From Chelsea to Syon House and from Cornwall to Dollis Hill, Robin Dutt finds much to enjoy.
Perhaps it is not so much in spite but because of the fact that the UK is comparatively small that it boasts the best gardens in the world. The unspoken intent, it seems, is to make our islands explode with green spaces, informed by bolts of colour wherever one cares to roam. It literally is a case of sticking a pin in a map of the kingdom and, closer than you think, you will be assured a green space, manicured gardens, wild forests and woods or country house landscaping to visit – and catch up with yourself. And London is no exception whether north, south, east or west it is impossible to say what is best due to the individuality, variety and history.
Recently, possibly the world’s favourite garden and flower show, Chelsea, attracted a vast, international crowd and, once again, it demonstrated just why it is the agreed go-to destination in spring. A favourite of the Royals, of course, this year’s classic and ambitious garden designs reflected the imagination of gardeners with the flair of the most talented artists. It is worth remembering what the 18th century poet Alexander Pope once said: “All gardening is landscape painting.”
Every garden to discover is a reminder in so many ways of the harmony of nature and is a delicious assault on the senses – the visual brilliance of flora, the sonic reassurance of visiting bees and wildlife, the touch, the smell – all inspirations for painters, fabric designers and ceramicists for example. Flora and fauna are constant fashion and style inspirations regardless of season. Many visitors, particularly to this year’s Chelsea Flower Show, wore floral outfits to match the displays and Ascot was not without bursts of blooms on chic ensembles – especially in the hat department. No change there. Flowers and foliage interpreted in silks and cottons seem to reassure – to borrow the unconscious beauty of nature is a natural desire. Recently, First Lady Melania Trump opted for a lavish and tasteful Dolce & Gabbana coat lavished with jewel-hued handmade blooms. Even Theresa May singled Gertrude Jekyll, the early female garden pioneer as one of her wish list supper guests.
Chelsea may be over for another year, but there is still a panoply of gardens to visit this summer and well into autumn, even winter, the better to experience the changing faces of the seasons – each with its own special charm.
Consider London’s Syon House, Eltham Palace, Hampton Court, Blenheim Palace or Charlton Peace Garden for inspiration, or the internationally renowned Kew Gardens boasting over 30,000 plants set in 300 acres and with several conservatories and plant houses including the much loved hot house. It almost feels a delicious discomfort viewing all these living exhibits – viewing without asking!
And stepping out of the capital is a must to visit, for instance, Cornwall’s Eden Project with its enormous Pillow Domes. The largest of the two biomes simulates a rainforest and Mediterranean environment. You might take pleasure in mixing art with natural forms so the Yorkshire Sculpture Park is a must, where a variety of superb contemporary works such as those by the hugely talented Nicholas Moreton may be witnessed as part of a meandering garden walk. Or choose the many castles and palaces in the country such as Falkland Palace in Scotland. The first record of a garden goes back to 1451. The garden team is encouraging a huge variety of insect life by bringing back the meadow.
And speaking of meadows which seem so resolutely English, (perhaps with the poppy seeming to be the first flower one thinks of) many might prefer the untouched, unkempt nature of, well… Nature herself. College Lake, Bucks, Kingcombe, Dorset, Hannah’s Meadow, Durham or Fox Fritillary Meadow in Suffolk are delightful.
The garden at Buckingham Palace, situated at the rear, comprises some 42 acres and includes a 19th century lake, various assorted planting and a mulberry tree from the reign of James I. Plane trees, Indian chestnuts, silver maples and a swamp cypress grace the place. The very natural, unaffected layout is the result of the hard work of some eight or so full time gardeners and a few part-timers.
London being London, you can always expect the unexpected and when it comes to gardens it is much the same. The curious, eccentric 33 Wood Vale can be found in Muswell Hill, hidden behind a deco terrace, boasting a fifth of an acre garden, open under the National Garden Scheme featuring a vast selection of unexpected, perhaps, Mediterranean and Australasian trees and shrubs – literally because of its size, a jewel of a garden complete with a rockery and bog garden.
Another unusual one is the perfectly manicured uneven square of garden which is part of Gladstone Park in Dollis Hill, NW London. The one time prime minister William Gladstone resided in the mansion which used to sit at the summit of the park (some 86 acres) and from this vantage point, the visitor can survey the scene, which, on a clear day, offers views of Wembley Stadium, Parliament and The Shard. The satirical magazine Private Eye loved to take pot shots at Dollis Hill but the writer Mark Twain visited and had this to say – “I have never seen any place that was so satisfactorily situated with its noble trees and stretch of country…Dollis Hill comes nearer to being a paradise than any other home I have ever occupied.” High praise indeed. Private Eye, take note!