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Classic English Gardens
by Emilie C. Harting

In England gardens are almost never out of sight. Every village and town has its public park with colorful beds. Universities have their own botanic gardens. And often, as you drive or walk along, you see "natural" gardens wrapping themselves around cottages, rosebushes draping themselves over stone walls, or colorful plants spilling out of window boxes.

When you visit large estate houses you are reminded of horticultural history, which paralleled aesthetic trends in art, music, and literature. There are medieval gardens, 17th century gardens with their classical design, 18th century gardens that incorporate nature, and the 19th and 20th century gardens with flowers and shrubs from around the world.

Above all, the English gardens are inspiring. I see a whirl of plant types and color along a wall and I promise myself to replicate it when I get home. I look at the ever so perfectly sculpted hedges and wonder if I could ever get my clippers to do the same. Then I decide that all I see is so beautiful that I should merely capture the moment before the light changes and my eyes shift to another view.

I found Sissinghurst Castle Gardens, Kent, the most inspiring of England's many estate gardens. I loved walking along axial paths, and then climbing the four-story Elizabethan tower and looking down to see how the moat, the original medieval manor house, and the lime walk form a large rectangle around the property.

Sissinghurst was a great mansion fallen to shambles until 1930 when novelist, and botanist Vita Sackville-West and her statesman husband Harold Nicolson bought the estate, restored the surviving buildings, and built around them the most emulated gardens in England. The drama of the long, tedious renovation has been recorded in Sackville-West's many books on gardening and in the many recent accounts of the Nicholson's life and work there.

The restoration and planning of the gardens reflect the fusion between the couple's classical and romantic temperaments. While Harold Nicolson created the design and symmetry, his wife clothed the grounds with plants and flowers. It was at Sissinghurst that I first began to understand how parterres, the symmetrical pattern of flowerbeds and shrubs which began in late 16th and early 17th century France, had emerged as an essential part of English garden design.

Sackville-West made the gardens very English, but added a foreign touch, almost as if she were planning the gardens for a Norman manor house. The renowned White, Purple, and Rose Gardens are known for their profusion of color and are best seen in summer. The Orchard and Lime Walk feature spring flowers, and the Herb and Cottage gardens bloom from early spring to late autumn. Rare shrubs and trees are planted about in the courtyards.

Horticulturalists also love to contemplate the designs at Hidcote Manor Garden in Gloucestershire. Victoria Sackville West studied Hidcote while she was building Sissinghurst, and described it as "a series of cottage gardens." Actually the Old Garden is like a cottage garden, but most of the "rooms," or sections, focus on a color, a type of flower, or a theme. There is the Bathing Pool Garden, the Fuchsia Garden, the Red Borders Garden, the Stilt Garden, the Steam Garden with its Asian shrubs and plants, and Mrs. Winthrop's Garden with its blue and yellow plants.

Major Lawrence Johnson started the garden in 1907 when little grew on the property except a cedar tree and a strand of beech trees. At first he laid it out according to formal English designs, but then he went on plant hunting exhibitions to China and South Africa and his perspectives widened. Vita Sackville-West admired Johnson's innovative ideas about hedges. He mixed various colors together, and also let flowers intertwine with them. He also carried out the subtle mixture of red and various shades of green in the Red Borders Room.

One of the most sublime experiences of a visit to Hidcote is sitting inside rows of tall yews on the Theatre Lawn on a July evening and watching an open-air performance of a Shakespeare play by performers from nearby Stratford.

Hidcote is also known for its views of the Gloucester countryside. At the top of the Stilt Garden you get a sweeping view, and at another point you can walk through two very tall squared off yew bushes and walk out into an allee of beech trees. I kept thinking about decades of history when I visited Penshurst Place in Tonbridge, Kent, the oldest garden in England. Records for the 11 acre formal garden go back to 1346. When Henry Sydney bought the property in 1552, his son, the poet Sir Philip Sydney, described the property as idyllic woods with shrubs and wildflowers, not unlike a Roman garden. Henry soon transformed the classic medieval manor by leveling the land and installing formal Elizabethan gardens with boxes and gravel.

Penshurst then fell into neglect until the mid-eighteenth century when the present owner's grandfather planted the tall yew hedges and built a number of small gardens within them. He also laid out a magnificent Italian garden and two hedged gardens, and made the remaining six acres a kitchen garden. In the mid-1900's new gardens were erected between the established hedges and walls, but the mediaeval influence is still strong. The yew hedges have now been trimmed so you can see from garden to garden over the shrub borders while you walk around.

The vibrant herbaceous borders bloom from mid-May through mid-July; the Union Flag Garden, a splendor of green, white and red in a large rectangle, is at its height in early July. Other highlights are a garden for the blind, a lake and woodland trail, a toy museum, and venture playground.

This year Penshurst has a special exhibition "Seven Centuries of Gardening at Penshurst."

Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, the birthplace of Winston Churchill, is a Versailles-like structure set in a 2,000 acre park. It is largely the creation of gifted 18th century landscape designer Capability Brown, who added lakes, lookout points, and clusters of trees to English formal gardens in the mid 18th century. One of Brown's creations, a waterfall called the Cascade, allows the lake to become a small river. In the early 1900's two very different water terraces were added. One is elegant and has simple designs. The other, by Bernini, is decorated with river gods and a drinking lion, winged Victories, a sphinx and six caryatids.

In the midst of all the statues and fountains are a number of gardens. Don't miss the Pleasure Gardens and Butterfly House, The Italian Garden with its patterned beds, and the eight-acre Kitchen Garden with its pools and fruit trees. Inside the Arboretum is the Temple of Diana, where Winston Churchill supposedly proposed to his wife, and a Sheep Walk where the rare trees and shrubs are especially vibrant in spring. The nearby Rose Garden has symmetrical beds of roses in red, pink, and white around a pool. A nearby walk leads back to the Grand Cascade. If you still have energy after a day at Blenheim, the adjoining village of Woodstock is a lovely place to spend time.

When you are in London, it's easy to take the Underground to Richmond for a day at the Kew Gardens, also known as the Royal Botanic Gardens. There are flowers to see all year round. Right on the Thames River, the three hundred acres has collections of over 40,000 varieties of plants from around the world, and is a center for botanic research. The property is a combination of two former royal estates, Richmond and Kew, and some of the buildings dating back to the 18th century remain. Capability Brown, Blenheim's designer, laid out the grounds for George III and Queen Charlotte in 1766, but there have been a number of changes since then. The cottage George gave to Charlotte as a wedding present is still on the grounds, and the woodland around it is now the Conservation Area, where bluebells bloom in the spring and birdwatchers can see tawny owls, sparrow hawks, and green woodpeckers. Other highlights are the formal 17th century Queen's Garden; the glass Palm House with palms, bananas, rubber plants, and other tropical plants; the Temperate House with woody plants from tropical and warm temperate zones; the Rhododendron Dell and Lake where you can hear geese honking while you wander among the trees and lawns; and the Princess of Wales Conservatory, another glass house with rare species from around the world.

"The Kew Explorer" is a people-mover which gives 35-minute tours for those who don't want to walk through the three hundred acres, or are making a short visit.


All year round travelers come to Savill Garden and Valley Gardens at Windsor Great Park, Berkshire, 5000 acres of ancient royal hunting forest just south of Windsor Castle, but spring is when the rhododendrons, camellias, and daffodils are in bloom.

Darwin's Garden at Downe House, Kent, where Darwin studied plant growth and pollination and wrote The Origin of the Species, has been replanted this year with fruits and vegetable varieties of the nineteenth century. You can walk along the Sand Walk, where he strolled pensively each day to think out his experiments.

Eden Project, Cornwall, is a new series of indoor gardens built in a former china-clay quarry. One Geodesic-dome conservatory houses tropical plants from Amazonia, West Africa, Malaysia, and another has temperate plants from California, Southern Africa, and the Mediterranean.

At Hatfield House, Hertfordshire, the childhood home of Elizabeth I, you can stand on the banks of the Old Palace and look down at a recreation of a 16th century knot garden. Through the centuries a number of other gardens have been carefully constructed using European designs.

Kensington Gardens, bordering Kensington Palace and adjacent to Hyde Park and set in the midst of museums in Central London, is a favorite lunch spot. You can wander around on the paths looking at the high flowering bushes, walk around Round Pond, and have afternoon tea.

Stourhead, Wiltshire, is a celebrated example of 18th century "natural landscaping." It is at its prime in early summer when the rhododendrons bloom. Temples are strategically placed around a large lake, and even the trees, among them ancient oak, beech and sycamore, are arranged artistically.

At Studley Royal and Fountains Abbey, Yorkshire, a spectacular 18th garden with water terraces and a deer park are set next to the ruins of a Cistercian Abbey dating back to 1132.

Wisley Garden, Surrey, the headquarters of the Royal Horticultural Society, is a 250-acre carpet of alpine meadows and flowers in the spring. Rhododendrons come out in summer, and heather in the fall. There are also model gardens and an orchid house.

Tintinhull House Garden, Somerset, the two-acre property of writer Penelope Hobhouse, is a place to visit more than once for there are an amazing number of compartments. Though a small courtyard plot was started in the early 1700's, the present garden was all built in this century

Tresco Abbey Gardens, Isles of Scilly, known for its collection of rare sub-tropical plants from around the world, blends in with the ruins of a 11th century Benedictine monastery. In addition to the gardens there are paths through fields and dunes thick with heather.


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