You’ve heard it a million times I’m sure, and perhaps even said it yourself, but it’s true that time moves more swiftly as you grow older. It seems just weeks since I returned from a September trip to Southern England where I led a tour to some of my favorite gardens, but it’s been nearly two months and I’ve yet to share my reflections. Today is no different from any other; there is a pile of unfinished business on my desk, but I feel compelled to push it aside for the chance to revisit those awe-inspiring days.
Our first stop was Tylney Hall, an upscale country hotel with 66 acres of beautiful grounds and gardens, including a water garden designed by Gertrude Jekyll, one of the 20th century’s most lauded designers. Nothing ensures success as much as a superb beginning, and Tylney Hall is a sure bet. Who, after all, doesn’t love luxury? The gardens, always engaging, were even more beautiful than on my last visit. The credit goes to Paul Tattersdill, head gardener for 25 years, who has not only brought this garden back from the brink but is also planting for its future.
The group was in high spirits on our first full day when we traveled to the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens in Romsey, followed by visits to Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton, and then the city of Winchester, where many of us toured its great cathedral. We weren’t disappointed at Hillier, where we had our first taste of autumn splendor, especially in the Centenary Border where the late-blooming salvias, dahlias, and ornamental grasses made merry in the morning light. But I was also captivated by the romance of Jermyn’s House and its nearby rock and scree gardens, as well as Magnolia Avenue. This part of the garden must be a remarkable in April, when the mature Magnolia x soulangeana trees are ornamented with their luminous spring blooms.
RHS Wisley, one of my great favorites, was as inspiring as ever. Late-blooming hydrangeas, immense sweeps of joe pye weed, as well as the herb garden, and the vegetable and fruit gardens, stand out in my memory. Nothing compared, however, to the mixed borders and view up Battleston Hill. It boggles my mind that every plant, among thousands, was perfectly matched with its neighbors…and perfectly groomed.
There were many highlights on the trip; one of the most treasured is the warm hospitality we received at West Green House, including the delightful lunch in the conservatory. The innovative and striking gardens at West Green matched the careful detail of our meal and I look forward to many return trips to this magical place. If I plan carefully, I might be able to attend one of the garden’s opera evenings, mingling the pleasure of music and flowers.
If asked to pick a “best day,” I would have to name a morning visit to Sissinghurst Castle coupled with an afternoon excursion to Great Dixter. Though well-known and often celebrated, these gardens continue to earn their laurels. I’ve visited both many times, and they are heart-wrenchingly beautiful in spring and summer, but it was a special treat to see them at the end of the growing season, when fruit trees were laden with treasure and flowers proffered their final blooms.
Great Dixter, in particular, was breathtaking; I have never seen such exuberance. The garden seizes autumn with boundless spirit, defying the loss of light and warmth in a riotous display of vivid bloom, berry, and foliage. In September, this garden is over-the-top and not to be missed.
There was another garden, too, that I can’t fail to mention. My mind often drifts to Goodnestone Park Gardens, an early 18th century Palladian home with 15 acres of varied landscape. Toured in a cold drizzle on a blustery day, the wind-swept garden and park captured my imagination, as well as my heart. Only half tamed, with massive oaks and sweet chestnut trees, the woodland was as close as I’ve come to Sherwood Forest and I wouldn’t have been a bit surprised to catch sight of a great stag on the run. I did, in fact, see many pheasants on my solitary ramble, and perhaps the wisp of a ghost or two.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve taken to heart Eleanor Roosevelt’s maxim that the purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, and to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experiences. Savoring the company of follow gardeners among the many pleasures of an English autumn, I discovered, is the perfect recipe.
Looking eagerly ahead, plans for 2014 include garden tours to Italy and the Hudson River Valley. If you would like to travel with me, or use my itinerary to plan an independent trip, visit the “Tours” page of Hortitopia for more detail, or visit my Website for the day-by-day schedules.