fair share of gardens with lunch attached and in the first of several features on hotels and restaurants that have wonderful gardens associated with them, I'm starting my journey at Gravetye Manor in Sussex. This is the former home of William Robinson, who championed naturalistic planting and had a profound influence on British gardening
Tom Coward has won the battle against bindweed at Gravetye Manor
Head gardener, Tom Coward - who arrived here from Great Dixter two years ago, has breathed new life into this glorious garden and, after a long battle against the bindweed, the grounds at Gravetye are well on their way to recovery and I'm sure William Robinson would be in awe of his 21st century compatriot's work. The Flower Garden is a riot of colour throughout the seasons and with the Elizabethan manor house as a backdrop and a gourmet restaurant, lunch doesn't get much better than this in terms of location.
The flower garden at Gravetye is spectacular throughout the seasons
This was the home of leading garden theorist and writer, William Robinson (1838-1935), who moved here in 1885 and remained here until his death.  Robinson was heavily influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, was a friend of Gertrude Jekyll's and came into contact with William Morris, who much admired his work. He was a passionate gardener and prolific writer, who launched the original weekly journal "The Garden" in 1871 (not to be confused with the monthly RHS publication, The Garden - which goes out to members today) and two major gardening books:  "The Wild Garden" and "The English Flower Garden" which remain in print today. Other well-known gardens for which he is credited are Hergest Croft in Herefordshire and Killerton in Devon.
Gravetye's kitchen garden has circular walls
Feast your eyes on the Flower Garden before lunch and then head for the walled kitchen garden afterwards - Tom has transformed this part of the garden too in the time that he's been here and you'll be greeted with wonderful displays of cutting flowers and vegetables that promise to rival the potager at Villandry if they're given the chance! It's early days for this part of the garden, since it was only revitalised in the last couple of years, but if the results to date are anything to go by, this is a plot worth watching. 
Most of the cutting flowers for the hotel are grown in Gravetye's kitchen garden
The kitchen garden is unique because it has circular walls - the only one of its kind in the UK
- designed to maximise on catching the heat of the sun, and extensive work has already been carried out. It's a wonderful sight at this time of year - filled with flowers and vegetables. All the flowers for the Manor are grown here, together with many of the basics for the kitchen including herbs and a range of vegetables. But it's a magnificent sight on a sunny day, so don't miss it when you visit.
Vegetables and flowers in the kitchen garden promise to rival the display at Villandry 
If you fancy the high life, it's well worth knowing about the Gravetye Member's Club, priced at £150 per person or £200 for a couple, which includes a night at the hotel, together with themed lunches and dinners that will appeal to both gardening enthusiasts and foodies. Tom Coward hosts special garden visits for members and it's a great chance to stay overnight at the hotel at a substantially reduced rate. One to add to your Christmas "Wish List" perhaps?
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Thursday, 6 September 2012

September Garden Highlights - Sissinghurst Castle

Still looking good in September - after all the rain this summer - is Sissinghurst Castle, former home of Vita Sackville West and one of the most visited properties in Britain. Also one of the most photographed gardens in the UK, especially the tower above. Sissinghurst isn't actually a castle, but rather a manor house with a tall tower. But the "Castle" has stuck and Harold Nicholson and his wife Vita were more than happy to inhabit this particular home. And we all know the adage: "An Englishman's home is his castle"!
Climb to the top of the tower on a clear September day and you'll have a better view of the garden than you'll ever get on the ground. Look out over the whole property from above and you'll see why Sissinghurst is famous for its garden "rooms".
Bird's eye view of The Rose Garden at Sissinghurst
Famous for its cottage garden (below) and fine views over the surrounding Kent countryside, the house is still lived in part time by Vita Sackville West's grandson, who's married to well-known garden writer - Sarah Raven, who has her own garden nearby.
View of the Cottage Garden at Sissinghurst
But the garden room that's most popular at Sissinghurst is the White Garden (below) - already a little blousy at this time of year, but a concept that's inspired gardeners worldwide. Close enough to Great Dixter to combine the two in a day and compare the two very different planting styles of Vita Sackville West and Christopher Lloyd.
View of the White Garden from the top of the tower at Sissinghurst
Climb the tower to get the most of Sissinghurst, although it can be a little busy. You'll get away from the crowds on the ground and enjoy a bird's eye view! Open five days a week from 10.30-17.30 (closed Wednesday and Thursday) although entry is a whopping £10.40 unless you're a National Trust member. With membership costing just £53 a year, you'd be well advised to join, so that you can wander through all their other celebrated garden properties including Hidcote Manor (£9.05), Mottisfont Abbey (£8.10), Nymans (£9.00), Polesden Lacey (£10.80) and Wakehurst Place (£12.00). One visit to each of these gardens and you've already paid your annual membership fee!
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