Gardening is a profession where social distancing is a real possibility. So there is no reason to anticipate that standards will necessarily have fallen, now that they are opening up again.
There may even be new things to see at familar gardens, as head gardeners have been taking the opportunity to do jobs and projects which have been put on the back-burner in previous seasons, while the gardens themselves have benefited from a well-deserved break from the attentions of hundreds or thousands of visitors.
Cafes and restaurants at gardens may be closed or offering takeaway meals only, but picnicking is now being positively encouraged. Perhaps now is the time to dust off the old thermos flask and picnic hamper, and try one more time to make that perfect cucumber sandwich?
As lockdown is eased, Britain’s great gardens are opening up again. At present, many gardens are open to pre-booked visitors only – but while on the one hand this requires some forward planning, on the other there are likely to be fewer people once you get there, and most likely a better experience of the site.
The need to plan also presents the opportunity to draw up an itinerary of favourites. There is much to look forward to, and there is surely a garden out there to suit every taste and temperament. We have indicated in each case if pre-booking is required.
Best for classic herbaceous borders
Newby Hall, North Yorkshire
Long one of the most consistently admired gardens in England, Newby is the residence of the Compton family and still retains its private, domestic air. Its magnificent 564ft long double herbaceous border is the piece de resistance and is always immaculately presented.
The brainchild of Major Edward Compton, who inherited in 1921, the garden at Newby was possibly inspired by the work of his friend Lawrence Johnston of Hidcote.
The planting is determinedly traditional in style, with delphiniums and campanulas a speciality, while asters and dahlias continue the display in late summer. It’s not all about the border – there is a rose garden, a white garden, a water garden, a tropical garden and, in the extensive woodlands, a national collection of cornus.
newbyhall.com; 01423 322583. Open Wed-Sun. Must pre-book.
Best for children
Swiss Garden, Bedfordshire
A Regency fantasy garden tucked away behind a renowned collection of vintage aeroplanes, the Swiss Garden is one of Britain’s best-kept secrets. The garden, with the charming thatched Swiss Cottage to discover as its centrepiece, was the creation of Lord Ongley, who was apparently inspired by the 1820s fashion for all things alpine.
Children will love discovering the buildings scattered across the estate, including a tiny chapel, thatched “Indian kiosk”, punt dock and several little islands adorned with urns. The highlight is the grotto and fernery, with two dimly lit, stalactite festooned passageways to negotiate, and then the reward of an exquisite central domed conservatory filled with ferns.
Shuttleworth.org; 01767 627927. Open daily.
Best for romance
Hever Castle, Kent
This was the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, most famous of all Henry VIII’s doomed wives, and the place exudes an appropriately histrionic air.
Sceptics like to claim that Hever is a “fake”, in that William Waldorf Astor substantially remoulded it in the first years of the 20th century, including the creation of a vast (but shallow) artificial lake.
But this is unfair and unjust, since Astor’s work was first-rate. The highlight has to be the romantic Italian garden, with a fine collection of statuary and a pergola, but there are also long borders, a Tudor garden, grottoes and (inevitably) Anne Boleyn’s walk.
hevercastle.co.uk; 01732 865224. Open daily. Must pre-book.
Best for prebooked packed lunch or tea
West Green House, Hampshire
“Operatic” is a suitable epithet for this garden, on several levels. Its creator, Australian garden designer and author Marylyn Abbott, has for the past 20 years held a well-regarded opera season in a temporary theatre on the site, while the style of the garden itself might be described as Mozartian: glamorous, exuberant, rich but delicate.
The garden unfolds around the visitor like the acts of an opera: the Quinlan Terry-designed Nymphaeum fountain and water staircase, a water garden set in woodland, and above all the walled garden, where the borders are themed blue and purple. Food is also important here: the excellent café is serving “afternoon tea in a box” to enjoy in the garden (pre-book on the number below).
westgreenhouse.co.uk; 01252 844611. Open Wed-Sun until Oct 31. Must pre-book.
Best For dog walkers
Herstmonceux Castle, East Sussex
There are some 300 acres of managed woodland on the Herstmonceux estate for dogs and their owners to explore, while the more formal garden areas are also completely open to canines.
This is one of the most dog-friendly gardens around, where the gardeners do not look askance at four-legged visitors but positively welcome them with pats and bowls of water.
The gardens themselves reflect the enthusiasms of the early 20th century arts and crafts period, with hedged enclosures containing Shakespearean-themed plantings, a sundial rose garden and an apothecary garden of traditional medicinal herbs.
herstmonceux-castle.com; 01323 833816. Open daily.
Best for views
Lowther Castle, Penrith
The ruined Lowther Castle has been hitting the horticultural headlines recently thanks to a revamp by garden designer Dan Pearson. He has created atmospheric plantings within the roofless shell of the old building and is restoring an extravagant series of Victorian gardens set in surrounding woodland.
The massive, redesigned and restored rose garden is opening this season, while the extensive orchard has also been replanted.
But explore a little farther, beyond the woods, and visitors will discover the western prospect terrace and its extraordinary views, which reach as far as the mountains of the Lake District. This was apparently a favourite picnicking spot for the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh, who would visit each year for the Lowther carriage-driving trials.
lowthercastle.org; 01931 712192. Open daily.
Best for royal frisson
Osborne House, Isle of Wight
The Italianate house and garden is associated not only with Queen Victoria but equally with her consort, Prince Albert. The couple spent some of their happiest times together here, before the prince’s early death and the queen’s protracted period of mourning.
As such, Osborne is a happy place, with a jaunty seaside air, with the terrace gardens next to the house a highlight (they were partially planned by the royal couple). The walled garden provides more horticultural interest – trained fruit trees and glasshouses – and there are refreshing walks through woodland, past the Swiss Cottage (made for the royal children) and down to Osborne’s very own beach.
english-heritage.org.uk; 0370 3331181. Open daily. Must pre-book.
Best For woodland walks
Westonbirt Arboretum, Gloucestershire
Garden visitors sometimes overlook the delights of arboreta in their quest for colourful flower borders. But in these socially distanced times, an expansive property such as the national arboretum at Westonbirt seems even more attractive.
At 600 acres, there is certainly plenty of room in which to enjoy a truly magnificent collection of mature trees in some 2,500 species, along with flowering shrubs and woodland flowers.
Groups of mature incense cedars are one of the highlights (along Holford Ride and Palmer Ride) while later in the season, from October, the huge collection of Japanese maples will come into colourful autumn leaf.
forestryengland.uk; 0300 0674890. Open daily. Must pre-book.
Best For teenagers
Hauser & Wirth, Somerset
“Cool” is not exactly a word associated with gardens, but young people of taste and discernment might (just) be impressed by this outpost of the international art gallery scene, which opened in 2014 on the site of an old farm at the edge of the small town of Bruton.
With its conceptualist art focus and a funky bar/restaurant, H&W attracts members of the glittery welly brigade from as far afield as Cornwall, Wales and London (thanks to a direct train link).
There are contemporary art exhibitions in the various old farm buildings, while outside is Oudolf Field, designed by leading international planting designer Piet Oudolf. This boasts a series of globular beds filled with grasses and colourful perennials such as heleniums and achilleas, leading up to an ultra-modern, amorphously formed garden building.
hauserwirth.com; 01749 814060. Open Wed-Sat. Must pre-book.
Best For mystery
Levens Hall, Cumbria
It’s all about the hedges at Levens, which is essentially a massively overgrown formal garden dating from the late 17th century. At that point, its owner, Col Grahme, who was a committed Jacobite, employed a French gardener to plant out the yew trees which have subsequently grown to stupendous proportions – taking on the most astonishing forms.
As a result, this is a garden with an atmosphere like no other, perhaps best visited at the beginnings and ends of days, when the shadows are longer and the light softer. In fact, as visitors will soon discover, the garden is not only about the hedges after all. There are noteworthy herbaceous plantings as well.
levenshall.co.uk; 01539 560321. Open Sun-Thurs until Oct 1. Pre-booking advised.
Best For old world atmosphere
Little Malvern Court, Worcestershire
This half-timbered house and its garden feel as if they have remained unchanged for centuries, with the tower of the 14th century Prior’s Hall looming from across the lawns.
Ancient yew specimens and hedges intensify the timeless air, although the garden has also been the subject of considerable horticultural attention over the years (Arabella Lennox-Boyd lent something of her classic style during the 1980s).
The terraces next to the house have a formal arts and crafts feel, where the romantic planting is based on a palette of old shrub roses, which dissolves as the garden descends to a series of small lakes overshadowed by towering mature trees.
littlemalverncourt.co.uk; 07856 035599. Garden open Wed & Thurs afternoons until July 23. Must pre-book, by phone only.
Best For artistic interest
Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens, Cornwall
St Ives has been a hub of artistic activity for more than a century, and just a few miles up the coast the tradition is being continued with a private sculpture garden set in a wooded valley that has attracted the interest of an impressive roster of contemporary artists.
Owner-curator Neil Armstrong (who is a local GP in his “day job”) has managed to acquire works by the likes of Richard Long, James Turrell, Peter Randall-Page and David Nash.
Turrell’s work is a “skyspace” – a pavilion designed for viewing the sky through an oculus in the roof. The planting will be of equal interest to many visitors, as Armstrong has been adding all kinds of exotic shrubs to the existing woodland since he bought the site in 1997.
tremenheere.co.uk. Open daily.
Best For modernism
Turn End, Buckinghamshire
Architect Peter Aldington and his wife, Margaret, bought the irregular, half-acre plot at auction in 1963 and subsequently oversaw construction of three houses in modern style. Grouped tightly together almost as a single unit, each features a kitchen-dining area wrapped around a sunny courtyard.
But it is the garden which forms the heart of the ensemble, taking up three quarters of the plot. Superficially, the garden is not particularly “modern” in style (Aldington says his main influence was Hidcote), though the essential simplicity of its layout, with a long diagonal lawn as definition, certainly reflects the “less is more” approach. The garden is well looked after, with several surprises in store, such as the courtyard daisy garden.
turnend.org.uk. Open Aug 31 only. Book via website.
Best for strenuous walks
Hackfall, North Yorkshire
A picturesque valley garden set on steep wooded slopes, Hackfall was transformed into a designed landscape in the mid-18th century by William Aislabie, who also owned Studley Royal and Fountains Abbey, about eight miles away.
Over 18 years, Aislabie introduced some 40 structures to ornament the natural landscape of Hackfall, including five substantial follies, as well as numerous artificial cascades and a formal fountain glade. The 112 acres of Hackfall are today in the care of the Woodland Trust and it retains its other-worldly, sequestered air, as it attracts relatively few visitors.
Dense woodland of oak, silver birch, rowan and holly populate the upper slopes, with ash, elm, sycamore and beech lower down, and alder by the numerous waterways. Ferns and mosses abound, as do wildflowers such as anemones, primroses and dog’s mercury.
Best For tranquillity
A mile-long trail takes visitors around 20 acres of restful woodland gardens at Minterne, ultimately leading to a series of lakes and waterfalls connected by a stream. The garden was “naturalised” in the 18th century in the manner of Capability Brown.
All around are fine specimens of rare and unusual trees and shrubs, including the handkerchief tree (Davidia involucrata), while the overall tone is set by towering dawn redwoods, a silver cedar and a grove of Lawson cypress.
Over the course of this month, Minterne’s hydrangea collection will come into flower – in the colours of blue, pink and white – while the giant Gunnera manicata by the lakes will also be reaching their optimum size.
minterne.co.uk; 01300 341370. Open daily until Nov 8.
Best for animals and plants
Cotswold Wildlife Park, Oxfordshire
Some people choose to visit this 160-acre wildlife park as much (if not more) for the plants as for the animals. A dedicated garden team has over the past few decades created a range of different gardens around the Victorian manor house which forms the core of the estate – perhaps most notably the tropical house, which has earned plaudits from discerning visitors.
Outside, the borders continue the tropical theme, with banana plants perhaps the signature plant, set amid grasses and perennials in contemporary style, all designed to complement the animal enclosures and set specific atmospheric themes.
cotswoldwildlifepark.co.uk; 01993 823006. Open daily. Must pre-book.
Best For contemporary planting
Pensthorpe Nature Reserve, Norfolk
The Millennium Garden is Piet Oudolf’s “forgotten” garden, in the shadow of higher-profile works such as those at Scampston Hall, Wisley and Hauser & Wirth. However, this was also his first public project in the UK, and a decade on, in 2010, it was comprehensively revamped and replanted.
Pensthorpe remains one of the best places to see Oudolf’s work on a large scale, with uninterrupted plantings of grasses and perennials in drifts, probably looking its best from late August onwards, and certainly into winter.
pensthorpe.com; 01328 851465. Open daily except Mondays. Must pre-book.
Best For classic garden buildings
Wrest Park, Bedfordshire
Still surprisingly little-known and under-visited, Wrest Park boasts arguably the finest garden building in Britain, from a purely architectural point of view. This is the “pepperpot” pavilion set at the end of the Long Water, designed in 1709-11 by Thomas Archer and decorated with trompe l’oeil paintings.
It’s a magnificent sight. (And don’t miss the two secret rooms inside, hidden at the top of a pair of winding staircases – apparently made for lovers’ trysts.) The garden also features an extraordinary cold bath structure designed as a semi-ruin and incorporating a cascade.
english-heritage.org.uk; 01525 860000. Open daily. Must pre-book.
Best For Eastern flavour
Biddulph Grange, Staffordshire
The British are supposed to love eccentrics, and perhaps that is why this extraordinary garden has never fallen from favour. Biddulph was the mid-19th-century creation of James Bateman, who dreamt up a cosmopolitan range of discrete garden episodes in the sloping woodland below his house.
The China garden features a pavilion overlooking a pool, while the Egypt garden is presided over by a sphinx. Meanwhile, the pinetum is currently being advertised as a suitable venue for “forest bathing”, which is the Japanese practice of slowing down and walking in nature.
nationaltrust.org.uk; 01782 517999. Open Sat-Wed. Must pre-book.
Best For scientific interest
Down House, Kent
Charles Darwin’s home of 40 years is an extraordinary place to visit, where you can not only stand in the study where he came up with the theory of natural selection, but wander the gardens where he did so much of his thinking.
The walled kitchen garden was the site of some of Darwin’s most important experiments regarding plant reproduction, while in the lawn the “wormstone” can still be seen – placed there by Darwin so he could capture earthworms, which were the subject of his last book.
english-heritage.org.uk; 01689 859119. Open daily. Must pre-book.
Best for literary associations
Obviously a must for Agatha Christie fans (and who isn’t?), this was the author’s holiday home from 1938 until her death in 1976. As Christie put it in her autobiography: “One day we saw that a house was up for sale that I had known when I was young… So we went over to Greenway, and very beautiful the house and grounds were.
A white Georgian house of about 1780 or 90, with woods sweeping down to the Dart below, and a lot of fine shrubs and trees – the ideal house, a dream house.”
That sums up the garden’s appeal, with the added frisson of the boathouse, a rather grand two-storey structure with a balcony which the author used as the fictional setting for a murder in her Poirot mystery Dead Man’s Folly. In the book, the Belgian sleuth becomes exasperated by the twists and turns of the woodland walks as he pursues the killer.
nationaltrust.org.uk; 01803 842382. Open daily. Must pre-book.
Best for wild style
Waltham Place, Berkshire
Designed by the late Henk Gerritsen, Dutch planting designer and colleague of Piet Oudolf, the gardens at Waltham Place are deliberately maintained so that they seem to teeter on the edge of wildness. Gerritsen believed that gardening was a kind of folly and that horticulture should sometimes make way for weeds and a feeling of some abandonment.
He once attempted to train bindweed to grow on plant supports – but it failed, lending further credence to Gerritsen’s belief that nature would always win. The setting is classic English, with a walled garden and long border leading to a distinguished house – which makes the whole thing even more intriguing and fun.
walthamplace.com; 01628 825517. Open each Wednesday until Sept 23 for pre-booked tours.
Best for fruit and veg
West Dean, West Sussex
Is this the place to find the finest vegetable and fruit garden in Britain? Many would say so – it’s a reputation built up over past decades by Jim Buckland and Sarah Wain and is now being maintained by new head gardener Tom Brown.
The walled kitchen garden is laid out and gardened strictly along traditional Victorian lines, with four central beds for potatoes, brassicas (cabbage family), legumes (peas) and salads and root crops. The walls are festooned with the likes of cordon currants and gooseberries, asparagus and globe artichokes, with the addition of flowers such as auriculas and lily of the valley. Everything is immaculately maintained.
westdean.org.uk; 01243 818210. Open daily. Must pre-book.
Best for home-grown wine
Wyken Hall, Suffolk
Several notable English gardens offer wine made on the estate. Painshill in Surrey is one (a pretty good fizz), while Waddesdon in Bucks has a serious wine shop selling the full range of Rothschild wares.
But Wyken Hall combines its wine and food offer with a garden visit with unique panache. Created by Kenneth and Carla Carlisle, the gardens at Wyken reflect traditional English style, with an old-fashioned rose garden, pergola, orchard and wildflower meadow.
Food is taken seriously here, and while the restaurant remains closed for the time being, sourdough pizzas (£9-£12 each) are available for picnickers to eat in the orchard, perhaps washed down with a glass of the in-house beer or the signature wine, Bacchus. This is a previous winner of the English wine of the year award and sells at £11.95 a bottle.
wykenvineyards.co.uk; 01359 250287. Open Wed-Fri, Sunday (afternoons).