What is it’, it has often been asked, ‘that makes the gardens of Britain the best in the world?’ I have been asked that question many times and my answer is always the same – quality, diversity and . . . our climate.
Let us take quality first. The plan of a garden is composed of several different elements: lawns, hedges, borders, shrubberies, a and a kitchen garden. It takes knowledge, skill, affection and patience to create any of these separate elements to perfection. The British excel at making and maintaining lawns – and the climate helps. Nowhere in the world are there lawns such as we have in Britain, and their lawns are one of the few things that the British are not tiresomely modest about. Hedges? We have the best hedges, too, because we know what to plant, other than privet or laurel; and clipping and tailoring hedges is a national passion. Our borders are better planned than any one sees abroad, and they are filled with a wider selection of plants. It is the same with our shrubberies, and there are more different shrubs and trees grown in our British gardens than in the whole of America. A garden can hardly be described as a garden if it has no — how true is the saying ‘Who loves a garden, loves a greenhouse too’. A British greenhouse may not intrinsically be better than an American or French one, but you may be sure that it will be stocked with more interesting plants, and a wider range of infant vegetables. So much for quality.
British gardeners garden in more different ways than those in other countries. In France, where there are the greatest gardens in the world, for we have nothing to compare with Versailles, there are really only two kinds of garden -the formal garden inspired, though sometimes on a tiny scale, by Versailles, or the potager: for the French love their vegetables, and though they may cook them better, they do not necessarily grow them better than we do. In Germany and Italy it is much the same – a few Baroque gardens of the greatest splendour but next to nothing on the manor house or rectory, let alone cottage, scale. In America the cypress gardens of the south are unique in their impressive beauty, but herbaceous borders, the well stocked shrubbery, the natural garden, or the streamside garden are very rare.
In Britain we have all these and more. We have the best herbaceous borders in the world – no doubt of that, if we only glance at the garden at Bampton Manor, Great Dixter, or at Nymans. We have the finest shrub gardens imaginable: Nymans again, or Bodnant, or Wakehurst. The topiary garden at Levens is probably the most impressive in the world, and for gardens of rare plants we need look no further than the extraordinary Tresco in the Scilly Isles.
For grandeur we may not be able to claim a garden equal to Versailles or Vaux le Vicomte, but the gardens at Powis Castle, at Chatsworth, or at Hampton Court are nothing to be ashamed of, and all three are without the slightly daunting quality of the giant lay-outs of Le Notre. And in all three of the ‘grand’ British gardens I have cited, the planting is of the greatest interest. The plants at Versailles or Vaux, though they may, in the mass, make an impressive blaze, are individually a common lot. Dusty Millers (Cineraria maritima) by the thousand, red salvias, white alyssum and blue lobelias are hardly plants of quality.
Lastly, our climate. We may complain about it incessantly, foreigners may joke about it, its vagaries may try us highly, but it does happen to be the best climate in the world for gardening. It is seldom too hot for too long – or too cold to do lasting damage. In a word, it is temperate.
The gardens I have chosen to include in this website are all open to the public for most of the year. They are scattered all over Britain, and for ease of reference have been grouped in different areas. In their quality and diversity they represent what I consider to be some of the best gardens we have. The location of each has been given, and the days and hours of opening, though these, of necessity, are sometimes changed: prospective visitors should check them before setting out on a long journey to see any particular garden.
No better start could be made than to see at least a few of the thirty-three gardens I describe in these posts. In my descriptions of each garden I have tried, wherever possible, to indicate to the prospective visitor what special feature of the garden he should look out for – old roses at Sissinghurst, garden architecture at Stourhead, and eucryphias at Nymans, for instance.
Rudyard Kipling, in one of his most famous poems, likened our whole country to a garden
. . . that is full of stately views
of borders, beds and shrubberies, and lawns and avenues
With statues on the terraces and peacocks strutting by . . .
But he reminds us that
. . . the glory of the garden lies in more than meets the eye.
Nowadays not many gardens boast peacocks (and they are very bad gardeners), but we have terraces still, though small ones, and even a statue or two. And the point Kipling makes about the garden’s glory lying in more than meets the eye is as true now as on the day he made it. A garden is the product of years of work and dedication. Some of the gardens are the result of the work of centuries. For even with the best gardening climate in the world, no garden can be made overnight.
Other peoples’ gardens are ever fascinating. To visit them is to find not only inspiration but a kind of peace. Francis Bacon, in a famous essay, spoke truly when he wrote that a garden is ‘the greatest refreshment for the spirits of man’.