Exploring England 2015, Part 4 – Gardens big and small.

Sunday, Oct 25, 2015 at 16:04


What better time to explore English gardens than in spring and early summer? In the countryside, along roadsides and lanes, bluebells and wildflowers are putting on colourful displays. In the more ordered environment of lovingly tended gardens there is a veritable riot of colour as trees, shrubs and flowers put on their spring attire to charm and delight us.

Rhododendrons are pervasive and dominant with their big bright flowerheads, while azaleas and camellias add their distinctive colours and textures. A multitude of green hues dominates the tree canopy, with occasional striking reddish bronze notes from copper beeches. Within walled gardens fruit trees are flowering and annuals are blazing with colour.

We visited a number of gardens during our visit. Some were small domestic gardens, some spread out over many acres, and the time we spent in each varied from an hour or two to an all day visit.

On the second day of our visit Rob took us exploring around the countryside near Cambridge. We visited the lovely gardens at Madingley Hall which started life in 1543. For a short time the Hall was rented by Queen Victoria as a residence for her son whilst he studied at the University. However, his stay was brief and his departure sudden, due to Prince Albert’s unexpected death. Today, the Hall is home to the University’s Institute of Continuing Education and the gardens are open for visitors to enjoy.

In 1756, Lancelot 'Capability' Brown removed the older gardens, replacing them with his trademark informal parklands. This landscape remains today, with a croquet lawn and topiary gardens added at the beginning of the 20th century. The gardens extend to eight acres, containing a landscaped walled garden, courtyard garden and a meadow, all possessing a rich diversity of plants. We followed the paths winding through the gardens enjoying a relaxing stroll through most of the gardens. We were intrigued by a couple of beds devoted to miniature plants, and the geometrical precision of the topiary.

Also near Cambridge we spent a few hours at Oxburgh Hall, built in 1482. There are fascinating kitchen gardens, a sheltered spot for lunch in the walled orchard, topped off with a stroll through My Ladys Wood and along the River Gadder where heritage breed sheep graze, through to The Wilderness.

Another of the early gardens we visited was Sherringham Park on the northern coast of Norfolk. Now run by the National Trust, the park is the work of landscape designer Humphry Repton who proposed his design in 1812. The main drive through the estate runs through 20 hectares of big specimen trees and rhododendrons surrounded by extensive woodland areas. There are many paths to take and in the few hours we had there we explored the main rhododendron areas, although we were a little early in the first week of May for the full flowering. Nevertheless there was plenty to see, the big old rhodies beautifully framed by mature trees.

Threatening rain drove us indoors to nearby Blickling Estate where we enjoyed the Jacobean house before a break in the weather allowed us a short time in the 50 acres of formal gardens featuring topiary, a sunken garden and beds of bulbs and annuals making a riot of colour under a heavily overcast sky.

Further south in Kent we visited the 16th century Hever Castle, famous for being the childhood home of Anne Boleyn. We initially baulked at the steep admission charge but after spending most of a day there we had to admit it was worth it as there is much to see, but too much to see and absorb in a single visit. There are 120 acres of gardens, and again showers drove us indoors so we did not see all the gardens. But the beautiful Italian Gardens alone, built a century ago to house William Waldorf Astor’s collection of Roman statues made up for what we may have missed. We also enjoyed walking through informal woodland areas, through groves of wonderful old trees, and among hilly area dripping with water and colourful blooms.

In East Sussex we spent a whole warm sunny day in the huge gardens at Sheffield Park. This big garden is a horticultural work of art formed through centuries of landscape design, with influences of 'Capability' Brown and Humphry Repton. Four lakes form the heart of the garden, with paths circulating through the glades and wooded areas surrounding them. The rhododendrons and azaleas were in full and magnificent bloom, the vistas across the lakes were delightful and the big trees – some were very big – framed the walks and made quiet, shady bowers.

Sheffield Park boasts a cricket ground in a lovely setting, and there is an Aussie connection here too. From 1881 to 1896 it was the home ground of Lord Sheffield's XI, organised by Henry Holroyd, 3rd Earl of Sheffield, who in 1891 donated £150 to the NSW Cricket Association. This sum was used to purchase a plate and establish the competition known as the Sheffield Shield. The first recorded match on the ground was in 1881 and from 1881 to 1896, Lord Sheffield's XI played 9 first-class matches, the last of which came against the touring Australians. At this match 25,000 people were allowed to watch for free.

Blenheim Palace near Oxford, birthplace of Winston Churchill is built on a vast scale. The grand sweep of gardens surrounding the Palace are spread over 2000 acres of quite astonishing Capability Brown parkland, lakes, fountains and formal gardens including the recently restored Secret Garden, the Italian Garden, the Water Terraces, Rose Garden and Grand Cascade. Our time there was limited and again we nearly baulked at the steep admission price. A single gate attendant trying to deal with a long queue of intending visitors added to our frustration. There were big crowds to contend with as our visit coincided with the anniversary of the WWII Normandy landings. Away from the house and where we could find shelter from a stiff breeze we enjoyed some of the beautiful big trees, the cascades and rose garden. It would take a number of visits to see this vast garden and on this brief visit we were only able to see a tiny fraction of it.

In London we did a return visit to Kew Gardens, catching the train out to the gardens along with many excited schoolchildren eager for a day out. The Royal Botanic gardens at Kew are the world's largest collection of living plants. Founded in 1840 from the exotic garden at Kew Park the living collections include more than 30,000 different kinds of plants, while the herbarium, which is one of the largest in the world, has over seven million preserved plant specimens. The library contains more than 750,000 volumes, and the illustrations collection contains more than 175,000 prints and drawings of plants. It is one of London's top tourist attractions. In 2003, the gardens were put on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.

The Kew site, which has been dated as formally starting in 1759, consists of 121 hectares (300 acres) of gardens and botanical glasshouses, four Grade I listed buildings and 36 Grade II listed structures, all set in an internationally significant landscape. Capability Brown and Sir Joseph Banks both contributed to the garden design and plantings.

To get around the huge site we took the “land train” or Kew Explorer, enabling us to have an overview of and some commentary about the site. It also served to provide some shelter against a chilly wind for which we were unprepared. That persistent wind saw use spend as much time as we could indoors in the various glasshouses (except the huge temperate glasshouse which is undergoing renovations until 2018) where there is an incredible variety of plants to admire, along with hordes of schoolchildren.

We also spent time in the astonishing Marianne North Gallery where the walls are covered with flower paintings done across 17 countries in 14 busy years. She spent time in Australia so we were able to admire some old favourites before an invading school group moved us on. Unfortunately no photography is allowed in that gallery.

Much further north in the middle of Scotland near Pitlochry and Blair Athol we spent several hours in the gardens of 700 year old Blair Castle. There is the 9 acre walled garden (Hercules Garden) restored to its original Georgian design, Diana’s grove, a quiet woodland containing some of Britain’s tallest trees, a deer park and the ruin of St Bride’s Kirk where a Jacobite leader has his final resting place.

While the Hercules Garden at Blair Castle is some 250 years old, it became completely overgrown and dilapidated in the 20th century. Restoration work started some years ago and although much of the hard work has been completed, the restoration will continue well into the 21st century. The garden is named after a statue of Hercules which was originally set on the hill as a focus for the landscape to the east of the Castle. Now the garden has many fruit trees, beautiful herbaceous borders, yew hedges, a lake with water birds, and a Chinese Bridge that takes you from one side of the garden to the other. There is an Apple House with displays of images and information showing the garden in the past and McGregor's Folly, with 6 statues outside. The garden also contains two thatched swan and duck houses; there are Swans with cygnets, moorhens, coots and ducks all adding to the special charm of the garden.

At York we spent a couple of leisurely hours enjoying the sun and relaxing from sightseeing in the York Museum Gardens. This peaceful garden occupies ten acres along the river and near the Museum right in the heart of York and takes in the medieval ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey. There were many people out enjoying the sun, so it was hard to find a seat where we could sit and soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the sun.

We also visited a much smaller garden in York, that of the Treasurer’s House adjacent to magnificent York Minster. This small walled garden features carefully chosen perennials in a simple, architectural design laid out in 1900 by the owner, Frank Green. The terrace walls contain architectural fragments from the many re-buildings of the adjoining York Minster. There is a small avenue of pollarded trees casting cool green shade and some beautiful peonies attracting bumblebees.

The last large garden that we visited was the Botanical Gardens of Cambridge University. Spread over 40 acres this garden features themed gardens, including areas displaying some of the significant plant families such as the grasses and daisies. What a wonderful teaching resource it must be! There are walks among some historic trees and many glasshouses displaying plants from all over the world and from varying climates. There was even a small Australian collection, though to our eyes it seemed quite limited.

Apart from these big gardens we also saw and enjoyed many other small scale gardens. There were the gardens at the cottages where we stayed, and in the villages we visited, the street gardens awash with bright flowering annuals, the churchyards with their ancient yew and holly trees. Around the colleges of Cambridge and Oxford are lovely gardens with manicured lawns and ancient stone walls. We saw the season change in Becky’s delightful garden as the flowering cherry blossoms fell and the hollyhocks reached for the sky. We went shopping for a rose bush and were astounded at the range, so that we took ages to choose a suitably perfumed apricot rose from among hundreds of candidates. We were pleasantly puzzled by plants that were familiar to those we grow at home – but slightly different; older or newer varieties suited to deep soil and a gentler climate.

All the gardens we saw would merit a return visit, or even many visits, especially to see them in a different season – though perhaps not in winter. Maybe one day we will do that, along with more of all those other gardens we haven’t yet seen.

J and V
"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
- Albert Einstein
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