The joy of gardens

Exploing the gardens at Blenheim Palace.

In our annual round-up, Christophe Philipps takes a closer look at some of the best gardens the UK has to offer.

In our regular garden and flower show special, we explore some of the options open to groups when arranging their next horticultural visit. For enthusiasts in particular, there are specialist tours available at many of Britain’s gardens too.

The giant water lily pads at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.

The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in Richmond house the world’s largest collection of plants. From its humble beginnings in 1758, Kew is now a 326-acre UNESCO World Heritage Site, and boasts seven glasshouses that recreate a
wide range of horticultural habitats. Of these, the Palm House, home to an exotic rainforest, is perhaps the most famous. The Temperate House, meanwhile, is the largest Victorian glasshouse in the world, while visitors can journey through ten climatic zones in the Prince of Wales Conservatory. Another popular draw is the giant water lily pads, as well as a stroll along the Xstrata Treetop Walkway. For an introduction to the gardens, groups can hop on and off the Kew Explorer land train, or pre-book guided tours exploring the collections and revealing the conservation work Kew does today. Throughout the year, the site hosts special exhibitions, with summer 2013 seeing the ‘Incredible Edibles’ season exploring the wealth of edible native and exotic plants found in the gardens.

Eltham Palace Bridge

The tranquil grounds of Eltham Palace.

English Heritage’s Eltham Palace and Gardens in Greenwich boasts 19 acres of grounds featuring herbaceous borders, a sunken rose garden and a series of garden ‘rooms’.  The garden bursts into colour with spring bulbs and wisteria pergola in summer. Groups or 11 people or more receive a 15% discount, as at most English Heritage sites, and can take a guided tour of the palace and grounds.

The Savill Garden in Windsor Great Park is run by the Crown Estate, and boasts 35 acres of ornamental gardens, meadows and woods, including National Collections and international species, providing a wealth of beauty and interest throughout the seasons. Of particular note are the daffodil and azalea blooms in spring and the double herbaceous borders of the Golden Jubilee Garden in summer. Also in summer, the new Rose Garden blooms, with the species specially chosen for their scent and repeat flowering. The result is a striking intensity of perfumes and colour. New for 2013, groups can enjoy over 200 hydrangea cultivars as they peak in Summer Wood during August, representing one of the most diverse collections in the country. Groups of 10 or more people can pre-book ‘The Royal Garden and River Boat Cruise’, combining a visit to The Savill Garden with a boat trip on the River Thames.

First established in the 13th century, the 30 acres at Capel Manor in Enfield boast over 60 landscapes, model gardens and historical gardens, many of which have won medals at the Chelsea Flower Show over the years. Introduced in 2012, the 44-acre Australian Garden is a recreation of the 2011 Chelsea Flower Show Gold Medal winner designed by Jim Fogarty, and gives a snapshot of the diversity of Australia’s flora, telling the story of the journey of water from Australia’s outback to the east coast. Features include salt sculptures backed by a sand dune wall, evoking the harsh landscape of the outback, and a rusted steel wall and water cascade representing the inland gorges where only the presence of water makes life possible. A programme of exhibitions, musical and theatrical events, and gardening shows runs year-round, while guided walks can be pre-booked.



In East Sussex, Pashley Manor Gardens offers a blend of formal gardens, romantic landscaping, stately old trees, waterfalls, fountains and large ponds against the backdrop of a Tudor manor once owned by the Boleyn family. The box-hedged rose garden, sweeping herbaceous borders and an espaliered pear tree walk are popular features, while the garden specialises in varied collections of tulips, roses and lilies. Seasonal highlights include the carpet of bluebells found in April and May, while June and July see the gardens erupt with colour from rose and lily blooms. The garden has teamed up with nearby Great Dixter, Merriments Garden and Nursery, Biddenden Vineyards and Sissinghurst Castle Garden to offer groups a full day out. Tours of the garden led by either the owner or the head gardener can be pre-booked, as well as short talks giving a brief history of the house and gardens. Prices are held from 2012, with groups of 15 or more
offered discounts.

Located near Rye in East Sussex, Great Dixter is a Tudor house with a famous 20th century Arts and Crafts garden, with topiary, mixed borders, an Exotic Garden, Long Border, High Garden, and the Barn and Sunk Gardens. Groups of 15 people or more can book tours taking in the house as well as the garden, or the grounds alone.

The Italian Garden at Borde Hill Garden.

Near Haywards Heath, West Sussex, Borde Hill Garden boasts 17 acres of formal gardens set within 200 acres of parkland, and is home to over 8,000 trees and shrubs. The Grade II-listed Borde Hill House was built in 1598 from the local sandstone, and today forms the heart of the formal gardens. The garden was created over 120 years ago and today has around 80 champion trees and deciduous azaleas that transform the area with colour during May. From the Lower Terrace, meanwhile, visitors can enjoy views of the Italian Garden, the South Park and the lakes. Ready to bloom in 2013, over 700 plants have been added to Paradise Walk, which links the east and west area of the garden leading to the Round Dell. Groups visiting during summer can enjoy a host of special events, including a tour of the Elizabethan mansion followed by a cream tea and an open-air concert.

Enjoying a stroll through Exbury Gardens.

Near Beaulieu in the New Forest, Exbury Gardens extends over 200 acres, with collections of flowering plants, rare trees and shrubs. In spring, the woodland garden blooms with primrose, while in the Rock and Heather gardens, camellias and magnolias hit their peak. The Daffodil Meadow, meanwhile, is of special scientific importance. Groups of 15 or more people are offered guided tours of the garden.

Set in over 500 acres of pretty parkland, Leeds Castle near Maidstone in Kent makes for a lovely group visit. A moated 900-year-old castle gives way to woodland and formal gardens, such as the quintessentially English Culpeper Garden and the Mediterrannean terraced Lady Baillie Garden with exotic and sub-tropical flowers and plants. Groups of 15 or more receive discounted entry and can pre-book guided tours of the grounds alone or of the castle and grounds.

Loselely Park in Guildford is situated in 1,400 acres of rolling countryside around a beautiful Elizabethan manor house. The Walled Garden covers two and a half acres and is divided into ‘rooms’, each with its own planting scheme and personality. The Rose Garden, meanwhile, is planted with over one thousand bushes and framed by box hedges. Also popular is the Flower Garden; its combination of traditional herbaceous mixed shrubs set off by annual bulbs build to a fiery display. For flora with a culinary twist, the Herb Garden contains over 200 plants, while the Organic Vegetable Garden contains unusual varieties. Also worth seeking out is the White Garden, which contrasts stunning blooms with subtle silver and grey foliage. Guided tours of the Walled Garden are available to groups numbering 10 or more people.

Near Oxford, Blenheim Palace and Formal Gardens was the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill.  Set in 2,100 acres of parkland landscaped by ‘Capability’ Brown in 1764, the exquisite Baroque palace is surrounded by sweeping lawns, formal gardens and a magnificent lake, all of which were created in the classic English Landscape Garden style. The estate was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987. Two striking features are the great parterre and the 41-metre Column of Victory, which commemorates the Duke of Marlborough’s troops at the Battle of Blenheim. A lake damns the River Glyme, and is ornamented by a series of cascades. Successive generations added garden novelties like the ‘swivelling boulder’ and the ‘Temple of Diana’ summerhouse, while a new East Courtyard Visitor Centre opened in summer 2012. The palace also recently introduced a series of new ‘Themed Tours’, several of which explore the grounds, available to groups of 15 people or more.

The stunning gardens at Wrest Park.

In Bedfordshire, Wrest Park  was once a ‘secret garden’, and only transformed into the 90-acre landscape visitors see today in 2011. Now in the care of English Heritage, a two-acre evergreen garden, French Parterre and Italian and Rose gardens will re-open this year.

Picturesque views from the gardens at Knebworth House.

Moving to Stevenage, the 18 garden ‘rooms’ at Knebworth House have displays ranging from daffodils and alliums in spring to summer perennials in the long borders. Popular areas include the Gold Garden and the Wilderness, home to a Dinosaur Trail populated by 72 life-size models. Groups of 20 or more people can book guided garden tours.

The National Trust also manages a number of sites throughout the south east. The Georgian garden at Stowe in Buckinghamshire has been the inspiration for many a writer. Restoration has ensured that over 40 temples and monuments remain. Mottistone Manor Garden on the Isle of Wight, meanwhile, is set in a sheltered valley with shrub-filled banks, hidden pathways and colourful herbaceous borders. Discounts, benefits and guided tours are offered to groups of 15 or more at most National Trust sites.

The garden at Stourhead near Warminster in Wiltshire was at the forefront of the 18th century English Landscape movement. Today, the 2,650-acre estate is in the care of The National Trust,and boasts temples and follies set around a lake, chalk downs, ancient woods and farmland. Groups are offered an introductory talk.

Painswick Rococo Garden

Painswick Rococo Garden

In the Gloucestershire Cotswolds near Stroud, Painswick Rococo Garden is the only complete Rococo garden in the country, expounding the graceful 18th century ‘Late Baroque’ style with florid detail. Although there is a central Kitchen Garden, the rest of the planting is a natural mix of wildflowers and herbaceous borders, an orchard and woodlands. Groups of 20 or more are given a free introductory talk.

Dating from 1391, Powderham Castle near Exeter in Devon was built by Sir Philip Courtenay and has been the home of the Earl and Countess of Devon ever since. The Woodland Garden is a joy to stroll around, with many exotic species from the Americas coming into bloom in May in particular. September, meanwhile, is another popular time to visit, with the bright colours of the flowers giving way to the muted hues of the trees. At this time too, the herd of  fallow deer begin their rutting season. Visitors keen to get a closer look can book a ‘Deer Safari’, as well as see thousands of migrating birds. The Courtyard Tea Room serves homemade dishes or light lunches, while groups of 15 people or more receive a host of discounts.

Also near Exeter, The National Trust’s Killerton Garden has a Rock Garden that was once a quarry; today, ferns, conifers, tumbled rocks and a basalt column from the Giant’s Causeway have transformed the scene. Also at the garden is a rustic summerhouse known as the Bear’s Hut, an early 18th century deer park pale and a rustic bridge.

Housing a cornucopia of exotic and rare species, the biomes of the Eden Project near St Austell in Cornwall are popular with groups year-round. The 27 acres of outside gardens peak in summer, with foxgloves, delphiniums and sweat peas coming into bloom, while in September, the Global Gardens allotments are filled with ripening produce. In the winter months, guided tours through the biomes keep the chill at bay.

Near Falmouth in Cornwall, Trebah Garden is a sub-tropical paradise with a stunning coastal backdrop. In early spring, the garden comes alive with 100-year-old magnolias, camellias and rhododendrons; in summer, the giant gunnera is a must-see, while in autumn, Hydrangea Valley bursts into blue and white blooms. In winter, champion trees dominate the landscape and plants from the southern hemisphere  flower. Discounted rates are offered to pre-booked groups of 12 or more people.

Also in Cornwall, the Lost Gardens of Heligan near Mevagissey date back to 1766, but became ‘lost’ from 1914 to the early 1990s, when they were  rediscovered and restored to their former glory. Today,  over 200 acres are ripe for exploration, including Victorian Productive Gardens, romantic Pleasure Grounds and a lush sub-tropical Jungle. Groups of 10 or more are offered discounts and guided talks.



The Beth Chatto Gardens in Colchester, Essex offer a wide variety of horticultural landscapes to enjoy including woodlands, a reservoir and scree gardens, as well as its famous Gravel Garden. Pre-booked tours explore the gardens’ history and collections.

Admiring a water feature at Audley End House and Gardens.

Near the Cambridgeshire border, Audley End House &  Gardens is a Jacobean stately home managed by English Heritage. Surrounding the house are parklands and pastoral grounds with ornamental features such as the Tea House Bridge, Temple Concord and a 19th century parterre.

Moving to Chelmsford, RHS Garden Hyde Hall boasts a number of different vistas to enjoy. The Hilltop Garden offers lovely views of the new lake, as well as of the countryside beyond. The Dry Garden, meanwhile, was recently extended to almost double its original size. The Courtyard Gardens include two gardens, one of which follows a traditional design, the other a modern take on a cottage garden.

The Italianate gardens at Ickworth House in Bury St Edmonds were created by the First Marquess of Bristol  in the 19th century. Now in the care of The National Trust, the garden has views of the parklands from a raised terrace.

Rockingham Castle in Northamptonshire  stands on the edge of an escarpment giving dramatic views over five counties and the Welland Valley below. Built by William the Conqueror, the castle is surrounded by 18 acres of gardens that largely follow the footprint of the castle. A 400-year-old ‘Elephant Hedge’ dissects the 17th century terraced gardens, while a yew hedge stands on the site of the mot and bailey. A new garden has been created by Chelsea Gold Medallist Robert Myers, with radial hedges and pillars providing walkways within a series of garden ‘rooms’. Groups can also enjoy guided tours bringing to life the history of the estate, with the option of Candelight Supper, Civil War Costume or Garden tours.

Also in Northamptonshire, Althorp is a lovely late-18th century house with a serpentine park and Victorian garden. The balustraded formal gardens house a collection of rare tree species, while a charming lake, known as The Round Oval, boasts a summerhouse  dedicated to the memory of Diana, Princess of Wales, who is buried here. Discounted rates and special tours are offered to groups of 12 or more people.

Near Stratford-upon-Avon, Kenilworth Castle &  Elizabethan Garden is managed by English Heritage, and boasts an acclaimed garden originally created to impress Queen Elizabethan I, but which was lost for centuries. Restored and re-opened in 2009, many original features remain, including great arbours, a terrace, fountain, obelisks and a 30-foot aviary.

Boasting gardens inspired by China, Egypt and a Scottish Glen, Biddulph Grange Garden in Staffordshire is one of Britain’s most exciting and unusual gardens. An introductory talk reveals
the collections found in the rhododendron garden and dahlia walk.



The gardens and parklands at Burghley in Lincolnshire were largely designed by ‘Capability’ Brown in the 18th century. Today, sweeping vistas to the spires of Stamford with the backdrop of Burghley House create the perfect canvas for open-air classical concerts, events and quiet strolls. Popular with groups is the Garden of Surprises, which features ornamental displays such as a Copper Tree Fountain, Mirror Tree, Longitudinal Dial and a collection of convex and concave mirrors. In the Sculpture Garden, shrubs and trees form archways and external rooms where discreetly hidden sculptures can be found. Annual exhibitions of sculptures run from April to October along with permanent pieces, which can be viewed all year round, including a maze. Discounts and guided tours are available for groups of 20 or more.

Near Bakewell in Derbyshire, the 105 acres of gardens at Chatsworth were first cultivated over 450 years ago. Today, there is plenty to discover including permanent sculptures, a  waterworks featuring a 300-year-old cascade, a trough waterfall in the rockery and the enormous, gravity-fed Emperor Fountain, as well as a maze, and rose, cottage and kitchen gardens. There are also over five miles of walks with rare trees, shrubs, streams and ponds to enjoy. Discounts and audio tours are available for pre-booked groups of 15 people or more.

Brodsworth Hall and Gardens.

Further north, Brodsworth Hall & Gardens in South Yorkshire has undergone radical restoration to return it to its 1890s glory. Now in the care of English Heritage, a three-tiered Italian marble ‘Dolphin Fountain’ forms the centrepiece of the lawns while, elsewhere, a collection of grand gardens in miniature have been restored to their full Victorian splendour, and feature a colourful array of seasonal displays.

Located on the outskirts of Harrogate, RHS Harlow Carr captures the essence of Yorkshire within a beautiful garden setting, with water features, dry stone walls, wooded areas and a collection of garden ornaments that evoke the surrounding landscapes. Perhaps the best time of year to visit is during July, when the borders come alive with colour and life, and insect pollinators get busy. Groups of 10 or more receive a host of discounts and benefits.

Fountain’s Abbey and Studley Royal Water Garden, also in North Yorkshire, is a World Heritage Site run by The National Trust, and boasts the extensive ruins of a Cistercian abbey, elegant temples, neo-classical statues, canals and moon-shaped ponds. A particular highlight is the ‘Surprise View’, an unforgettable panorama of the far-off abbey ruins as seen from the Water Garden. An ‘Abbey and Garden’ tour is offered to groups of 16 or more people.

In Northumberland, The Alnwick Garden boasts a tranquil cherry orchard, a Grand Cascade and a bamboo labyrinth, as well as a Serpent Garden complete with water sculptures and one of the world’s largest tree houses. There’s also an ornamental garden with pathways bordered by lavender and fruit trees; at its centre lies a bubbling pool that spills into two small secret gardens brimming with bedding roses and delphiniums. Groups of 14 or more people receive discounted entry.


Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland

Established in 1670, the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) is a world-renowned centre for the scientific study of plants, their diversity and conservation, with over 70 landscaped acres providing a tranquil haven one mile from the city centre. The Tropical Palm House, built in 1834, and the Temperate Palm House, built in 1862, are just two of the highlights of the 25 glasshouses found here. Springtime is probably the most exciting season at the garden as its famous rhododendrons burst into colour. Also worth seeing is the snowdrop tree from the US, which has twigs hung with white bells resembling snowdrops. In summer, the herbaceous borders provide flushes of colour, while perennials such as lupins and phlox thrive. The ponds in the glasshouses are also at their best in summer, with exotic lotus, tropical water lilies and giant Victoria water lilies. Discounts and guided tours are offered to groups of 10 or more.

The RBGE also manages three other gardens in Scotland. On the south-western tip of Scotland in Dumfries and Galloway, Logan has collections of exotic species that thrive due to warm waters brought by the Gulf Stream while, in the Scottish Borders, Dawyck is one of the world’s finest arboreta and features seasonal displays of exotic and native plants. Benmore in Argyll, meanwhile, boasts impressive collections found in Great Redwood Avenue. Groups of 11 or more receive a 10% discount at the RBGE’s Logan, Dawyck and Benmore sites.

For groups visiting Wales, the National Botanic Garden of Wales in Carmarthenshire features lakes linked by pathways as well as a Tropical House, an historic Double Walled Garden, and Wild, Bog, Japanese and Boulder gardens. The Great Glasshouse has one of the best collections of Mediterranean plants in the northern hemisphere. Groups of 10 or more people receive discounted entry, while groups of 20 or more can pre-book guided tours.

Mount Stewart House, Garden and Temple of the Winds in County Down, Northern Ireland is one of the most unusual gardens in The National Trust’s collection. The mild climate of Strangford Lough allows high levels of planting experimentation, while the formal areas resemble an Italian villa landscape. The wooded areas, meanwhile, are home to flora from all over the world.

Also in the region,  Rowallane Garden was created in the mid-1860s by the Reverend John Moore to reflect the natural landscape of the surrounding area, with spectacular rhododendron displays and wildflower meadows. It is also home to a natural Rock Garden Wood and a Walled Garden packed with herbaceous plants, shrubs and bulbs. Discounted entry is offered to groups of 11 or more people.