In Full Bloom

Strolling through an array of England's private gardens

WITH its gentle, misty climate, Britain has been welcoming gardeners for many centuries. Although the island has only a narrow range of native flora (the Ice Age left it quite barren), it's famous for pampering vegetative invaders. In the first century A.D. the Romans planted vineyards, avenues of chestnut trees, and rows of cabbages (who would have thought cabbage had ever been anything but English?). The transplants thrived. Every era since has added to a history rich in horticulture, with medieval monastic herb gardens, with exotic plants brought home in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries from expeditions to all parts of the globe, with the latest sweetly scented, disease-resistant hybrids from the contemporary rose breeder David Austin.

Gardening is the national art form, you might say. Whether in window boxes or on the back forty, more than 80 percent of all British households scratch the earth. Because the English understand, perhaps better than any other nationality, that lovely gardens deserve audiences, they are the creators of the National Gardens Scheme, in which some 3,500 private English and Welsh gardens are opened to the public each year, on given days or by appointment. Descriptions of the gardens, open dates, and directions are given in the NGS's Yellow Book, a paperback guide that regularly sells clean off bookstore shelves within a few weeks of its annual publication, in March. The Yellow Book can be ordered from the NGS, Hatchlands Park, East Clandon, Guildford, Surrey GU4 7RT, United Kingdom (send a check for $18). Entrance fees are around £ 1.50 ($2.30) per garden; the proceeds benefit various charities; tea is usually served.

What better way to get to know another people, I thought, than to join them at their favorite pastime? (I'd already visited many of the historic English estates, often a diminishing experience for the heritage-challenged American.) So last summer I made a tour of more than two dozen Yellow Book gardens, seeing some by myself and others with my friend Hope, a fellow New England gardener. On a blustery day last March, with a map of the UK spread out on my kitchen table, Hope and I charted a wide circular course through the Home Counties--the ones bordering greater London.

To pore over the Yellow Book in the chill of winter is to wallow in temptation. Each garden listed has been vetted by the NGS County Organizers and is said to offer at least forty-five minutes' worth of green interest. How were we to choose among "Tudor house with pond and cottage garden, Gertrude Jekyll water garden, pergola," "connections with Jane Austen who stayed here," "original Lutyens' design, herbaceous borders, ilex walk, avenues of limes," and "sub-tropical garden containing gingers, cannas, tree ferns, bananas, bamboos, on urban plot 40 by 20 feet"?

Coordinating the limited and seemingly random open days required studious cross-checking and slavish scrutiny of the map ("Are we looking for the Old Rectory near Maidstone, Kent, or the one near Maidenhead, Berkshire?" "Never mind--they're both closed in late June"). Fortunately, there's also the "By appointment" option for many gardens. To book rooms for each night, we flipped through Elizabeth and Walter Gundrey's Staying Off the Beaten Track and the current Wolsey Lodges brochure. (Wolsey Lodges are private homes belonging to gentry who take in paying guests--in order, one assumes, to offset Lloyd's losses or contribute to boarding-school tuitions.) The brochure is available from Wolsey Lodges, 17 Chapel Street, Bildeston, Suffolk IP7 7EP. Ultimately we wrote to or telephoned a dozen garden owners to ask permission to visit on days that coincided with open days for other gardens in the area.

WE were welcomed warmly by all--although cautioned by Lady Heald. The ninety-year-old widow of Sir Lionel, Winston Churchill's attorney general in the fifties, warned us that her fields would be dreadfully trampled by the annual convention of Shelties that weekend. Did we mind? No. Not at all.

When the June afternoon arrived, Lady Heald escorted us personally along the walled terraces of Chilworth Manor; these had been laid out in 1720 by Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough. Regiments of tall scarlet penstemons with long tubular flowers filled the borders, a few blowzy pink peonies nodding and flirting within the ranks. These formal beds were clearly the hired gardener's domain, as were the lush plantings around eleventh-century stewponds, where monks once fattened fish for their table. But Lady Heald herself hadn't been able to resist domesticating the banks of a brook trickling through a boggy woodland below the garden. "Do come see my lovely ferns," she urged, and then she identified each filigreed one of them for us.

Snowy-haired and erect, our hostess tapped her cane against the trunk of a forty-three-year-old catalpa, the handsome Indian bean tree with skinny pods and heart-shaped leaves. "After the coronation and reception," she told us, "my husband and I toasted the young Queen's health, and then buried the champagne bottles right here with the program and menu rolled inside. Years from now, when the tree dies, I daresay those bottles will be auctioned off at Christie's."

Did we know, incidentally, of any American film companies that might want to lease a manor house or a garden in Surrey for a movie set? When she inquired hopefully about our Hollywood connections, Lady Heald was cutting thick slices of sweet, sticky cake for tea. Alas, we were useless. Eyeing us suspiciously, James, the half-blind fourteen-year-old Jack Russell terrier, waited for his own generous hunk of cake, which Lady Heald dumped unceremoniously on the bottom shelf of the tea cart.

Many of the more ancient properties we saw appeared to be struggling, albeit imaginatively, under the burden of Britain's whopping inheritance taxes. The aura of decay hangs especially heavily on the houses and outbuildings. We saw orangeries in ruins and Edwardian greenhouses empty because of the high cost of heat. But where the kitchen gardens had been abandoned and the elaborate planting schemes scaled back, the charm of fraying grandeur still beguiled us.

Somehow our £ 4 donation to the National Gardens Scheme felt measly in comparison with the gracious introduction we were given to Chilworth Manor. The £ 1.6 million that the scheme netted last year was divided among seven national causes and numerous pet charities named by individual garden owners, including the Horses and Ponies Protection Association, the West Berkshire Marriage Guidance Trust, and the Church Fabric Fund. What a sensible arrangement--you have a look around a garden you would not ordinarily have access to, and your money goes to a good cause.

Actually, my visit to St. Paul's Walden Bury, a formal woodland landscape designed in 1730, left me wondering where my money would end up. On the morning I visited (Hope had not yet joined me), a mist was rising from the beech-lined avenues that fan out into the Hertfordshire countryside, twenty-five miles north of London. From the imposing eighteenth-century brick house, which has belonged to the Bowes Lyon family for 250 years, long allées run north, one centered on the village church in the far distance and two others highlighting impressive statues of legendary Greeks: the goddess Diana with her quiver of arrows and a curly-haired Hercules.

At the time St. Paul's Walden Bury was designed, fashion dictated symmetry, rigid patterns, intersecting straight lines, perfectly circular pools. By the second half of the eighteenth century, however, these ideals were being edged out by a growing passion for wilderness, the renowned landscape architect Capability Brown being the great proponent of informal, natural-looking landscapes. With its towering wild oak woods littered with classical elements, St. Paul's Walden Bury refuses to fit neatly into a single school of landscape design and happily embraces both strict geometry and nature at its freest.

Not another visitor tramped the long grassy walks between clipped twelve-foot hedges, the stately avenue of lime trees, or the shady paths winding through rhododendron glens. Without a plan of the forty-acre property, I came upon each garden feature with surprise: a small octagonal pavilion; a Greek temple; stone sphinxes with faces that, I later learned, were modeled after the mistresses of Louis XV. On the bank of a neglected pond a duck had nested on a stone cherub riding a swan. Deeper in the woods a flock of startled white pigeons flapped up frantically from the trees.

The house, too, seemed deserted. Mildly interested in finding the honesty box for my admission fee ("Just make your own change, dearie," I'd been told on the phone), I paused to peer through a high, intricate wrought-iron gate off the main entrance. An elderly woman dressed in a flowered shirt, pedal pushers, and sneakers was leaning out of a golf cart to yank weeds from a flower bed. Then she moved to another spot, jabbed her cane in the dirt, and began yanking weeds again. Catching sight of me, she shouted over the din of three tiny yapping dogs, "Come in--come right in. What a pretty skirt. Now, can you tell me what this is, this pale apricot one just unfolding? A friend from Northumberland gave it to me, and it's never bloomed before."

It was a poppy (I didn't know what kind), the delicate crepe-paper petals almost transparent in the sun. A cloak of pink roses clung to the garden walls. Blue mounds of hardy geraniums, violets, twitching mauve poppy heads, spikes of purple salvia, spires of creamy foxglove, and the messy froth of lady's mantles' tiny lime-yellow flowers all crowded one another amiably--long, bright borders that the woman insisted I survey.

Reading the family history later, I realized that the spirited gardener in the golf cart was the Dowager Lady Bowes Lyon, the Queen's aunt. And it was she who breezily relieved me of my entrance fee and then some. I gave her a £ 10 note and never did get any change.

LONDON imposed challenges in getting to Yellow Book gardens. Because it was summer, many Londoners were out of town, their garden gates locked. Furthermore, having given up our rental car, Hope and I were making our way around the city on foot. It was, in fact, geography that led us to discover Shirley and David Nicholson's tiny colorful haven, just north of Holland Park. With twenty gardens in our wake, we needed to jump-start our enthusiasm on that first, scorching day of July. "Let's see, phlox are the specialty [we read from the book]--hmm, didn't even know there were more than twenty-five varieties. Well, it's only two blocks away."

The garden is approached through the French doors of the dining room; these open onto a wrought-iron balcony, from which a circular staircase winds gracefully down to a narrow band of paved terrace. A venerable old pear tree reaching for the sun creates a green canopy above a small round table and four white chairs. From here the trellised and brick-walled garden extends back like a shoe box overflowing with lush vines and lovely masses of blossoms.

Clearly, this was a plantsman's garden, in which every vigorous leaf and fat bud was delighted with its lot in life. And there was another aesthetic at work too. We were not only drawn into this welcoming space but also immediately hooked by a lively color-and-light show. From a throw rug of grass next to the terrace we took in the tangle of deep-pink clematis and roses strangling the wall, inky-blue monkshood standing tall in the back border, cushions of silver hosta tucked farther away in deep shade, and magenta cranesbill flopping over the retaining wall at our feet. Each visual dance through the garden revealed a dozen new plants, a master's hand manipulating our attention. It came as no surprise to learn that Shirley Nicholson, our soft-spoken, Latin-spewing hostess and guide, had been trained as an architect and is the author of a National Trust garden book.

It seemed appropriate that the exquisite little plot should reflect, in miniature, the organizing principles that the architect Edwin Lutyens and the garden designer Gertrude Jekyll established in their gardens. For those grand affairs, created before the First World War, Lutyens laid out formal foundations and then Jekyll ran over them with galloping arrangements of plants. The Nicholsons' flowers, too, spilled from raised beds edged severely in stone. Honeysuckle, passionflower, and climbing nightshade draped themselves luxuriantly on trellises to mask the rigidity of tall parallel walls. Even the architectural lines of an outbuilding were blurred under a patched quilt of grape, clematis, and ivy.

Prowling through beautiful gardens is more fun if the people who shape them are on the scene, Hope and I concluded. But even when the owners weren't there to introduce us to Venus' fishing rod, dipping its blue-violet flowers, or to explain the mechanics of a homemade sweet-pea frame, we thought we could detect something of their personalities; the Yellow Book gardens feel lived in. Regrettably, the geniuses behind Sissinghurst Castle, Hixdcote Manor, and Hampton Court Palace are long gone. Those gardens are, nevertheless, not to be missed. But if you're longing for an intimate look at living art, pick up a Yellow Book. Wander among the English in their most sensible shoes and comfortable clothes.

The Atlantic Monthly; March 1996; In Full Bloom; Volume 277, No. 3; pages 50-54.