In England, Wandering Down the Garden Path

By Melissa Clark
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 9, 2003

We were ready for our tea. On the eighth day of our British garden tour last June, our group had already visited two sizable plots, and we were spent. But what we found at our third stop, as we came through an arbor covered in clouds of pink roses, immediately revived us.

The partially open wrought-iron gates drew us toward a fountained stone terrace and borders filled with rich shades of violet-blue salvias, yellow foxglove spikes and countless other colorful blooms. Wicker chairs and benches offered views of artfully planted borders. A golden-hued honey locust and evergreen hedges provided a majestic backdrop.

In Persia, where many believe the concept of gardens originated, the word for "paradise" means a walled enclosure. We were in paradise.

Actually, we were at East Leach Manor in England, on a tour of gardens great and small. As a recovered lawyer turned landscape designer in midlife, I reasoned that my right brain needed every bit of inspiration available. What better place to find it than at Sissinghurst, Stourhead or Hidcote, those icons of English garden design?

To my surprise, however, I discovered that although the most famous gardens were 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. Both the American Horticultural Society and Horticulture magazine now offer tours or "travel study" trips to a wide range of destinations in the United States and abroad. I chose a two-week tour in late June that was centered on gardens in south-central England.

Seven 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.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2003 The Washington Post Company