In May 2009 I visited some famous gardens in England with my sister. The trip was long overdue for I am a passionate gardener and The Gardens of England are simply a must-do. There are many gardens open to the public because they were bequeathed to the National Trust when the owners could no longer afford to maintain them. Most of these gardens are “grand” because they were created by rich aristocrats who engaged landscapers and many gardeners. Some evolved over several generations of a single family.
The National Trust is the world’s largest garden owner. It has more than 200 historic houses and gardens that it opens to the public for an admission fee. These include some of the most famous gardens in the history of British gardening. There are also other well known gardens that are open to the public so it is very difficult to decide what to see.
There are at least 10 gardens in Surrey that I wanted to visit including rather grand-sounding ones like Hampton Court and Wisley. There are 12 in Sussex, the county south of London where the land meets the sea, and 20 in Kent. And that’s just one little section of the country! The itinerary I put together included several gardens to view each day. But my sister, who had driven the back roads of England before, put some water in my wine, so to speak.
In the end, we focused on gardens that we already knew a lot about because their gardeners wrote books and articles about them. Many were developed in the tradition of Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932), who is considered the most influential garden designer ever. Most have mixed borders that combine a variety of trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals, roses, and bulbs.
These are the gardeners whose work we decided we must see:
- Vita Sackville-West (perhaps best known for her white garden at Sissinghurst Castle, Kent)
- Christopher Lloyd (who combined every sort of colour at Great Dixter in Sussex)
- Rosemary Verey (who popularized the ornamental kitchen garden at Barnsley House in Kent)
- Penelope Hobhouse (who was in charge of the Tintinhull Garden for the National Trust for 14 years)
- Margery Fish (who made a grand cottage garden on a domestic scale at East Lambrook Manor in Somerset)
To this list we added Blenheim Palace, whose Marlborough Maze is the second largest hedge maze in the world, and Stourhead, said to be “the most celebrated example of English landscape gardening in the country.”
Gardening, of course, is not without its trends and there are more influential gardeners than are found in this itinerary. Andrew Wilson, in his book Influential Gardeners: the designers who shaped 20th-century garden style, grouped gardeners in seven categories: colour & decoration; planting; concept; form; structural emphasis; texture; and materials. He puts the gardens of Jekyll, Sackville-West, Verey, Hobhouse, and Lloyd all in the “colour and decoration” category. For greater variety and certainly for a peek at contemporary designs and plants, also visit the Chelsea Flower Show in London, a five day event in May that attracts visitors from around the world (more about that in the next posting).
We rented a car (should have gotten an automatic) and bought a very detailed map. Driving was challenging (I was the navigator) and there were many hysterical moments. The Brits, of course, drive on the left side of the road. They don’t use traffic lights but roundabouts and that takes some getting use to. They tend not to put the names of larger centres on road signs, just the next village, and we would circle and circle the roundabout until we figured out which exit to take. We booked hotels that were easy to get to and avoided places like Oxford and Stratford-on-Avon that we feared would be overrun with tourists.
Christopher Lloyd said that “gardening, in a humble way, is an art as well as a craft.” It is also inspriational and this journey was simply over-the-top.
If you go:
© Riding the buses 2011