Gorgeous Gardens of the UK

Feb 23rd, 2016 Cultural Experiences, Natural Wonders, Popular Destinations, Seasonal Travel

“Go green” and visit these lush landscapes

A recent National Trust survey found that when it comes to gardens, more than 70% of Brits felt it was important to spend time in their garden, and more than half of those said it was the most enjoyable thing they did.

According to The Scotsman (Scotland’s national newspaper), it was actually the conquering/invading Romans who “really enriched our gardens by surrounding their villas with clipped box hedging, introducing lawns, large trees, roses, mallows and many other plants.”

Regardless of when (or how) people in the U.K. came to love their gardens—love them, they do. Private gardens are plentiful but, alas, it’s tough to score an invite to those. Luckily, there are hundreds of lovely public gardens to meander through. Here are a few worth visiting:

East Sussex, England – Romantic English Country Garden

Great Dixter
The house and gardens of Great Dixter in East Sussex
Photo Credit: Tom Lee

In the small village of Northiam, tucked into England’s southeastern corner, romantics will find quintessential English country delight at Great Dixter, the property purchased by author Nathaniel Lloyd in 1910. His estate came with a 15th-century Tudor house and surrounding land that held only a smattering of trees. The new owner and his son, noted British horticulturalist Christopher Lloyd, then transformed the estate into a glorious 20th-century Arts and Grafts treasure.

Designed for the most part by renowned architect Edwin Lutyens—who insisted on using local materials to retain the nostalgic and picturesque feel of the countryside—the gardens incorporate cow sheds, cattle drinking tanks, chicken coops and decorative tile. With the Tudor house serving as backdrop, the superb garden is a wonder to behold and in a constant state of flux. Planted and maintained by the Lloyds without set linear patterns or color schemes, the garden showcases a natural, fluid grace that exudes the spirit of a gardener’s whimsy and creative experimentation, to which the late Christopher Lloyd devoted his life. Wander through meadow and kitchen gardens, mixed borders, exotics, perennials, annuals and biennials framed by vines, topiaries, hedges and shrubs, all growing together to form a splendid tapestry of English romance. Restored in 1911 just after its purchase, the Tudor house contains one of the largest surviving medieval timber-framed halls in England and is well worth a visit for a walk into Old English history.

Kent, England – The Castle Roses

Great Dixter
Sissinghurst Gardens
Photo Credit: Tony Hisgett

Literally salvaged from ruin, Sissinghurst Castle Gardens came to flower when writer/diplomat Harold Nicolson and his novelist/gardener wife Vita Sackville-West purchased the wilting estate in 1930. Set in the Kentish Weald, an area of bucolic villages and farms in southeast England, the Elizabethan house (1560-70), towers and moat on the premises had suffered from 300 years of neglect. Harold, the classicist, took on the task of designing the garden’s layout using the existing walls and structures left from the past and adding hedges to create “rooms” (a series of 10 intimate enclosures). Vita, the romantic, in turn planted the gardens to elicit surprise.

The story of the roses began when Vita purportedly found an old Gallica rose as she began transforming the neglected garden in 1947. This maroon-crimson variety is now called the Sissinghurst Castle Rose and lives on site with hundreds of others. Named the finest in the country, Sissinghurst’s roses are legendary for their summer spectacle of bloom. The famous Sissinghurst rose pruning technique stimulates prolific flowering and brings legions of rose enthusiasts to see the flowers emerge in cascades of grandeur. Roam through the roses and breathe in the fragrance of climbers, ramblers, border shrubs and container roses. Then continue on to Sissinghurst’s nine other gardens, linked by long walkways, gates, openings and garden doors. The renowned White Garden—the estate’s original Rose Garden—popularized the color-scheme planting design philosophy of Gertrude Jekyll (legendary English horticulturalist) and reveals its full splendor in early July. A footpath from the village of Sissinghurst to the gardens travels through a magical English woodland with bounding rabbits and carpets of bluebells from about April to May. During spring you can watch gardeners pruning and training the roses to entice their summer profusion.

Wiltshire, England – Classic English Landscape Garden

Great Dixter
The Cotswolds
Photo Credit: Herry Lawford

A visit to the Cotswolds is sure to inspire outdoor delight. The scenic area west of London borders Oxford, Bath and Straford-upon-Avon and features enchanting villages and manors built of local limestone, complemented by gentle hillsides and glorious gardens blessed by a temperate climate. Besides putting such splendid gardens as Hidcote Manor and Rousham House on your Cotswold itinerary, plan a stop at Stourhead, located in Stourton about 30 minutes south of Bath. This expansive property best illuminates the school of English Landscape Gardening that flourished in the 18th century and brought forth the country’s great gardens and parks.

Inspired by the 17th-century landscape painters, leading figures of the English landscape movement broke the tradition of formalism and moved toward naturalism in garden design. Their vast, informal gardens and parks incorporated open and closed spaces, natural rolling pastures, lakes and woodland with classical “incidents”—elements from Greece, Rome or Asia like miniature temples and pagodas. These so-called incidents were constructed as focal points for vistas or inviting resting places along graceful walkways. Laid-out by banking heir Henry Hoare II in the 1740s, Stourhead includes 2,650 acres of ancient woods, vistas, farmland, grottoes and a lake. It is probably the period’s best surviving pleasure garden—a fact not lost on filmmakers. Its Temple of Apollo and Palladian Bridge were used as settings for Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice (2005). While the on-site mansion is filled with family history, a unique library, Chippendale furniture and artwork, the garden is filled with landscape treasures. Late spring brings flowering bulbs, followed by spectacular rhododendrons and azaleas in early summer, while autumn showcases beautiful foliage. Take at least two hours to stroll the gardens.

Dumfries, Scotland – Garden of the Shifting Paradigm

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Snail Mound and Snake Mound at the Garden of Cosmic Speculation
Photo Credit: John Lord

An 18-year work of labor by artist and architect Charles Jencks and his wife Maggie, the alluring Garden of Cosmic Speculation stirs fascination for its exclusivity alone–it opens to the public only one spring afternoon each year. However, the utterly unique and enthralling landscape design makes this a journey worth the effort. With a degree in English literature from Harvard, a Masters in architecture and a Ph.D. in architectural history, Charles is well versed in structure, while his wife focused on innovative design. Shunning the modular and repetitive behemoths of modernism, Jencks’ view presents a shifting paradigm that offers pleasurable variety. Use of wave forms, curves, fractals and a desire to understand how things relate to the cosmos make for highly compelling design.

Located near Dumfries, just across the border from England, this private garden has over 30 acres made up of overlapping landscapes include spiraling, rolling landforms and terraces; large mounds of earth encircled by paths; abstract sculptures; fences and architectural works fashioned of metal, wood and stone; and prolific water features. Influenced by Chinese garden philosophy, mathematics and science, the landscapes are meant to encourage contemplation and speculation through metaphors designed to engage the senses and a connection to nature and the universe. Gardens, bridges, lakes and structures bearing fascinating names like DNA Garden (a geometric kitchen garden pieced into six sections: five for each of the human senses and the sixth representing intuition); The Garden of Taking Leave of Your Senses (woods filled with noisy crows); and Heaven-Hell (a garden depicting good and evil, birth and life) each provoke deliberation. Contemplate the Universe Cascade (25 jumps of steps representing the universe unfolding) and ponder sculptures like Comet Bridge. If you’ve exhausted your speculative capabilities, simply gaze on the rhododendrons and take in the beauty of spring’s vibrant colors. A local pipe band is on hand for the occasion.

The garden usually opens on the first Sunday of May. To see it, you should plan your journey around the day and arrive early, as local roads become clogged. If you need extra incentive to go, the admission price benefits Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centers. Jenck’s wife Maggie died of cancer in 1995. For more information on Scotland’s Gardens, visit: scotlandsgardens.org

Belfast Botanic Gardens – Weather Or Not

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The Botanic Gardens In Belfast
Photo Credit: William Murphy

You can never be quite sure what the weather will be doing in Northern Ireland, so a visit to an indoor garden makes perfect sense any time of year. This public garden, located in the heart of the city, is home to the Tropical Ravine and Palm House.

Designed by Sir Charles Lanyon (who also contributed to the design of the nearby Queen’s University), the Palm House is a striking architectural masterpiece in curved iron and glass. Completed over the course of 15 years, the greenhouse allowed horticulturalists of the day to integrate advances in plant science into its design. The house contains a variety of tropical plants, hanging baskets and birds of paradise; seasonal displays enhance its year-round appeal.

The Tropical Ravine is noted for its collection of some of the oldest seed plants in existence, as well as orchids, bromeliads, bananas and cinnamon. Built in 1889 under the supervision of the park’s head gardener, Charles McKimm, the garden staff included many unusual species and design aspects including a sunken glen, flowering vines, leaf silhouettes and tree ferns. Some of the plants are extremely valuable, with the tree ferns estimated to be over 150 years old.

Restoration work is being done on the Tropical Ravine to restore it to its former glory, so try to coordinate a visit after its reopening, slated for 2017.

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