Sunday, 28 April 2013

"Bloomsbury Set" gardens blooming in East Sussex - Monks House and Charleston

Monks House - weekend retreat for Leonard and Virginia Woolf - open five days a week
For a memorable day out in East Sussex, visit the gardens of the well-known Bloomsbury Set sisters, Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell - who resided at Monk's House (above) and  Charleston (below), just a stone's throw (approximately half an hour's drive from each other) and both set in beautiful countryside. The good news is that Monks House (previously open for just two afternoons a week) has extended opening hours - daily from 13.00-17.30 except Monday and Tuesday and entry is free to National Trust members.
Charleston where Virginia Woolf's sister, Vanessa Bell lived
Nearby Charleston was the one-time home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, who were part of the Bohemian circle of writers and artists, collectively known as the Bloomsbury Group. It's a pretty farmhouse (above) sheltering beneath the South Downs and there are regular tours of the property for those interested in Vanessa's paintings. There is also a charming walled garden filled to bursting with densely-packed flower beds and a riot of colour. Now run by the Charleston Trust, the garden has been faithfully recreated to look like it did when Vanessa Bell lived here.
The cottage garden adjacent to Monks House, filled to bursting with blousy perennials
Monks House at nearby Rodmell, outside Lewes is a small cottage-style garden, with wonderful views of the South Downs and the Sussex flint church (below). This was a weekend retreat for Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard. And like Charleston, the charm of this garden is the dense planting and vibrant colour displays - every inch of ground in the garden close to the house is packed with stunning perennials that beg you to come back and look again and again, the orchard is filled with fruit trees and the potager where Leonard worked is flourishing.
The orchard at Monks House, overlooked by a Sussex flint church
Neither garden is large, but Arts and Crafts style planting ensures lots of visual delights, with blousy perennials packed tightly in the beds. Charleston is open on the same days as Monks House (Wednesday - Sunday 13.00-18.00) and although the house fills up with Bloomsbury Set admirers intent on catching a glimpse of their Bohemian lifestyle, the garden is rarely crowded and is well worth a visit. It's been faithfully restored to its former glory and is lovely on a summer's day, when you can sit and listen to the birds singing.
The flint-walled garden at Charleston Farmhouse, former home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant
Charleston has a lovely Sussex-flint walled garden, densely packed with cottage-style plants and lots of nooks and crannies to hide in. It's easy to imagine the parties that went here in days gone by, when Vanessa lived here with her menagerie, and wrote: "The house seems full of young people in high spirits ... lying about in the garden which is simply a dithering blaze of flowers and butterflies and apples." If the statues here could speak, I'm sure they'd have stories to tell!
If the statues at Charleston could speak, they'd tell a story of days gone 
There's lots of sunshine forecast for this week - for more spring garden ideas click here

You might also visit Great Dixter and Dungeness whilst in the area

Friday, 26 April 2013

Great Dixter to Dungeness in a day - sublime to surreal!

Great Dixter has featured many times on my blog over the years, but my visit yesterday was particularly special because I went with friend and fellow blogger, Ronnie of Hurtled to 60 and Now Beyond, for whom I have the greatest admiration. Ronnie recounts her personal story on her blog about her fight against bowel cancer and although much of her life is currently taken up with her battle against "Eric", which you can read about for yourself, we have promised each other that we will visit gardens together whenever we can this summer. 
Some tulips are beginning to bloom at Great Dixter, but the garden is running well behind this year
Ronnie had never been to Great Dixter before, and I had promised to surprise her with a visit to somewhere new. As luck (and endless perusal of the weather forecast) would have it, the day dawned bright and clear, which is a remarkably rare occurrence in England this spring. Great Dixter was looking good, despite the lack of sunshine so far this year and although the garden is running well behind on terms of what's in bloom, my fellow blogger was delighted when she realised where we were going because this was her first visit.
The Great Dixter meadow is filled with fritillarias
There's little doubt that Dixter is a sublime garden, created originally by gardening guru and author, Christo Lloyd, but continuing to attract visitors from all over the world under the successful stewardship of Fergus Garrett as head gardener, who worked closely with Christo for many years before his death in 2006. It's particularly glorious at this time of year, when you can see the bare bones of the garden and the basic structure before all the perennials rise to dizzy heights and obscure the earthy skeleton which prevails in winter.
Now is a good time to see the bare bones of the garden at Great Dixter
Particularly glorious at this time of year is the meadow filled with the remnants of daffodils and bobbing purple and white fritillarias, plus all the brightly-coloured potted plants at the main entrance to the house. The tulips are beginning to bloom and the magnolias are magnificent, but get there quickly if you want to catch them, because they'll soon be gone and the beds will begin to fill with the riot of colour that the garden is renowned for in high summer.
The Beach Bistro is just half an hour's drive from Dixter
After our visit, we needed lunch and whilst I don't normally write about restaurants here, the place we went was so good, that I'm flagging it up for fellow gardeners who make the pilgrimage to Great Dixter this summer. There are, of course, many pubs locally, but I've yet to find one that I really like, and the food and the service at The Beach Bistro near Rye, is well worth making the half-hour drive to if you want a perfect meal. We had a really delicious lunch - fish is the main offering here - all locally sourced, but combine that with excellent service and charming decor and you're onto a winner. Although I suspect that you'll need to book well ahead during the summer months because Camber Sands is a popular beach destination. 
Prospect Cottage, former home of film director Derek Jarman, at Dungeness
While at lunch, we realised that we weren't far from Derek Jarman's cottage and seaside garden at Dungeness - an unlikely spot for a holiday home when you consider that one of the country's largest power stations is just a stone's throw away. But having tracked down the charming timber house with bright yellow windows and wandered down to the sea, you could see the attraction of living here on a sunny day. Sadly, there was little in bloom, but for a really good review and pictures, check out wellywoman's blog.  
Prospect Cottage is not open to the public, but you can see it from the road and a telephoto lens affords a good view of the garden with all its driftwood sculptures and the writing on the wall of the house is taken from John Donne's "The Sunne Rising". You can access the sea from the other side of the road. Ronnie and I plan to return when Dixter is in full bloom, because that's when this charming garden will also be at its best.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Spectacular spring gardens - Sir Harold Hillier, Hampshire

Early flowering magnolias outside Jermyn's House
Spring is definitely in the air today so get out and visit a garden!  Why not head for Sir Harold Hillier's former home in Hampshire - a glorious 180-acre garden, just outside Romsey? And although this famous plantsman, who trained with his father as a nurseryman, is more commonly associated with the chain of Hillier nurseries around the country that carry his name, the garden and arboretum he created during his life is worth more than a passing visit because it has something to see throughout the seasons, and now is the time to see glorious displays of early flowering spring blossoms and great drifts of daffodils.
The garden is currently filled with spring colour - drifts of daffodils and many types of magnolia are in bloom
This garden is a credit to Hampshire County Council, which has run the garden since it was given to them by Hillier in 1977. It is immaculately maintained and constantly evolving. At the moment the Centenary Border - which provides a blaze of colour in the summer months - is being replanted. But there are so many different spring flowers in bloom elsewhere in the garden that the upheaval created by the replanting at the heart of the site does little to detract from the blaze of colour elsewhere.
The Winter Garden is looking particularly good and is filled with hellebores, camellias and some exceptional early flowering magnolias; the Himalayan Garden is sporting many fine camellias and early rhododendrons; and Magnolia Avenue, adjacent to Jermyn's House, where Sir Harold spent most of his life, is looking stunning. Elsewhere in the garden, there is already the promise of abundant summer colour as leaves are beginning to form on the trees and perennials are beginning to thicken on the ground. 
Vibernum Farreri in the Winter Garden - which smells wonderful
This is a remarkable garden when you consider that Sir Harold only moved here in 1953 - it boasts more than 42,000 plants and is home to one of the largest collections of champion trees anywhere in the country. It is also home to more than 10 national plant collections. But what's really worth noting, is that it's open throughout the year, and careful planning by the Council means that there is always something to see here, even in mid winter. Spring, summer and autumn are just the icing on the cake! There are also talks, walks and other events held here throughout the year.
Acer Negundo - an interesting texture!
The gardens are open every day from 10.00 - 18.00 and admission is £9.10 for adults. But if you're likely to visit more than a couple of times, it's worth buying an annual pass for £31.00, which also gives you free admission to the Botanical Gardens at Kew, Wakehurst Place, the National Botanic Garden of Wales and the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, especially when you consider that a single adult entry to Kew costs £16.00!
Daphniphyllum Humile
Colour and texture is all part of the excitement of this garden. Sir Harold Hillier collected plants from all over the world and you'll find many species here that are unique, but just as impressive as the range of plants is the labelling. When you find a plant you don't recognise, you'll also find a label to tell you what it is!  

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Iconic British gardens - Beth Chatto Gardens, Essex

Beth Chatto Gardens in springtime (April 2012) - the garden is already in bloom
A bitterly-cold and showery April day is not the best day to visit gardens, but even this early in the season, when spring is running a little late, the Beth Chatto Gardens are looking stunning - filled with promise for the new season! Seven acres of joy, created out of a once-neglected hollow between two farms, where Beth Chatto has worked wonders. This is a unique place, created by the woman who has given the garden its name (it was originally called White Barn House when it first opened in 1973) and she has now become internationally renowned because of her plant philosophy and best-selling books.
April is a good month to see the structure of the garden
Beth Chatto, plantswoman extraordinaire, started creating this garden in 1960 with her husband. There was nothing here at all when she arrived here more than 50 years ago, but Beth and her husband Andrew set to work to turn this into the paradise that survives today - seven acres of joy, created out of a neglected hollow that was boggy in parts and arid as a desert elsewhere. Together they pioneered the idea of using plants adapted by nature to problem places, using shade-loving plants in areas with little direct light and  drought-tolerant plants in dry places.
Water-loving plants thrive by the ponds, even in April
Beth Chatto has become famous the world over for her planting philosophy. Her seminal books on dry, damp and shade gardening adorn shelves the world over and garden lovers who make the pilgrimage to her garden in Essex, can see for themselves how her triumphant planting schemes work, marvelling at the textures, shapes and arrangements of plants throughout the garden. Take a photograph of any part of this garden and you will be amazed by the variety of plants in that small patch.
Beth Chatto's Gravel Garden (pictured here in June) has provided inspiration for gardeners the world over
The garden here is divided into three main areas - the water garden with its five interlinking ponds, which is a profusion of damp-loving plants, already making progress early in the season; the celebrated Gravel Garden (above), started in 1991 as an experiment to see just how drought-loving plants would respond to one of the driest corners of Britain, and the woodland garden, which was as good as flattened during the 1987 hurricane, but now looks as though it's always been there. Each features plants that thrive naturally in damp, dry or shady conditions  and the results inspire visitors from the world over. 
All plants in the pond areas flourish throughout the summer are still thriving in October
Beth Chatto is to gardening and plants what Jane Austen is to romance in novels. She is already one of the great names in British horticulture and her garden is one to put on your wish list, along with Denmans (John Brookes), Great Dixter (Christopher Lloyd) and Barnsley House (Rosemary Verey) if you want to see how much influence a single gardener can have on planting and garden styles. This is worth travelling a long way to see!
The woodland garden looks good throughout the season and you will find many interesting shade plants here
This garden is all about texture and foliage - you cannot possibly leave without inspiration! The nursery here is also excellent. I never leave without a car load of plants and all have thrived in my garden, thanks to Beth Chatto's plantsmanship and ideas - because I too plant them in the places where they will flourish. The gardens and nursery are open seven days a week throughout the year, opening at 9.00 Monday-Saturday and 10.00 on Sundays. Another Essex garden that will fill you with inspiration is Green Island at nearby Ardleigh.   

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Dancing with daffodils as weather finally turns warmer - where to see best daff displays in southern England

Godinton House in Kent is famous for its springtime daffodils
After one of the worst winters on record in half a century (1963 was the last time that we had so much snow and such consistently low temperatures in the UK) it's not surprising that spring is dragging its heels and the bulbs we so look forward to here in April are slow to bloom. But finally .... they are beginning to appear and if you choose your destination carefully, you'll be rewarded with wonderful spring daffodil displays.
Head to Doddington Place for glorious spring displays 
Kent is a good place to start if you're in search of spring colour. Godinton House has one of the best daffodil displays I've seen yet (top), but there are many other gardens coming into bloom right now, including Doddington Place, renowned for its tulip displays and Sissinghurst (below), where you'll be rewarded with views over the surrounding countryside from the top of the tower. Closer to London, there's Emmetts with its fine views over the Weald and oceans of spring bulbs and Hever Castle which is always worth visiting in springtime.
Do climb the tower if you're visiting Sissinghurst for panoramic views over the Kent countryside
Hampshire is another destination to head for if you're in search of spring bulbs. The daffodil displays on the driveway to Longstock Nursery will leave you gasping (below), but there's also many exceptional spring gardens around the county, including Heale House and Houghton Lodge, within a stone's throw of each other and the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens in Romsey, where spring is one of the most rewarding seasons. 
The driveway to Longstock Nursery in Hampshire has spectacular daffodil displays
Great British Gardens publishes a list of gardens around the UK renowned for their daffodil displays while The Daffodil Society will tell you all you need to know to sow, grow and go to see more exceptional spring showings around Britain. Expect to see these flowers for a while yet because spring is so late this year and with the prolonged cold spell in March, the tulips are lagging a long way behind.
Houghton Lodge in Hampshire boasts fine daffodil displays and is close enough to Heale House to combine the two