In the garden

Britain offers a wide choice of destinations for garden lovers, from spectacular, world famous venues to those more quaint and naturalistic, as Diana Vowles discovers.

A tour group at Exbury Gardens in the New Forest

A tour group at Exbury Gardens in the New Forest

Gardening is one of Britain’s top hobbies and groups can enjoy garden visits just for the sights and scents or to pick up tips to put into practice at home. Even the most impressive, opulent venues can provide an example of colour combinations or habitats that can be translated to the tiniest back garden.

Visitors taking in the scents of the Rose Garden at The Savill Garden

Visitors taking in the scents of the Rose Garden at The Savill Garden

London and the south

On the north-eastern side of London, Capel Manor in Enfield is renowned as a college for budding horticulturalists and garden designers but is also open for public visits. Its 30 acres, surrounding a Georgian manor house, include a Japanese garden, Italianate maze and Le Jardin de Vincent, a winner at the Chelsea Flower Show. Groups can book a 90-minute guided tour of the estate and evening tours are available in the summer. For a group discount, you will need 20 or more people and to book at least two weeks ahead; the group leader is admitted free.
An unexpected haven of tranquility amid the bustle of Lambeth, the Garden Museum offers a collection of more than 9,000 objects, including tools, photographs and paintings, tracing British gardening over the centuries. Outside, there is a wild garden in the historic graveyard and a knot garden designed in 17th century style. This enterprising museum also hosts plant fairs and talks by influential garden designers. Groups are welcomed and there is a discount for 10 or more people. Guided tours can be pre-booked for a small extra charge and advance notice will gain you reserved tables for refreshments.

Browsing the wares on sale at the Garden Museum

Browsing the wares on sale at the Garden Museum

Kew Gardens is, of course, the acme of British garden visits. Foremost amongst the attractions are the famous 19th century Palm House; the Rhizotron and Xstrata Treetop Walkway, opened in 2008, which takes you on a 200-metre treetop walk 18 metres above the ground; and plant marvels such as the giant South American waterlilies and the Wollemi pine.
Groups of 10 or more gain a discount of 10% on the admission fee on the day, but booking ahead will bring you 15% on the Gardens alone or a hefty 25% discount on a combined ticket with Kew Palace.
The 60 acres of Hampton Court Palace gardens, in Surrey, encompass the famous maze, Privy Garden – a re-creation of William of Orange’s garden designed in 1702 – and the Great Vine planted in 1768 by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. Pre-booked groups of 15 or more gain a discount on admission, meal vouchers and special interest tours.
A similarly attractive royal site, further up the Thames, is the Royal Landscape of Windsor Great Park, with 35 acres of trees, lawns, meadows and formal beds. The contemporary Rose Garden, opened in 2009 in The Savill Garden, was designed for colour, repeat flowering and fragrance and, to make the most of this, visitors can take a walkway that appears to float above the blooms. Groups of 10 upwards gain discounted admission.

Limes outside Knebworth House

Limes outside Knebworth House

In Hertfordshire, Knebworth House stands in magnificent gardens first laid out in the 17th century but now mostly dating from the Victorian and Edwardian eras. The work of architect Sir Edwin Lutyens and garden designer Gertrude Jekyll is to be seen here, though Jekyll’s proposed herb garden was only created in 1982, after the ‘missing’ plans were rediscovered in the University of California’s Jekyll collection. The 18 garden ‘rooms’ are designed to have a distinct identity and flowering time, so there is always something beautiful to see, not least the Wilderness, with its fine Californian redwoods. Pre-booked groups of 20 or more get a discounted admission fee and can also book a ‘Meet the Gardener’ tour lasting about one hour. The group organiser is admitted free.

English Heritage’s Wrest Park, in Bedfordshire, will be a great place for groups visits from August, following a £1.14 million makeover. Newly-restored Italian and Rose gardens, an Orangery, new visitor centre, exhibitions and a large café are just a selection of what will be on offer here come opening. Guided tours of the Grade I-listed grounds may be prebooked. For groups of 11 or more there is a 15% discount, with the group leader admitted free.

The landscape of Wrest Park

The landscape of Wrest Park

At Penshurst Place and Gardens, near Tonbridge, the 11-acre walled garden is one of the oldest gardens in private ownership, with records dating from the 14th century.
Careful restorations in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries mean that you can now see a garden very much as it was in Elizabethan times, full of interest throughout the season with roses, herbaceous borders, a nuttery and much more, enclosed within miles of yew hedging to create garden ‘rooms’. There is a discount for groups of 15 plus as well as guided tours of the house and garden; dedicated gardeners may wish to book a tour with the head gardener.

In West Sussex, Borde Hill has 17 acres of historic formal gardens set in 200 acres of parkland in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Notable features are the newly-replanted Italian Garden, the Rose Garden, the rhododendrons, camellias, and rare and exotic trees. For a discount, your group must be 15 people or more; refreshment packages can be arranged at the café or, alternatively, head for the restaurant.

The grounds at Penshurst Place and Gardens

The grounds at Penshurst Place and Gardens

Further west, in Hampshire, Exbury Gardens are world famous for their collection of rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias and rare trees. There are 20 miles of pathways from which to admire them or, alternatively, you can board a steam train or take a chauffeur-driven buggy. In 2011, visitors will find an extension of the Herbaceous and Grasses Garden, a new Butterfly Meadow in the Witcher’s Wood and a Tree Trail that directs attention to some of the most outstanding arboreal sights. GTOs that bring a group of 15 or more receive free admission to the gardens and steam railway. Guided tours are also available by prior arrangement.

The colourful Rose Garden at Borde Hill

The colourful Rose Garden at Borde Hill

Heading west

Westonbirt Arboretum in Gloucestershire has more than 16,000 trees and shrubs, including over 100 rare or endangered species. Spring brings cherry blossom and rhododendrons, magnolias and native plants in bloom; in summer, flowering trees include Indian horse chestnuts and tulip trees; in autumn, the colours from Japanese maples and native deciduous trees are legendary; and winter demonstrates how colour and interest can be introduced to the home garden. There is a meet and greet service for coach parties and guided tours can be booked for up to 25 people at a time. There are also a selection of trails to follow around the grounds. Group discounts start at 10 people or more.
In the Gloucestershire Cotswolds, Sudeley Castle, once the home of Katherine Parr, sixth wife of Henry VIII, stands in 1,200 acres of grounds, with gardens that are managed organically. Don’t miss the Queen’s Garden, where towering yew hedges enclose a rose garden sited on the former Tudor parterre, nor the little knot garden, created in 1995 to a design taken from a dress pattern worn by Elizabeth I in a portrait that hangs in the castle. Guided tours may be arranged in advance and prebooked groups of more than 20 benefit from reduced admission fees.
At Woodstock, in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds, Blenheim Palace is one of the grandest stately homes in England. The 2,100 acres of grounds it stands in are correspondingly impressive, with parkland landscaped by ‘Capability’ Brown, formal gardens and a magnificent lake, crossed by the Grand Bridge. Sights to see include the recently-restored Dam and Cascade, Rose Garden, Water Terraces and Secret Garden. There are a variety of themed tours and talks for groups, and catering can be arranged in advance for snacks or lunch. Groups must pre-book, and discounts for a minimum of 15 people are generous. The group leader is also admitted free, with the benefit of a refreshment voucher.
In its 160 acres, Cotswold Wildlife Park, also in Oxfordshire, shows off a wide range of planting styles, with a large walled garden, a collection of mature trees and, of course, appropriate plants for the wildlife habitats. Groups of up to 50 people at a time can book an illustrated talk from the head gardener, followed by a Cotswold cream tea in the Orangery.
In Devon, RHS Garden Rosemoor offers all the interest you can expect from an RHS establishment, with 65 acres in a dramatic wooded valley. The garden consists of two distinct areas – a formal, decorative garden with yew hedging and the informal Lady Anne’s Garden, with 4,000 plants from many parts of the world. Groups of more than 10 people get a discount but must book ahead.

Roses in bloom at Powderham Castle

Roses in bloom at Powderham Castle

Further south, near Exeter, Powderham Castle stands in a deerpark beside the Exe estuary where 600 fallow deer graze. You can view them from a tractor trailer, which will take you around the park whilst you listen to a commentary about the history and wildlife of the estate. Groups of 15 or more gain a reduced admission fee. Pre-booked tours and refreshments are available and you can stock up with plants for your own patch from the Perfumed Garden, a plant centre handily close to the castle gates.
On the English Riviera, the 5,000 or so species in the botanical gardens at Paignton Zoo include some of the rarest plants in the world, and the warm climate allows the cultivation of many tender plants such as banana and citrus trees outdoors. Discounts are available to groups of 15 or more; coach parking is free but must be booked in advance.
The sub-tropical gardens at Trebah are amongst the greatest gardens in Cornwall. Highlights are the Mallard Pond, with over two acres of blue and white hydrangeas clothing the sides of the valley, the Water Garden and the Chilean Coomb. Reduced admission rates are given to pre-booked groups of 12 or more and guided tours can be arranged in advance.

The Midlands

Rockingham Castle, near Market Harborough, in Leicestershire, was built on the command of William the Conqueror and has been continuously occupied for 1,000 years. The 18-acre garden is notable for its 400-year-old ‘Elephant Hedge’, formal 17th century terraced gardens, 19th century Rose Garden, the Wild Garden and a new garden designed by Chelsea Gold Medal winner Robert Myers. If you are taking a private guided tour you may also like to book a meal in the licensed restaurant.

An aerial view of Rockingham Castle

An aerial view of Rockingham Castle

Chatsworth, in Derbyshire, is one of the best-known stately homes in England and, in 2011, will be celebrating the 200-year anniversary of the 6th Duke, responsible for much of the art collection and garden design to be seen today. Among the magnificent sights in the 105-acre garden are the 300-year-old Cascade, the huge maze, the Emperor Fountain, the rockery and the rose garden. Prebooked groups of 15 or more are given discounted admission to the house and gardens, and refreshments and tours of the house can be pre-arranged.
In 2010, the Trentham Estate, near Stoke-on-Trent, won an award for its restoration of a (largely vanished) garden created by ‘Capability Brown’ and Charles Barry. The revival of the 10-acre Italian Gardens, overseen by Chelsea Gold Medal winner Tom Stuart-Smith, has resulted in one of the world’s largest plantings of herbaceous perennials, whilst the Rivers of Grass and Floral Labyrinth gardens were created by the legendary Dutch designer Piet Oudolf. Elsewhere on the 725-acre estate are woodlands, a monkey forest, shopping village and garden centre. Groups must pre-book to gain discounts for 12 or more people and may also pre-arrange a garden introduction or tour.
English Heritage’s Kenilworth Castle, in Warwickshire, boasts a garden that was originally created by Robert Dudley to impress Queen Elizabeth I. Today’s visitors can benefit from a recreation of an Elizabethan garden on a scale never seen before. It was re-opened in 2009 and visitors can take a guided tour of the fountain, aviary (in Dudley’s time, bedecked with jewels), plants and statuary. There is a 15% discount for groups of 11 or more, with free entry for the group leader. Advance booking of at least two weeks is required.

Outside Audley End

Outside Audley End

The east

The gardens of Audley End, a grand Jacobean mansion in Essex, now belonging to English Heritage, include ornamental garden buildings by Robert Adam, parkland laid out by ‘Capability’ Brown, a parterre, organic kitchen garden and Pond Garden, with walls clad by roses. There is a 15% discount for groups of 11 or more, with free entry for the group leader. Guided tours of the house are available, inclusive in the admission fee; advance booking is required.
On a very different scale, but no less impressive, are the Beth Chatto Gardens, near Colchester, first created in 1960 on wasteland with difficult growing conditions.
Here you can appreciate the principle of growing with nature rather than trying to overcome it, with a drought-resistant garden that has never been watered, despite annual average rainfall of only 50 centimetres in the driest area in Britain. Groups of 25 or more benefit from a discount and guided tours are given for up to 30 people at a time; booking well in advance is essential.
The National Trust’s Wimpole Estate, near Royston, boasts Cambridgeshire’s finest country house and its land attracted, in turn, both ‘Capability’ Brown and Humphry Repton. Today, you can find magnificent trees from many parts of the world, lakes created by Brown, a parterre, a Dutch garden and a recently restored Walled Garden with a glasshouse recreated from the 18th century design by Sir John Soane. Groups of up to 30 people at a time can take guided tours of the garden. All coach parties must book ahead.

A view across the pond to Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Gardens

A view across the pond to Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Gardens

The north

At Renishaw Hall and Gardens near Sheffield, family home of the Sitwells, visitors can enjoy formal Italianate gardens with yew hedges, secret garden rooms and fine antique statuary as well as a profusion of English herbaceous borders. Pre-booked tours of the garden, for a minimum of 20 people, are available on selected days; the refreshment package includes tea and biscuits before the tour, lunch and then afternoon tea as well so you can enjoy the whole day here. A discount on the admission fee is given to groups.

In North Yorkshire, The National Trust’s Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Gardens are a breathtaking sight, with dramatic abbey ruins and a Georgian water garden with Neo-Classical temples, statues and follies, set against the backdrop of the Skell Valley. There are a range of tours to choose from and group discounts are on a sliding scale; tables in the restaurant may be reserved and meals pre-ordered for groups of 20 or more. Pre-booking is essential for all groups.

The Walled Garden at Scampston Hall in Yorkshire

The Walled Garden at Scampston Hall in Yorkshire

Scampston Hall is one of the finest country houses Yorkshire has to offer and its Walled Garden offers a contemporary design conceived by the influential Dutch plantsman Piet Oudolf, famed for his use of ornamental grasses and perennial meadow planting. For those who also enjoy a more traditional approach, there is the Rock Garden, Woodland Garden and parkland laid out by ‘Capability’ Brown. Groups of 15 plus gain discounted admission fees, free entry for the leader and group rates in the restaurant for pre-booked parties.
In Cumbria, Muncaster Castle is famed for its 77 acres of woodland gardens, described as ‘the Gateway to Paradise’ by John Ruskin. As well as the splendid gardens, there are views along the Esk Valley to Scafell Pike, daily feedings of the local wild herons, private tours for specialist interests, and a combined ticket for the nearby Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway. All groups must book ahead and 12 is the minimum number for discounts.

Scotland and Wales

The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh was originally founded in the 17th century as a physic garden and now extends to four sites, one a mile north of the city centre, the others at Benmore in Argyll, Dawyck in the Borders and Logan in Galloway. At Edinburgh, sights include the Scottish Heath Garden, 165-metre Herbaceous Border and Victorian Temperate Palm House. Guided and themed tours are available; admission to the garden is free.

The approach to Muncaster Castle

The approach to Muncaster Castle

In Wales, The National Trust’s Bodnant Garden has one of the most spectacular garden locations in the world, located above the River Conwy in a steep-sided valley with views to Snowdonia. On the upper level are huge Italianate terraces, with a waterfall down to the valley below and stunning collections of rhododendrons, azaleas and camellias; summer flowering comes from herbaceous borders, roses, hydrangeas and much else. Groups must book ahead; 15 or more people benefit from discounted admission and an onboard coach welcome.

The National Trust’s Powis Castle and Garden, near Welshpool, is another world famous garden beneath a towering medieval castle. Here, there are French and Italian influences, with clipped yews, original lead statues, an orangery, aviary and woodland walk. Guided tours are available, including an out-of-hours option. Groups can reserve tables in the restaurant and receive a discount on the admission fee for 15 or more people; prebooking is essential.