Bed down in English gardens
Four English gardens to ramble through and stay the night
Most beguiling is the woodland and dell, designed to look like a little Scottish valley
With England’s garden season kicking off in earnest this month and the Chelsea Flower Show looming, travelling green thumbs are no doubt poring over their Royal Horticultural Society guidebooks. But in a country so richly endowed with incredible gardens — just stick a pin in your road atlas and you’re bound to happen upon something green and pleasant — planning an itinerary is never easy. Be sure to add these four to your list. All come with the added bonus of garden “beds’’ (on-site accommodation).
Legendary 18th-century English landscape designer Lancelot “Capability” Brown cut his teeth at Stowe in Buckinghamshire, removing 24,000 tonnes of topsoil using just spades and wheelbarrows to create a Grecian Valley. This radical 100ha garden marks the starting point for the English landscape movement — sweeping away straight lines and formal French style in favour of a more naturalistic prospect — that went on to recast grand estates across the country.
But even before Brown arrived in 1741 to succeed another equally remarkable designer, William Kent, Stowe and its owner, the hugely ambitious soldier and politician Lord Cobham, stood at the centre of Georgian society; a prominent Whig he was a member of the Kit-Cat Club, an influential literary coterie.
The poet Alexander Pope was a champion of the garden and for educated chaps of his milieu Stowe stood as a political manifesto, alive with allegory and allusion and dotted with an astonishing number of neoclassical temples and statues, each bearing a message if you cared to read it. To be discovered in the Kent-designed Elysian Fields was a searing critique of England’s first prime minister, Robert Walpole. (A Cobham-led breakaway faction of brilliant young disaffected Whigs, “Cobham’s Cubs”, which included two future prime ministers, met at Stowe and helped to topple the PM.)
Many 18th-century garden lovers were unlikely to have given two hoots for these political shenanigans, but wanting to see Cobham’s expensive improvements for themselves, they began making their way to Stowe in number as early as the 1720s, putting up with long coach journeys and flea-ridden digs. And they continued to visit long after Cobham’s death to stroll Stowe’s carefully conceived paths of vice, virtue and liberty, through planted woods and by spade-dug lakes, past columns, grottoes and a ravishing Palladian bridge, the lot hemmed by miles and miles of ha-ha. They paused to admire the Temple of British Worthies and the breathtaking Temple of Concord and Victory, today framed by a cedar planted by Prince Albert and an oak by Queen Victoria.
Cobham’s grand house became a school in the 1920s (alumni include Richard Branson) that still stands at the heart of this wonderful, faux-natural landscape, carefully maintained by a small team and host of volunteers (specialists scour the country searching for statues sold off by Cobham’s heir who bankrupted the estate in the 19th century). Visitors can expect all the mod National-Trust cons, including a restaurant and excellent shop. Be sure to wear sensible walking shoes and bring a brolly; it’s quite a hike between temples on a rainy day. STAY: Just beyond Stowe’s Palladian bridge lies a magical Gothic Temple, described by 18th-century aesthete Horace Walpole as “pure and beautiful and venerable”, and today a holiday rental managed by the Landmark Trust. Alternatively, for one weekend every summer a section of the garden is open to campers (August 8-10 this year). More: landmarktrust.org.uk; nationaltrust.org.uk/stowe.
Another Capability Brown masterpiece with both house and grounds open to the public and a hotel and cham- pionship golf course part of this Wiltshire estate, Bowood, like Stowe, was conceived on a grand scale. Brown dammed two streams and moved an entire village to create a sinuous 14ha lake and 40ha parkland overlooked by the house and its impressive Italianate terraces.
Bowood has been home to the Landsdowne family since 1754. The present marquis is very hands-on (his wife designed the hotel interiors), and while the Brown landscape is impressive it’s the family’s private 1.6ha walled garden behind the house, entered through a secret door, that is most beguiling, stuffed with saucer-size dahlias and neatly laid out to include greenhouses, formal borders, a vine house and orchards (pre-book a tour online).
The marquis is a great mate of Prince Charles and they share an interest in sustainable gardening; at Bowood a timber plantation feeds a biomass furnace to power the 43-room hotel and spa, and cut flowers, vegetables and fruit from the walled garden supply the restaurant. There’s also an impressive pinetum, with many of Brown’s original 18th-century plantings, including several enormous Cedars of Lebanon and some very fine rhododendron walks (the marquis is mad about them).
Most fetching of all is the cascade and hermit’s cave built at the head of the lake towards the end of the 18th century. This is a swashbuckling boys’ (and girls’) own folly; to reach the thundering cascade you must first navigate a series of caves and grottoes, some in complete darkness. Bring your torch app. STAY: If you’d prefer something more intimate than the resort-style hotel, book the private Queenswood Lodge, a lovely Georgian house and garden tucked away between the 16th and 17th fairways. The villa-style rental features four double ensuite bedrooms, and comes with a chef and butler/host. More: bowood.org.
HOTEL ENDSLEIGH GARDENS, DEVON
With reaching twining, mossy-velvet branches across a narrow woodland path, an ancient weeping beech at Endsleigh is the favourite tree of everyone who visits this enchanting hotel. Set high above the River Tamar in Devon and built more than 200 years ago for the 6th Duke of Bedford, who owned a third of the county at the time, the fairytale lodge overlooks one of the last gardens designed by Humphry Repton, famous in 18th-century gardening circles for presenting to clients his exquisite designs bound in red Morocco leather.
Sequestered in a lonely valley at the end of a neverending maze of country lanes, the site is steep, falling away to the river and enveloping wood, and Repton was apparently carted about in a sedan chair as he made his sketches. The property was rescued 13 years ago by mother and daughter hoteliers Olga and Alex Polizzi, who have since transformed the lodge into a quintessential
country house hideaway, all squishy sofas, creaking stairs, pots of tea and lashings of clotted cream.
The garden has been faithfully restored and is much as Repton left it. From the terrace with its rusticated tree trunk pillars, a small formal parterre opens on to a large lawn terrace, set about with croquet hoops, and great herbaceous border, thought to be the longest in England. At the bottom there’s an eccentric folly, the walls lined with shells, crystals, quartz and coral; most beguiling is the woodland and dell, designed to look like a little Scottish valley, with its gushing stream and enormous trees.
STAY: There’s no need to be a guest of the hotel to visit Repton’s garden — just pay £5 ($8.20) at reception — but chances are you will wish you’d booked a room, even if it’s only one of the tiny, top-floor chambers, where casement windows of some open through the branches of a lemon- scented magnolia to offer one of the prettiest garden views in England. A delicious afternoon tea seals the deal. More: hotelendsleigh.com.
SUDELEY CASTLE & GARDENS, COTSWOLDS
Torn straight from the pages of Wolf Hall, this preposterously romantic Cotswolds garden is built around the crumbling walls of a “slighted” castle, smothered with wild clematis and rambling roses, crisscrossed by dappled paths once trodden by at least two of the luckless wives of Henry VIII. Queen Catherine Parr is buried in the castle chapel; Lady Jane Grey, Henry, Anne Boleyn and later Elizabeth I all stayed here.
After being destroyed on Cromwell’s orders, the castle lay derelict for almost two centuries before being restored by a pair of wealthy Worcester glove-makers. For- tuitously the property’s mid-19th-century chatelaine, Emma Dent, saw fit to retain the towering walls of a ruined tithe barn and banqueting hall as part of the 6ha garden; the latter, built by Richard III, is widely regarded as the “best garden feature in all England”, says head gardener Stephen Torode.
The soaring facade provides a whimsical, almost melancholy backdrop to pudding-shaped yews and large secretive hedges; and a knot garden based on a pattern from Elizabeth I’s frock as depicted in a portrait hanging indoors. There’s a secret garden originally created by Rosemary Verey, the Queens’ Garden and a very interesting Tudor Physic Garden, brainchild of current castle incumbent Lady Ashcombe, not forgetting a collection of rare pheasants sporting jewel-like plumage.
STAY: Smart cottage accommodation is set on the edge of the castle estate a few minutes’ walk from the pretty town of Winchcombe. More: sudeleycastle.co.uk.
Walled garden of Bowood in Wiltshire, top; Bowood House and its Capability Brown gardens, top right; Hotel Endsleigh, above, and a water feature in its garden, above right
Stowe House, top left; Sudeley Castle, above, and its manicured grounds, left