Saturday, July 20, 2019

My English garden visits

Greetings! Last month my family and I spent 2&1/2 weeks in England, and I thought I'd share a few moments from the beautiful English gardens I visited while there.

My trip wasn't all gardens: we traveled with another family we know, and it rained nearly every day we were there (apparently, it was the wettest June on record, with flooding in parts of the country). Both factors meant that I wasn't able to see every garden that I wanted to. But I did manage to make it to some of the most well-known of England's famous gardens.

Please forgive the length of this post, as I'd like to simply share a few photos from each garden in this one post and not write a series of more detailed posts over multiple weeks.


My family flew to London two days before the other family we traveled with, so that we could spend a couple days in Kent before returning to London to meet up with them. We took a train to Maidstone, where we rented a car and drove south to the tiny village of Sissinghurst, where we stayed in an ancient cottage listed on Airbnb.

Driving on the WRONG side of the road was terrifying -- my husband did the driving, but we were all terrified, all the time. And the cottage was picturesque, although the doorways were so low that my poor husband still has scars on his scalp. But it was a great adventure to spend time there, and that's how we were able to visit the first of the gardens on my list (shown in the first photo), the most famous of England's countless gardens, Sissinghurst Castle & Gardens

Here I am standing in the Rondel, the round space shown in the first
photo. The iconic Sissinghurst tower is in the background.

I've read about Sissinghurst and Vita Sackville-West for nearly two decades now, and it was wonderful to finally set foot in this most famous of gardens. This first day of our trip (June 6, my husband's and my 21st anniversary!) was the sunniest, warmest day of our entire two-and-a-half weeks in England, which made our visit to Sissinghurst truly lovely (although it was difficult to get good photos in the bright sunshine).

The rose gardens were at their peak and were the most beautiful flower gardens I've ever seen.

A small corner of the incredibly lush rose gardens.
My pictures don't do the rose gardens justice -- every ancient brick wall was covered with climbing roses heavy with bloom; every bed was stuffed full of roses, peonies, delphiniums and other perennials in flower. 

Here I am in a corner of the famous White Garden.

Sissinghurst wasn't as crowded as I had feared it would be on such a beautiful day. There was a coachload
of German tourists and many other visitors, but most had left by mid-afternoon, and by four o'clock, we had
the entire garden nearly to ourselves. It was a magical day, the nicest anniversary we've ever had.

Great Dixter

Because England's 2nd-most famous garden is only 20 miles from Sissinghurst, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to visit Great Dixter while down in Kent. Unfortunately, it rained heavily for nearly our entire visit there, so I didn't enjoy my visit there nearly as much, or appreciate the design and planting of the garden areas as much as I might have, had they been less sodden.

Here I am after the rain briefly stopped, in front of Christopher Lloyd's medieval house (now a museum), with the collection of potted plants that this doorway area is known for.

Rain on the pond in the Sunk Garden, designed by Lloyd's father in 1921.
The Long Border, 330 feet long and 15 feet deep: succession planting on a heroic scale.

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

After returning to London, we met up with our friends at our hotel in the Bloomsbury area of the city and did some sightseeing for the next five days. My husband and I skipped the Tower of London and instead hopped on a train to Kew Gardens, and enjoyed the afternoon's excursion to one of England's largest gardens (330 acres of gardens, glasshouses, and a research herbarium that houses the "largest and most diverse botanical and mycological collections in the world"). We couldn't see all 330 acres, but were able to take in most of the highlights of the gardens. Several of those:

In front of the magnificent Palm House, built in the 1840s.

The interior of the Palm House is filled with exotic plants.
Behind the Palm House, the rose garden was in full bloom.
My husband was dwarfed beneath this colossal chestnut-leaved oak. Planted in 1846 by Kew's
first Director, Sir William Hooker, from an acorn collected from the Caucasus region, it stands
over 120 feet tall and is the largest of this species in the British Isles. Kew's arboretum areas
are among the most magnificent in the world.

Regent's Park

My family had a good time at Winston Churchill's war bunker, but since I don't like crowded or underground places, I spent that morning stopping by the Sherlock Holmes Museum on Baker Street, and then walking next door to Regent's Park. I had no idea what the park would be like -- and I found that it's 400 acres of the usual lawns and trees, with Queen Mary's Garden (opened in 1935) at its center. I quite enjoyed walking through the parkland and gardens.

Beautifully landscaped municipal park settings....

Families enjoying the lovely morning....
But then I stumbled on this.
The English sure don't do roses on any sort of small scale, do they? The huge, be-swagged, Rose Garden apparently holds London's largest collection of roses -- 12,000 of them, planted in 85 single-variety beds. And that's in addition to the other 18,000 roses planted in other parts of Queen Mary's Garden. And they were nearly all in full bloom when I stumbled on this display. I had no idea that Regent's Park is famous for its roses, so this really was quite a surprise to come upon so unexpectedly. A wonderful surprise!

Thornbury Castle Gardens

After London, we traveled by train to Oxford, then rented a car and drove south to Bath, then west to stay for two nights in Thornbury Castle (now a hotel) near Bristol. The Castle has beautiful gardens -- perhaps not commensurate with National Trust-level gardens, but lovely nonetheless -- and we had the gardens nearly to ourselves, which I think greatly adds to the enjoyment of a garden.

The tower of Thornbury Castle (built in the early 1500s) can be glimpsed beyond this part of the garden, and the ancient walls enclose the entire garden. (I don't think geraniums look this blue in the Midwest -- I don't know if it's the different quality of the light or the moist conditions, but they never look this vibrant in my gardens.)
A bee hive set into one of the ancient garden walls and surrounded by lovely roses.
Matilda, the Castle cat, liked to follow us around to keep an eye on us.

We really enjoyed our stay at Thornbury Castle.


After leaving Thornbury, we drove east to the Cotswolds area, and stayed at an Airbnb in the small village of Bourton-on-the-Hill. I wasn't sure if I'd get a chance to visit Hidcote Gardens, despite staying only 20 minutes away from England's #3-most-famous garden (no accident, that!). But the weather looked to be nice enough, and one morning my husband suggested that the two us drive there while the rest of our traveling companions slept in. I'm so glad we did!

The White Garden at Hidcote.
The famous Red Borders.
Hidcote's Long Borders. Stunningly lovely!
My husband in the area named "Mrs. Winthrop's Garden" by garden creator Lawrence Johnston for his mother.

Hidcote felt like the largest of all the gardens I visited, despite being only 10 acres in size -- but they are 10 mostly intensely-gardened areas and garden rooms, more than 30 in all. The gardens just went on and on, and we actually didn't have time to see all the areas. (It made me tired just thinking about maintaining it all!) But each room was an incredibly beautiful garden in itself, and the whole constitutes a truly great work of art. After Sissinghurst, this was my favorite English garden.

A Few Other Gardens

Being a garden-lover, and in England, I managed to find many other garden spots to enjoy while there, but this blog post is long enough already, so here are just a few last highlights:

Bourton House Garden was literally two blocks away from our Cotswolds cottage, so we all walked over on the last morning before our trip back to London to fly home. It was a wonderful garden, a hidden gem filled with topiary, garden rooms, exotic plants and a high outlook over the Cotswolds. Very enjoyable.

Chastleton House is a fascinating country house that was built in the early 1600s, which successive owners never had the money to completely remodel or update, so, unusually, most of the rooms still reflect their original design. In 1991 it was given to the National Trust, which made the controversial decision to leave it in pretty much "as-is" condition, reflecting how people lived in it during the 19th and 20th centuries. The gardens, however, have recently been restored to their 1830s layout and 1920s planting design (while the topiary in the area above is at least a century old, the flower beds had been turfed over in the mid-20th century, and were only re-planted in the concentric beds this spring).
The transportation center in Bath had this imaginative display... well as this jasmine-woven wicker chair. Heavenly!
Finally, this garden is actually a one-ninth-scale replica of the tourist village of Bourton-on-the-Water (not to be confused with the village where we stayed, Bourton-on-the-Hill). We were excited to see a model village after watching the movie "Hot Fuzz," in which a model village featured prominently in the film's sinister village. (This model village wasn't sinister at all, and was actually pretty fun to see!)

My family and I had a good time seeing places in England that we've been reading about or watching on television. As a garden enthusiast, I was so happy to finally visit a few lovely English gardens, and despite the rain, I greatly enjoyed every garden I saw.

But it's good to be back home (and the weeds certainly didn't wait for me!). It seemed strange that it was almost July already and 90°F, when it was barely June and rainy when we left. Since it was rainy with temperatures in the 60s most of the time we were in England, I've only slowly become acclimated to our Midwestern heat (hot & windy, with temps near 100°F this weekend!)

I've been incredibly busy since our return getting ready for last weekend's Open Gardens Weekend, a new event for our local public beautification charity, Project GREEN. My garden wasn't open, but I was chair of the event, and since we haven't done it this way before (any garden can open, and attending the event is free, sponsored by local businesses), we're still figuring things out. But now that it's over for this year, I can relax a bit and rest up from traveling and everything else.

It's truly good to be back home, and I hope you've enjoyed seeing a few of the gardens I was lucky enough to visit in England. Thanks for reading! -Beth