I love visiting world-class gardens. Garden visits offer much in the way of sense-stimulating experiences to inspire the features, plants and planting arrangements that we choose for our own gardens (and allotments). Nothing is quite as relaxing as sitting on a bench in a quiet corner of floral paradise with only the buzzing bees for company. Time passes slowly in such moments and meditation comes accidentally (as it should). With the sun on your face there really is no better place in the world to be. Whatever your interpretation of ‘God’ I think the poet Dorothy Frances Gurney put it best when she wrote ‘One is nearer God’s heart in a garden. Than anywhere else on earth.’
Typically the perfect garden experience for me uses ‘rooms’ to separate out the different planting styles and themes. Garden rooms present multiple experiences whilst allowing a wandering visitor to feel continually isolated and private, this can be particularly important when visiting a public garden on a busy day. Ancient crumbling walls and seemingly impenetrable hedges provide safety and security for the anxious mind; a buffer against the disquieting restlessness of the outside world and a temporary escape from everyday stress. It’s not that I don’t like gardens with wide open spaces, many of our most famous gardens combine both rooms and spaces. Larger gardens can be more child friendly, little ones can be free to run off and perform cartwheels leaving parents to get a temporary taste of freedom for just a few minutes.
As I look ahead to 2018 I am thinking of the gardens I would like to visit or revisit – either alone or with my family. Over the past few years I’ve visited many fantastic gardens and I thought I would put together my current top ten English gardens. For regular readers of my blog it will come as no surprise that I rate Great Dixter at the top of my list. I have been to Dixter on several ‘behind the scenes’ tours and one-day workshops with Fergus and his team. A behind the scenes tour, whilst not inexpensive, is real value for money because you’re allowed inside on a day that Dixter is otherwise closed to the public. In early evening, when other guests have departed, the tranquillity and stunning beauty transmit a healing power unlike any other I have yet experienced.
One of my more recent garden finds has been Coleton Fishacre in Devon (5th on my list below). This National Trust property was recommended to me by a fellow visitor I met at Great Dixter and it really is a hidden gem with a unique valley style micro-climate and tropical planting – tree ferns etc. The views of the coastline on offer at various benches around Coleton Fishacre are truly breathtaking. Despite being a fairly large estate with lots of walking to be done, the tree-lined hills offer personal privacy and moments of peace even on a busy day.
You may be surprised to see that at 7th place RHS Wisley isn’t higher up my top ten, or that Kew Gardens isn’t included. I suppose for me it’s just that those gardens don’t leave me feeling ‘healed’ in the same way as the others. They are interesting in their own right and the planting is second to none with superb gardeners at work, to me they just feel more like school outings and less like journeys into secret garden escapism.
I would love to know which gardens are your favourites, I need ideas for my 2018 visiting schedule, perhaps something that you feel sure will bump some of my existing top ten! Please comment below with your suggestions or tweet me @growlikegrandad.
My Top Ten English Gardens
1. Great Dixter (East Sussex)
2. Hidcote Manor Garden NT (Gloucestershire)
3. The Beth Chatto Gardens (Essex)
4. Sissinghurst Castle Garden NT (Kent)
5. Coleton Fishacre NT (Devon)
6. Nymans NT (West Sussex)
7. RHS Garden, Wisley (Surrey)
8. The Swiss Garden at Shuttleworth (Bedfordshire)
9. Loseley Park (Surrey)
10. Hestercombe (Somerset)