Washington Post review, February 9, 2003.
(cont'd from previous pg.)
indeed spectacular, some of the most inspiring
landscapes I encountered were the smaller, private
spaces, like East Leach Manor.
England's 'Yellow Book'
It was the opportunity to see some of these smaller
gardens that led me to join a tour rather than
go on my own. England's famous "yellow book,"
more formally known as "Gardens of England
and Wales Open for Charity," lists private
gardens that are open to the public for a small
fee on select days, as part of the National Gardens
Scheme. I had no clue, however, which ones were
most worth seeing in the limited time I had, much
less how to arrange an itinerary to coordinate
visiting NGS gardens with better-known sites.
Garden tours have become a growing part of the
travel industry in recent years...I chose a two-week
tour in late June that was centered on gardens
in south-central England.
Six of us — a woman from Seattle and two couples
from Chicago and Warrenton, Va. — were met at
Heathrow airport by our guide, who whisked us
away to Tunbridge Wells, an hour's drive southeast
of London. In all, we stayed in four towns, traveling
to Salisbury and the Cotswolds village of Burford
before ending up in Windsor.
Our group was small, but we shared a passion for
gardening and plants that provided plenty of common
ground, even for those of us traveling solo. Our
guide, Laura Southon, kept us organized and on
time, tweaked us about our "Colonial"
background and regaled us during coach rides with
bits of English history that set the stage for
our next stop.
In two weeks, we visited 20 gardens — about two
a day, traveling on a small motor coach with more
than ample space for day bags, cameras, journals
and Laura's on-board library of gardening books
and magazines. The timing of our visits to one
or two of the more famous gardens, such as Sissinghurst
and Hidcote, was predetermined by timed-entry
tickets, and the crowds we encountered in those
venues were often sizable.
Where possible, however, Laura arranged our schedule
so that we entered other large gardens, such as
Great Dixter and Kiftsgate Court, toward the end
of the day. Then we found ourselves enjoying the
grounds in lovely late afternoon light and relative
peace after the busloads of tourists had left.
At Kiftsgate, I ventured down a steeply terraced
area and found myself virtually alone at the edge
of a half-circle pool overlooking a stunning countryside
vista, complete with sheep in the distance.
Private Garden Tours
When it came to the private gardens, we were able
to enjoy most of our visits at a more leisurely
pace. At Old Whyly, a 12th-century manor house
in East Sussex, owner Sarah Burgoyne served us
a wonderful lunch on her brick patio beneath a
loggia covered in ornamental grapevines, blue
clematis and pink New Dawn roses. Before and after
lunch, we wandered through her gardens, which
included towering sapphire blue delphiniums, multicolored
lupines, a pond and weeping silver pear trees.
No one wanted to leave.
Old Whyly isn't one of the NGS gardens open to
the public, so we wouldn't have been able to visit
it unless we were on this tour or had stayed there
during opera season (Glyndebourne Opera is nearby).
We visited four or five other private gardens
that were part of the scheme, but in many cases
at times when the gardens weren't usually open.
In some cases, the owners themselves gave us a
private tour. The photographers among us were
always delighted to be able to get just one more
shot of that double herbaceous border without
a single red-shirted tourist in the way.
At Great Comp, an NGS garden in Kent that we visited
our first day, we were greeted by owner Roderick
Cameron, a spry, white-haired gentleman in his
eighties. He was especially proud of several homemade
"ruins" and walls he had built throughout
the garden, using bricks and stone unearthed while
excavating the soil. They really did add to the
atmosphere of the garden and even inspired one
tour member to start dreaming of similar back-breaking
work on his own turf when he returned home.
Great Comp's meandering paths took us through
meadowlike planting areas as well as traditional
herbaceous borders. It was here that I fell in
love with astrantias, fuss-free starry flowers
whose beauty must be seen up close to be fully
appreciated. They come in a variety of colors
ranging from soft white to claret red, plus they
tolerate shade — my kind of plant.
One unanticipated side effect of seeing so many
gardens at this time of year was that I fell under
the spell of roses. Late June is peak rose season
in Britain, and we spent time at two gardens —
Mottisfont Abbey and David Austin Roses — that
specialize in them, as well as seeing them in
virtually every private garden we visited.
Laura chided me for my hesitancy about growing
them: "You Americans worry too much about
a little black spot. Just mulch them, prune them
and enjoy them."
Another unexpected byproduct of the trip was my
acquisition of Simon, a small but exceedingly
heavy stone pig, from an antiques shop in Burford,
where we spent two nights toward the end of the
trip. I'd wanted a souvenir for my garden but
hadn't expected to fall in love with something
quite so heavy. I justified his addition to my
luggage on the grounds that lugging him around
was roughly equivalent to a daily gym workout
with 20-pound weights, and might help compensate
for the substantial breakfasts we were enjoying
Manors in Bloom
Another highlight was Broughton Castle, the 14th-century
moated manor house that served as Viola's family
home in the film "Shakespeare in Love."
Our tour began with the Great Hall, where the
movie's dance scene was filmed. Past and present
came together with a twist — on the wall above
the fireplace hung suits of armor that we were
allowed to try on, while nearby some of the grandchildren's
wooden pull toys were strewn about.
Lady Saye and Sele, mistress of the castle, met
up with us in the walled rose garden on the south
side, where she was pruning and weeding. "My
Heritage roses don't look anything like the ones
in the catalogue," she sighed. "What
do you think I'm doing wrong? And must I really
dig out all the old soil to plant a new rosebush?"
Sadly, Laura said she thought so, and we all cringed
at the thought of the labor involved.
At East Leach Manor, near Barnsley House, owner
Stephanie Rogers led the way. We explored a rill
surrounded by a rainbow of color-themed flower
borders and passed through those enchanted iron
gates to take in the glories of her walled garden,
complete with a blue bench in the corner whose
color was matched perfectly by clematis just visible
over its back.
One of our last stops was Brook Cottage, where
seventysomething owner Katherine Hodges still
tends the four-acre garden she and her husband
created over a 20-year span. There I saw firsthand
what keeps these kinds of gardens going strong:
Katherine heading to the "white border,"
wearing gloves and pushing a wheelbarrow, for
some work among the perennials.
Toward the end of the trip, over lunch in our
16th-century Cotswold village hotel, the Bay Tree
Inn, we debated which of the private gardens we
had liked the best. I voted for East Leach, but
another tour member said she'd found it "too
perfect" and that she preferred Rodmarton
Manor, an Arts and Crafts house whose gardens
had seemed to her more human and "messier."
We all agreed, however, that the chance to explore
the private gardens had been the highlight of
Back at home, I've drawn on what I saw in England
for design and planting concepts. I've planted
three kinds of astrantias and shrubby cobalt-blue
clematis. Who knows? I may even venture into rose
Melissa Clark is a landscape designer and writer
who lives in Chevy Chase.
Manor," an Arts & Crafts house with a "more
human" garden. Photo: Melissa Clark