A keen amateur, I spend the summer tending the garden at my weekend house in upstate New York. But as the days shorten and I get ready to plunge into autumn, I like to travel to see what other gardeners have been up to.
Last year I took off the four days after Labor Day and, with much planning, managed to check out 16 top English gardens in less than a week. What makes such a whirlwind trip possible is England's relatively small size; what makes it difficult is the gardens' higgledy-piggledy visiting hours. If you aren't careful, you'll drive a lot but see little. I relied on two guidebooks that are perennial favorites; see "How to Grow Your Own Garden Tour".
My friend Scott Newman and I began in the Oxfordshire part of the Cotswolds, having driven from Heathrow to the Bay Tree Hotel in Burford (44-1993/822-791, fax 44-1993/823-008; doubles from $195, including breakfast), our base for several days. Burford is an exquisite medieval and Elizabethan town; our room at the Bay Tree was a freestanding 18th-century building adjacent to the main hotel.
First off we visited the Bay Tree's own garden, in the Arts and Crafts style of the early 1900's. As so often in the Cotswolds, it's surrounded by drystone walls; inside retaining walls and steps create terraces. Boxwood trees have been clipped into balls and finials; there's a thatched pergola and views out over rooftops and farms.
The next stop wasn't far away: the Countryman's Garden, one of my favorite Arts and Crafts designs, is also right in Burford. It's hidden behind what was once an inn and is now the home of Countryman's magazine. There's an orchard with herbaceous borders, an ancient espaliered pear tree, climbing roses, tree peonies, and tiny lawns. Though the garden is private, visitors are welcome—even at night when you need a stroll and the citizens of Burford are asleep (or down at the pub).
After a half-hour drive southwest, we reached Rosemary Verey's famous creation at Barnsley House, in Barnsley. Celebrated for her excellent books (An Englishman's Garden, among others), Verey often comes out of her 17th-century house to meet visitors. Her garden is a contemporary take on a traditional Cotswold design, with its perennial borders, hedges, herbs, sculpture, and, above all, ornamental vegetables.
In the morning, we struck out northward for the two greatest Cotswold horticultural creations—Hidcote, near Chipping Campden, and Snowshill, south of Broadway. Hidcote is a series of "garden rooms" and has been a model for many important gardens, including Sissinghurst. Although it is adjacent to a large house and has splendid farmland views, Hidcote turns inward: designer Lawrence Johnston gave it a sense of isolation, making it feel independent of the house and landscape.
An eccentric, smaller garden above a river valley, Snowshill is a country counterpart to the Burford gardens—honey-colored stone walls surround small terraces and pools and climb up and down the hillside; stone barns and a house full of odd antiques provide an architectural framework.
Oxford's museums warrant several days, but our haste limited us to the Oxford Botanic Garden, a gem across from Magdalen College and beside the river Cherwell. First laid out in the early 17th century, it retains its historic plan and character, and has major perennial borders and ancient trees.
Then we drove down to Iford Manor, in Wiltshire. Before it runs a clear river; behind it rises the terraced hillside that architect Harold Peto designed for himself in about 1900. While not a flower garden, Iford does have floral borders within an Italianate enclosure, along with classical figures and urns, and fragments of ruins used to define long rows of cypress trees and gravel walks.
Our last stop that day was Wells, a town famous for its 13th-century cathedral—you can stay in one of the old hotels next door (the best is The Swan, 44-1749/ 678-877, doubles from $150)—and its bishop's palace, in a garden with very old oaks and a moat.
From Wells we drove into Somerset to see Tintinhull and Montacute—minutes away from each other but centuries apart in style. Montacute, an English Renaissance mansion known for its courtyard garden and two Elizabethan-style summerhouses, will satisfy a hunger for history. Tintinhull, a 20th-century garden around a handsome farmhouse (it was writer Penelope Hobhouse's base), will teach you more about "garden room" design. Both can be done in an afternoon; for a bracing country walk, follow the two-mile path that runs between them.
Then we took off for Gravetye Manor, a hotel in West Sussex (44-1342/810-567, fax 44-1342/810-080; doubles from $235). It's a three-hour drive, but knowing that a sumptuous lamb dinner awaited us made the time fly. Gravetye itself has the late-19th-century "wild garden" and oval vegetable patch that were the laboratory of William Robinson, who turned away from the Victorian to advocate a natural garden of native shrubs, bulbs, and perennials.
Days Four and Five
Our last two days in the countryside were spent dashing through the narrow lanes of East Sussex and Kent: first to Scotney Castle Garden, with its huge 19th-century rhododendrons and castle surrounded by a moat—the site of a fascinating water garden. A perfect example of the 19th-century Picturesque style, the setting also has major river-valley views.
Nearby are two of the most famous gardens in the world. Sissinghurst, a romantic set of walled gardens around the restored ruins of a castle, was the masterpiece of Vita Sackville-West and Sir Harold Nicolson, who started it in 1930. From the celebrated White Garden to the venerable purple border, the gardening is as good as it ever was, which is saying a lot. (I always try to arrive after three o'clock, when everyone else is leaving.)
Unlike Sissinghurst, Great Dixter is not a museum. In the hands of Christopher Lloyd, son of the garden's creator, it is big, brawny, and alive with ideas and color and exuberance. The house is glorious too—partly 16th-century and partly the work, dating from about 1910, of architect Sir Edwin Lutyens.
Back in London, we stopped not far from Sloane Square at the Chelsea Physic Garden, the city's oldest botanical garden. We also saw one of the newest—the churchyard garden of the Museum of Garden History (44-171/401-8865). Designed recently by the marchioness of Salisbury, it's a small spread with boxwood-edged beds and many plants used in the 17th century.
Autumn was a good time to visit England's gardens: if the borders have lost a bit of their freshness, the settings offer moments of solitude not often experienced in summer. And the ripe, bittersweet, last-chance-till-next-year aura is yours alone to savor. Gregory Long is the president of the New York Botanical Garden.
How to Grow Your Own Garden Tour
An indispensable resource is Historic Houses, Castles and Gardens 1998 (Johansens, $17.95); its descriptions, schedules, and maps are all updated annually. You can order it from the ETL Group at 800/448-4337. There is also a free pamphlet, Britain's Gardens, published by the British Tourist Authority (800/462-2748; 212/986-2200 in the New York area). Besides the usual information, it points out which gardens are wheelchair-accessible and which have refreshments and gift shops.