Winter garden visiting is a solitary pastime, lending itself to the misanthrope, and is highly recommended. When it’s so cold not even your dog wants to come with you, seize the moment, spurred on by the smug promise of self-improvement. Unfortunately, many of the best garden gates are closed during winter and can only be imagined or glimpsed by chance; see Hatfield in the film Orlando, with Tilda Swinton in the title role; her blanched androgyny majestically amplified by the frosted maze and standardised Quercus ilex of this great garden through which he/she runs.
There are other possibilities, however; Painswick Rococo Garden in Gloucestershire is a gem, championed for its rare and abundant snowdrops, and Hampton Court has an embarrassment of attractions — the oldest hedge-planted maze in Britain and the Baroque Privy Garden of William III offer structure and form while their herbaceous bedfellows rest. If the weather is too foul, go inside; see the Great Vine, neatly and correctly pruned since 1768, it is the oldest known example of viticulture in the world.
Gardens in spring are a bit more fun and others can be bribed to come with you if you’ve tired of your own company or nobody has congratulated you on your earlier lonesome zeal. Caerhays in Cornwall was described to me by a teenage boy, the most reluctantly enthusiastic member of that species ever met, as ‘quite cool’. Why? The winning combination of climate and ericaceous soil cause rhododendron, magnolia and camellia to flourish in psychedelic colour and astonishing scale. Go, not for the gaudy riot of Jelly Tot tulips and other low-growing spring bulbs (though I love those too) but for the big-scale stuff.
Summer gardens abound, the choice overwhelms. You know all the prize–winners so, for a change, try Sticky Wicket in Dorset, a five-acre wildflower garden, left to its own devices, due to the refreshingly honest confession of ‘exhaustion’ by Pam Lewis, its founder. It stands for everything we are meant to be doing in our gardens these days: no fertilisers or pesticides and minimal human intervention, a tangle of grasses and cornflower, poppy and clover — heaven.
For autumn viewing, try any of the well-established arboretums; last November I wrote about Westonbirt, but that of Castle Howard, known as ‘Kew at Castle Howard’, deserves loud mention. Planted over 127 acres, it has been thoughtfully enriched since its foundation in 1975, and is home to an important collection of specimen trees. The entire grounds of the estate run to about 1,000 acres. There are wonderful buildings to be seen, set beautifully in their landscape: the Mausoleum, the Temple of the Four Winds and the Atlas Fountain of 1853, not to mention Vanburgh’s masterpiece, the house itself, inside and out, make it a destination killing at least five birds with one stone. As with Hatfield, it can be enjoyed from the sofa; see Brideshead, the original, not the regurgitation of the remake.
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