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Stopping to Smell the Roses:
A Tour of English Gardens

Including Wakehurst Place and Leeds Castle

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By Marilyn Goldstein
13 Apr 1986
Newsday; Page 04

It was drizzling again that summer Sunday morning, and even the British were feeling desolate about the weather. The sensible thing to have done would have been to pull up the covers and sleep in.

But we had come to Britain to see the gardens, and according to "Gardens of England & Wales," the yellow paperback book we carried everywhere, this was the one day of summer Sir James and Lady Scott were to open their gardens to the public.

Under the circumstances, were we going to let a bit of rain stop us?

Armed with a skimpy folding umbrella and a good set of windshield wipers, we drove up to Hampshire from our base in East Sussex, the rain getting stronger with each mile, and we arrived at Rotherfield Park, the Scotts' home, in what could charitably be called a downpour.

The Scotts may call Rotherfield Park home, but to a couple of travelers from the American suburbs, Rotherfield looked suspiciously like a county estate out of Jane Austin. The 18th Century manor stood like a stone crown on a crest of rolling lawns so green the sod glistened like emeralds. The trees and shrubs spoke of generations of careful cultivation, and the promise of a rose garden in full bloom excited our imagination as we pulled in under the porte de couche in the downpour.

Lady Scott herself was at her door to greet us, along with three members of the local Rescue Squad, which was to benefit from the one-pound admission to the garden. "You're the only ones to have come," said Lady Scott, too polite to insert the words "crazy enough."

When we explained we were American tourists who didn't want to miss our one shot at her gardens, Lady Scott flew into action. She produced a large umbrella, two pairs of Wellingtons (rubber boots as indispensable to English gardeners as sharp shears) and a personal invitation to follow her through the manor house, which was not open to the public. "If you've come all the way from America, you deserve a look at the house," she said.

Off we trotted behind Lady Scott on a quick tour of the family home, through the drawing rooms filled with generations of furniture, down the halls decorated with family portraits. Then, donning her Wellingtons, we made for her lovely walled garden, her greenhouses and her rose garden in full bloom, oblivious to the rain and again charmed by an English garden and an English gardener.

Of course, not every day of a tour through the great public and private gardens in south England held such serendipitous adventure, but each day did hold our attention. Even for travelers with just a passing interest in horticulture, the parks and gardens provided a peaceful and pleasant theme for a vacation, a welcome variation on cathedral-hopping. After all, if you're ever going to stop to smell the roses, what better time than on vacation?

Fortunately, one doesn't have to be an expert in horticulture to find a week full of gardens anywhere on the British Isles. In a world with a penchant for tearing down the past and replacing it with fast-food restaurants, the English have been restrained when it comes to their gardens. Although the great era of English gardening came to an end with World War II, the National Trust and private ingenuity intervened to preserve the great heritage. The trust took over more than 100 gardens, which it preserved or restored to their prime with public and private funds.

On the capitalistic front, some estate owners took matters into their own hands and opened their homes and gardens to the public at a price, the price going to keeping the house and gardens open. Yes, some have been commercialized by such additions as train rides, safari parks and children's' amusement sections. But most remain honest, bucolic parks and gardens.

The stately houses and their grand grounds are only part of the British horticultural glory. The working class wouldn't, and still won't, dream of having a cottage without a profusion of flowers right out front, not hidden in the back yard as is America's custom. A stroll down the main street of a little village like Tenterdon, where we stopped for lunch, is a garden-lover's fix.

And on the road to Great Dixter, one of the major manors, we stopped by a post office to mail a card and stayed to admire the postmaster's profuse cottage garden.

The private gardens are opened to the public to benefit various charities and the National Garden Scheme. Some, like Rotherfield Park, a half-hour's drive from Winchester, are grand; others are more homey, maybe just a couple of acres, but they are well-planned and carefully maintained little acres, and the owners are always willing to chat with visitors about anything from flowers to foreign relations.

No, the trick isn't finding the gardens, it's finding them open at the hour and on the day you're there. And on a day when the fabled rain is at least not torrential. Or all three.

For some reason, a nation that can organize blue salvia, purple petunias and spiky liatris spicata lilacs into a symphony of shape and color can't get its opening times coordinated.

If it's Monday, for example, this can't be Sissinghurst, because Sissinghurst is open Tuesday through Sunday. If it's Friday, forget Nymans, which you can also forget on Monday except if it's a bank holiday. Tonbridge Castle, on the other hand, is open Monday and Friday, and every other day of the week, unless, of course, it's between May 29 and July 26, when the remains of the Norman Castle and the public gardens are open only on weekends.

Got it? Well, you don't have to, as long as you get a copy of the current edition of "Historic Houses Castles & Gardens" ($5.95) and the smaller book, "Gardens of England & Wales" ($2.95). Both are available from the British Travel Bookshop, 40 W. 57th St., New York, N.Y. 10019 (for mail orders, add $1.95 for shipping).

The former publication is a large, heavily illustrated glossy paperback, which lists just about any public garden, along with a brief description of the house and grounds, admission fees and opening times. The smaller book lists the private gardens both by county and by dates and hours open. They are the bibles of the garden tour and critical planning tools.

The larger reference book is especially handy for planning a route, because it also contains useful maps as well as county-by-county listings. The tricky part is grouping two or three properties that are fairly close to each other and open on the same days. It's a little like planning a seating arrangement for a dinner party.

The best approach is to pick a fairly central location and plan to stay there at least three or four days, making daily forays to gardens in the region. Because England is a small country, it's a safe bet that any destination in the county will be an hour's drive at most.

We chose to encamp in western East Sussex, enabling us to easily reach much of Kent and West Sussex, some of Hampshire and Dorset, as well our home county, despite the curse of having to drive on the left of the road.

Much of the curse is relieved by the charm of the southern England countryside: the red-tiled houses, story-book thatched cottages, sheep farms and rolling horse farms, small villages with ubiquitous tea shops.

If you're watching your purse as well as the flowers, bed and breakfast places are always around the corner. For more lavish spenders, guides listing country inns and formal manor houses are readily available, some from the tourist office.

We chose, from the British "Back Roads and Country Inns" book, the Priory in Rushlake Green, near Heathfield. It served us well. As its name implies, it is an old priory set in rolling hayfields, with antique-decorated rooms and a first-rate dining room.

Another good base is Gravetye Manor in East Grinsted, West Sussex, and barely a half-hour south of London. Gravetye is an elegant manor house with a famous kitchen and its own William Robinson garden. Here he lived when he wrote "The English Flower Garden" in 1883. The gardens are not in their prime, but the antique-filled bedrooms (some with four-posters) and the marvelous food are enough to recommend it. Doubles in the better inns are about $80, and because they are small, reservations make sense.

Selecting a garden to visit is like choosing seeds from a catalog - everything looks so enticing. There are probably no bad choices, but some locations have virtues that others don't. Here's a sampler of the most popular sites in southern England.

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Sissinghurst Castle Gardens, Sissinghurst Village, Kent…

Sheffield Park Garden, Near Uckfield, East Sussex…

Great Dixter, Northiam, East Sussex…

Note: The three preceding descriptions were deleted in the interest of conserving space and focusing on the Culpepper-relevant places that now follow.

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Wakehurst Place, Haywards Heath, West Sussex: This suburban annex to Kew Gardens was bequeathed to the National Trust in 1963 and welcomed because its undulating terrain, high rainfall and rich soil provide a wider range of growing conditions than is available at Kew, just outside London.

This garden offers a little bit of everything: a lovely cottage garden, a small walled garden with formal bedding, rock gardens, pools, ponds, lakes, small cascades and streams deftly edged with a brilliant assortment of plants, with a backdrop of deep green cypress and - in season - flowering trees. There is also the pinetum and oak woods. In spring the rhododendrons take center stage, in fall the foliage takes over. This garden wins our best-kept-secret award.

Culpeper Gardens at Leeds CastleCulpeper Garden at Leeds Castle, near Leeds village, Kent: Is it worth the trip to see a little jewel of a garden almost lost in the vast acreage of this famous estate? Sure, because when you're finished walking the paths of the exquisite Culpeper Garden, there are 500 more acres of park and vineyards in which to spend a pleasant afternoon, and the aviary, the waterfowl (including rare black swans), the nine-hole golf course and, the day we were there, about 500 Girl Guides encamped on a rise. And there is the castle itself, set on two little islands, once the home of Henry VIII, now a conference center.

Leeds can get crowded with bus tours, not to mention Girl Guides. But hardly anyone bothers with the Culpeper Garden, so you might have it to yourself. Hidden behind stables, the Culpeper is a series of geometrically shaped gardens edged with boxwood and deftly planted with perennials that seem to grow bigger and brighter here than anywhere else in England. The property is now owned by a foundation, which apparently prefers the something-for-everyone approach, and it gets our something-for-everyone award.

Bouquets of History

Maybe the idea of designed Western gardens didn't begin in England - Renaissance Italy gets credit for that - but the British certainly took the idea and ran with it, and turned gardening into a national passion.

Their sailors were sent out to look for exotic species, which they carefully brought home to expectant fans. Their landscapers became national stars; they experimented with ground plans, borrowing unabashedly from the Dutch, French and Italians. For a while, fashions in gardening changed about as fast as fashions in clothes.

The first systematic gardeners were monks, who grew plants not for the aesthetic pleasure they provide but for food, spices and cut flowers to be placed on altars. In the 16th Century, gardening really took hold in England, along with the new science of botany. The first gardening book in English was published by Thomas Hill, in 1597 the first catalog of plants in cultivation came off the press.

Late Tudor gardens were intricately laid lout, and the most intricate were the knot gardens, designs formed by close-clipped boxwood or rosemary. By the middle of the 17th Century, beds had to be perfectly symmetrical, flowers were laid out for color and design and little Versailles gardens appeared all over England. During the reign of William and Mary, the Dutch influence took hold, which meant bulbs, evergreen shrubs and the lavish use of water. Of course, there had to be a reaction, and it was the naturalistic look.

Its chief exponent was "Capability" Brown. Lancelot Brown got his nickname because when a client showed him the grounds, Brown would say they had capabilities for improvement. The most famous of all English gardeners, he went about rooting up the formal parterres, giving serpentine shores to rectangular water gardens and moving the walled garden at least a quarter-mile from the house, lest it spoil the view of the park. It is said that entire villages were leveled and rebuilt elsewhere if "capability" thought they spoiled the view.

When Victoria took the throne, heated greenhouses made a rapid rise and began to appear on great country estates. Then formal gardens made a comeback and again the inevitable reaction: Sir William Robinson's wild gardens came in for a turn. It took artist Gertrude Jekyll, who became interested in gardens in the 1880s, to convince Robinson a modicum of design was necessary. Jekyll also popularized the herbaceous border.

The 20th Century gardens borrowed from every era, and so a little bit of every era is still preserved, from the wildest woods to formal parterres. Today's English gardens are bouquets of history, sweet to the nose, beautiful to the eye and restful to the mind.

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Last Revised: 02 Jan 2015


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