The Backhouse Daffodil Festival

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My, but isn’t spring moving along fast? After a winter that never seemed to end, it’s hard to adjust to the rapid succession of spring flowers that are popping up and fading away faster than I can keep up with them. Once the snowdrops had gone, it was the turn of the daffodils, and the second week in April saw in the Scottish Daffodil Festival, hosted at the home of the of the National Collection of Backhouse cultivars on the Rossie Estate in Fife.

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It was in the 1800s that William Backhouse began to hybridise daffodils, pioneering new techniques and establishing the first in a long dynasty of important cultivars. Successive generations of the Backhouse family continued the work, until an impressive number of significant and popular cultivars were in existence. Now a descendent of the Backhouses, Caroline Thomson, is dedicating her life to collecting together hundreds of missing Backhouse cultivars from across the world, as well as researching, preserving and celebrating the heritage of her forebears.

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Grown in joyful drifts and clumps across the beautiful parkland and gardens, the daffodils make an impressive show. What better celebration of spring than to wander among these lovely things, so varied in their hues of yellow, cream and orange? Daffodils are most certainly a flower that rewards generous planting, and it was impossible not to be impressed by the sheer quantities millions of bulbs that we saw.

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It was fun to imagine the autumn frenzy of sowing, the great barrows of bulbs to be planted, the man-hours, the careful designing and placing, the covering over, and the long anticipation over winter for the results of spring.

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The daffodils themselves rewarded closer inspection. It could be easy to think that some of the more divergent types were hardly from the same species at all. From pure white through cream and pale lemon, to dandelion yellow, sunset orange and even coral, the range of colours presented by the Backhouse daffodils was vast. Added to that the combination of colours within a flower, and you can begin to imagine the variety within such a collection. Take N. ‘Pink Pride’, with its aloof corona of white from which extends a trumpet the colour of diluted brick pink, darkening at the complex crinkles of the margin.

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Compare it to N. ‘Replete’ in colours of poached-egg and smoked salmon, the traditional trumpet transmuted to the appearance of rumpled bedsheets.

The daffodils were not labelled, although this did not detract from our enjoyment of the overall effect. I hope that in future years they may consider labelling some of the cultivars in the walled garden for our education and so that we can seek out and buy our favourites.

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The walled garden itself was an inspiring mix of the formal and informal, with an orchard and a grass labyrinth as well as straight paths and borders full of backlit grasses. I have made a note to return again to see the borders in their high summer glory.

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Observing so many daffodils in one place gave us ample opportunity to decide on our favourite colours. My sister liked the joyful bright yellow ones; they were the most spring-like, she said. I preferred the lemon-yellow and white I spend too much time digging out dandelions to associate brightest yellow with anything other than trouble.

Always with a view to expanding my horizons, I bought a pot of ‘Pink Pride’ from the courtyard of little stalls, where Caroline Thomson herself was promoting and selling her beloved daffodils with great energy. It was such a pleasure to be able to take home a piece of this fascinating heritage, which will bring joy each spring for years to come.

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There were many parts of the estate to go walking. For children (and adults!) there was the ‘bear walk’, where carved wooden bears told a little story along a curving woodland path. For those desiring a longer stroll, there was a path through a newly-planted link wood into ancient woodland, in the midst of which lies the hidden ruined tomb of the covenanter Sir James Scott and his wife Antonia.

Back at the house’s courtyard, a little show room contained the most exquisite daffodils in vases. I made a note of two, ‘Rosemerryn’ and ‘Lemonade’, that caught my eye and which I hope shall find their way into my cutting bed alongside ‘Pink Pride’.

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Narcissus ‘Rosemerryn’

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And now let spring gallop along, for the ordinary daffodils that border our Meadows in Edinburgh are fading fast, as are the forsythias and early tulips. In come the magnolias and blossoming cherries, the late tulips and dicentras, soon the alliums and peonies and before we know it, summer will be with us and gone. But my afternoon at Backhouse was the perfect way to savour a lovely and all-too fleeting moment of spring, during which daffodils range these inspiring woodlands and gardens for all to enjoy.

Backhouse Rossie Estate is near Ladybank, Fife, KY15 7UZ and entrance costs £5 for an adult, with discounts for children, groups and concessions. Entrance for RHS members is free of charge on Fridays.

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Cambo Estate, Fife: a Festival of Snowdrops

I am of the opinion that a strongly held viewpoint should be put regularly to the test. A few weeks ago I boldly stated on Instagram that I would never spend two (and definitely not three) figures on a single Galanthus bulb. Committed galanthophile though I am, I remain perfectly content with the charms of lovely G. nivalis, the common snowdrop that crowds our British woods and hedgerows at this time of year. The people who commented on that post agreed: most were happy to buy ordinary snowdrops, especially if on sale. Either that, or no one was confessing to any extreme snowdrop splurges in public.

Nonetheless, questions and doubts remain in the back of my mind. There must be some reason that sane gardeners splash out relatively large quantities of money for snowdrop varieties that vary in often minute (read: undetectable) ways. What was it that I was missing? Rona Dodds, owner of Quercus Garden Plants, recently posted a piece on her Quirky Bird Gardener blog about the seven or so varieties that she grows, including a helpful photo of them side-by-side and crucially face-up. Arranged like this it was easy to see differences between them. One was chalice-shaped, another shaped like a stylish wind turbine. Inner splashes of green and yellow varied enormously, and double varieties threw a whole extra dimension into the mix. And yet, when we view snowdrops in the garden or in the wild, we don’t see them face up, we see them from above and often from a distance, tepals pointing downwards with all the inner intricacies hidden from sight. For me, the beauty of snowdrops has always been in their plurality. What could be more breathtaking than the sight of a woodland naturalised with those countless tiny white heads devoutly nodding together like a congregation praying for spring?

And so every year I go snowdrop hunting. Not just to the woods and fields close to Edinburgh, but also to gardens that showcase unusual varieties of snowdrops. I like to look at the different varieties on display and try to spot the differences. Some are easy to notice, others need a trained eye. I also like to look at the prices if varieties are on sale, and if I am with someone else I like to point the prices out to them and enjoy the ensuing debate. ‘What, £28 for a single bulb?’ my companion will inevitably gasp. ‘But it looks exactly like all the others.’ And so far I have not yet advanced far enough in my galanthophile training to counter their astonishment with a sturdy defence of the prices.

Only two special Galanthus varieties have ever stopped me in my tracks. One is G. ‘Primrose Warburg’ (£18 a bulb), a delightful little yellow variety, recognisably different from the common snowdrop to even the rookiest observer by its little yellow topnot (though I can’t distinguish it from G. ‘Wendy’s Gold’). The other is G. ‘Daphne’s Scissors’ (£8 a bulb) which has a sweet little pair of scissors marked on the inner segment. Both of these I saw first at Shepherd House Gardens and are still on my mind a year later.

Snowdrops are celebrated each winter during the snowdrop festival at the Cambo Estate in Fife, just across the water from Edinburgh. Cambo is home to the national snowdrop collection. As well as 300 special Galanthus varieties, their 70 acres of beautiful woodland is home to endless G. nivalis that wander as far as the eye can see. According to Cambo’s website, members of the Erskine family, who have lived and gardened at Cambo for generations, would spend hours digging, dividing and replanting the snowdrops across the woodlands in order to create the impressive colonies we see today. A couple of weekends ago I took my sister to Cambo with me to admire the naturalised woodland snowdrops and the fine collection of specials, and to have fun gasping at the prices of those on sale.

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The walled garden at Cambo

Before heading for the woodland walk, we took a quick tour around Cambo’s famous walled garden, with its naturalistic planting of grasses and tall perennials, its lovely glasshouse with stained glass panel, and its gentles slopes running down to the little brook that bumbles merrily through the middle, traversed by three pretty bridges. The walled garden had an air of dormancy, a sleeping beauty. I had some fun taking shots of the perennial seedheads that had been left standing to such good effect, and vowed to return in summer when it will be at its best.

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The glasshouse in the walled garden, with stained glass window
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Perennial seedheads in the walled garden
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Perennial seedheads in the walled garden
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Perennial seedheads in the walled garden
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The walled garden slopes down to a brook
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The glasshouse in the walled garden
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Woodland snowdrops

The woodland snowdrop walk was everything it promised to be. Acres of venerable old trees had beneath them vast undisturbed expanses of snowdrops (I’m trying not to use the word ‘swathes’ but it’s hard). They grew thickly alongside the paths, down to the brook and away into the distance where they merged to give the impression of far off snow. In some places they were interspersed prettily with yellow Eranthis hyemalis, the winter aconite. The woodland path, satisfyingly mossy at the edges as most Scottish woodland paths are, ran down to the seaside about half a mile away, where children were clambering on the rocks and the landscape briefly joined forces with a golf course. The route circled on a lower streamside path back to the big house and the snowdrop collections.

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Cambo’s woodland snowdrop walk: the lower path wound alongside the brook
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The snowdrops were interspersed with winter aconites
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Sarcoscypha coccinea, the scarlet elf cup, a common native woodland fungus
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The woodland snowdrop walk
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Snowdrops and aconites: a classic combination
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Snowdrops and aconites beside the brook

Cambo’s display of special snowdrop varieties began in a long raised bed at the side of the house, and continued in the beds leading into and around the delightful little winter garden, filled with hellebores, iris, and fiery red dogwoods. Most were labelled (some labels were missing or unclear). In their close groupings, it was easy to see that some varieties were taller, or fatter, or more dainty than others; some had sharp, pointed tepals, others rounded. To choose a favourite would be impossible. These were not snowdrops to be naturalised in a corner of the garden; they were a true collection: to be possessed and categorised and labelled and displayed, part of their value being in their membership of the divisible whole. There is no point in owning just one or two specials. A collection by definition needs to contain as many varieties as possible, and it also needs to be expanding; there is no satisfaction in owning a static or dormant collection. Once a collector gives up his hunting and accumulating and sorting, he may as well sell the whole lot off.

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Special variety: Galanthus ‘Wasp’

Herein may lie the practical part of the truth for me. A collection consisting of just the one or two varieties I find genuinely interesting would be no collection at all if I didn’t foster the intention of adding further to it. I wouldn’t have the money or space for a large collection anyway, and since we’re unlikely to stay in this flat for the long haul, I’d only end up losing some of my precious bulbs if we moved. (Don’t tell me pots you know I’d forget to keep them moist for the other 9 months of the year.)

But there’s another, more abstract, part of the truth. It’s to do with two differing ways in which we humans observe and consider our environs. Some people are very interested in detail. They are the pointillists, the people who might buy a shirt not because it goes with anything else but because of the intricate pattern of tiny birds on the fabric, the people who follow a recipe to the very last gram or who notice every tiny bit of dirt missed by the cleaner. These are the collectors, the true Galanthophiles, the clever people who know their snowdrop markings well enough to spot a new hybrid popping up in the garden. But the other type of person is the painter of broad brush strokes, the person who is more interested in the overall impression, who has a sense of the bigger picture but forgets to notice the detail, or who would rather feel the pervading atmosphere than get down close with a magnifying glass. Not for us the tiny markings of special varieties. We just want our swathes.

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We just want our swathes
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Bright red Cornus (dogwood) in the winter garden with Bergenia and grasses.
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A red-stemmed Acer provides a striking focal point against a dark background in the winter garden
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Iris reticulata in the winter garden
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Hamamelis in the winter garden

This is not to say that I shan’t some day be persuaded to start my own special collection of Galanthus. Even as I write this and check the internet for my facts on prices and varieties, I feel my opinion changing as I stumble across pages with photos of unusual and beautiful snowdrops. Each year I will continue to take stock of my viewpoint by visiting places with fine collections of special snowdrops, and I already know which two varieties will be the first to make a dent in my pocket. But that won’t happen until I have a bigger garden, one with space for a collection worthy of the name, and one that I know I will be gardening in for the foreseeable future.

The Cambo Estate is at Kingsbarns near St Andrew’s in Fife, KY16 8QD. The Snowdrop Festival is on until 11th March and costs £5.50 per adult (children free).

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Two Topiary Gardens

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On my return journey to Scotland from our trip to the Cotswolds in September (see my write-ups on Snowshill and Hidcote), I stopped off at Levens Hall in Cumbria on the recommendation of my mother. Levens Hall has the oldest and most extensive topiary garden in the world, and since topiary is my spirit garden style, a coffee and wander around its extraordinary collection of clipped yews made for a magical break in the six-hour journey.

The topiary garden of Levens Hall was laid out in 1694 and completed in 1720, and it is the oldest such surviving garden, having escaped the destruction that its contemporaries suffered when the fashion for informal landscape gardens waxed in the eighteenth century.

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Many of the ancient shapes, which are clipped from yew, golden yew and box, have names: Queen Elizabeth and her maids of honour, the Judge’s wig, the Lion, the Jug of Morocco. Summer bedding plants, including masses of heliotropes and verbena, are grown in between the trees, bordered by dwarf box hedges.

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Isn’t there something utterly mysterious about a topiary garden? Perhaps it is because of the aloof, animal bulk of the trees, standing like inscrutable statues in a museum (but which surely come alive behind your back); or perhaps because of childhood books like Elizabeth Goudge’s The Little White Horse in which an orphan is driven through a moonlit park adorned with topiaried chess pieces: an atmosphere of magical suspense pervades. The wonkiness of the spirals and twirls of Levens’ yew trees, some looking like toppling wedding cakes, others dumpy yet dignified, somehow added to the sense of enigma. Feeling as though I’d stumbled into a convention of eccentric butlers or an eighteenth-century Ent Moot, I wandered like a small intruder among a gloriously claustrophobic crowd of other-worldly presences.

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It takes four gardeners about a month to clip all the shapes, and they were undertaking this gargantuan task during my visit, meaning that some of the trees were bowling-green smooth, while others were still fuzzy around the edges. And talking of bowling greens, I wandered further on to find that the topiary thinned out and the rest of the garden came into view. A real bowling green, used by a local croquet club, lay beyond an orchard (particularly boggy underfoot – bring stout boots) and next to a dark and ominous beech alley, which led to a wilder part of the garden that was partly wooded and contained a willow maze with a curious centrepiece.

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The fountain garden, containing a large, round, stone pool full of lilies and a modest fountain at its centre, was laid out in 1994 to commemorate 300 years of the gardens at Levens Hall. Returning towards the house was the herb garden, herbaceous borders, and finally the simple but pleasing 17th Century Garden beside the house itself.

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Due to life’s continual gyre of obligations, distractions and circumstances, it has taken me over three months to get round to writing this post, and as I was editing the photos of these remarkable 300-year-old trees I recalled that I had not shared my photographs of another magnificent topiary garden that I visited over two years ago: Drummond Castle Gardens in Perthshire. I do hope you will not mind if I indulge my admiration for topiary a little longer and show you this quite different garden.

Drummond Castle Gardens also has a long history, having been restructured several times. Grander in style and scale than Levens Hall, there is less a sense of the whimsical and more of a stylised majesty in the formal parterre, laid out in a St Andrew’s Cross with a seventeenth century sundial at its centre. Topiaried beech and yew trees are solemn stalagmites, politely spaced, and contrasting in height and colour with the collection of gorgeous ruby-red acers nearby.

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Drummond is magnificent for autumn colour, and our visit, in October, was at the perfect time to witness the spectacle. Relatively little herbaceous planting exists in this part of the garden, but there is more than enough interest to be found among the many types of trees (two copper beeches were planted by Queen Victoria who visited in 1842), in the disciplined structure of the planting, the elegant statuary, and in the peacocks that waft gracefully about the lawns.

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Being Perthshire, there is no shortage of dampness in the air, and many of the trees were adorned with delightful lichen that added to the sense of timelessness. Exploring further on, we stumbled across beds and beds of the most exuberant dahlias, while just below the castle were herbaceous beds rich in late summer colour.

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Levens Hall Gardens near Kendal in Cumbria are open from April to October on Sundays to Thursdays, and adult admission is £9.90, or £13.90 to include admission to the house, with lower prices for children and family groups.

Drummond Castle Gardens near Crieff in Perthshire is open on Easter Weekend, and then daily between May and October inclusive. Entry for an adult costs £6.00 with reduced rates for concessions, families and children. The castle itself is not open to the public.

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Two Cotswolds Gardens. 2: Hidcote

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Of course, Hidcote was the main reason we had come to the Cotswolds, but our off-the-cuff visit to Snowshill on the previous day had furnished us with an interesting contrast. Hidcote and Snowshill seemed to be worlds apart, in atmosphere if not in geography: Where Snowshill was compact, homely, light-hearted and delightfully ferny at the edges, Hidcote was grand, ambitious and terribly civilised, its scale and its multitude of rooms making it hard to maintain a unified impression in one’s mind.

But similarities between the two gardens existed. Hidcote was the creation of the Anglophile American Major Lawrence Johnston, who, like Charles Wade of Snowshill, was a war-weary single man of independent fortune. Hidcote, like Snowshill, has its roots in the Arts and Craft movement of the Twenties, and it too embraced the novel style of a series of garden rooms. Like Snowshill, it was donated to the National Trust in collaboration with James Lees-Milne.

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A formal pool of water lilies beside the glasshouses
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Verbena bonariensis and lavender in a border so the side of the glass houses

We decided to begin our route around the enormous garden (aided by an essential fold-out map) at the formal rectangular pool of lilies, followed by the glasshouses.

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Aeoniums and other exotic plants in a sunny, sheltered position outside the glasshouses
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Inside the glasshouses

The enormous kitchen garden produces all of the vegetables used by the cafés: sprightly rows of kale, pumpkins and courgettes bordered by sage and lavender, and large areas of red clover being grown as green manure.

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A deep bed of red clover in the kitchen garden
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A bee visits a giant thistle in the kitchen garden

This homely scene shifted dramatically on turning a corner: we found ourselves beneath an avenue of tall, heavenly beech trees, a Tolkienesque passage under which sounds were hushed and all colours were muted to shades of green.

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The Beech Alley

This sudden shift in character was a recurring motif throughout the garden, and was in itself a defining characteristic of Hidcote. Facing this direction, we were entertained by the tropical and exuberant red border with its dominance of red Musa leaves, then turning to face the opposite way our view was of a soothing, unfussy double row of pleached hornbeams leading to a grand iron gate beyond which lay the notion of a hazy, unspoilt English landscape: two scenes that could hardly have been more different. It was a kind of jolt repeated throughout the garden and which kept us alert, fascinated, and curious to peek through every topiaried arch, keen not to miss a thing.

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The red border facing in the direction of the house
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At the head of the Red Border
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The red border facing away from the house towards the iron gates
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The Stilt Garden, with the notion of an English Landscape beyond

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Major Johnston was fortunate enough to have enough land to try every possible garden experiment he could think of: a white garden; a fuchsia garden; the solemn and very long Long Walk, a rock garden; a garden of comfrey and hydrangeas on damp woodland beside a stream; a wilderness; a rose garden; a poppy garden; a garden containing a large round stone bathing pool; another with a painted loggia and theatre of pelargoniums. And everywhere: topiary, lots of it. And brick paths, tall clipped beech hedges, more topiary, blue painted benches, and judicious vistas framed by archways cut through the tall clipped hedges.

We couldn’t have been more eager recipients of the charms of Hidcote. Even the weather was perfect: a brief and drenching downpour (we sheltered under one of the beech-hedge archways) gave way to brilliant sunshine that backlit the drops on the euphorbias and pale yellow kniphofias of Mrs Winthrop’s garden (named for Johnston’s mother).

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Hydrangeas in the Lower Stream Garden

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The Pillar Garden

 

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Aeoniums in Mrs Winthrop’s Garden, and below, the yellow planting of Mrs Winthrop’s Garden, including yellow kniphofias and euphorbias, toned down with underplanting in pale blue.
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Pelargonium in the painted loggia, and below, more scenes

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The Fuchsia Garden
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The Old Garden, beside the manor house
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The Old Garden
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The Old Garden
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The Old Garden
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The Old Garden

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Judicious vista through the Fuchsia Garden
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The Bathing Pool Garden

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Another judicious vista through Mrs Winthrop’s Garden
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The Manor House, and below, inside the house

A brief glimpse into the manor house concludes the visit to the gardens, while on the way out the plant centre offers cultivars of plants named ‘Hidcote’ (I bought a tiny Lavandula angustifolia ‘Hidcote’) and, to my delight, a special offer on Melcourt growing media, which is the most gorgeous stuff you ever sunk your hands in.

Hidcote Manor Gardens is owned and managed by the National Trust, and details of opening times, admission prices, and how to get there can be found on their website.

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Two Cotswolds Gardens. 1: Snowshill Manor

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When it comes to patience, servitude and kindness, coupled with a tendency to forget to do nice things for herself, my mother gives the holy saints of Heaven a decent run for their money. Therefore, to celebrate the occasion of her 70th birthday, my sister and I came up with the idea of taking my mother away for a tiny holiday, just for herself, doing only things that she likes to do. We thought she might like to see some beautiful gardens and eat in some tasty restaurants, and have a lie in, and not do any cooking for anybody. Some negotiations followed. (‘Well, I don’t mind where we go. Where would you and Lou like to go?’, was her typical response, not quite getting the point.)  Ideas included a tour of Sussex gardens such as Sissinghurst, Great Dixter and Perch Hill, or else a trip to East Anglia to take in Beth Chatto’s garden. But the most popular suggestion was a trip to the Cotswolds on a pilgrimage to Hidcote, and so the date was set, the Airbnb was booked (a charming mill cottage overlooking a tumbling stream) and the route decided.

Casting round for a smaller garden to timetable for the afternoon of our arrival, we came across Snowshill Manor in the North West of the Cotswolds, about a 30 minute drive from our lodgings and crucially open on a Monday. Snowshill Manor is a sixteenth-century house set in gardens and orchards overlooking a valley of sheep fields. Nestled by its side is the charming village of Snowshill (pronounced locally as Snozzle).

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The front aspect of the house is built of smooth, North Cotswold honey-coloured limestone, and at first glance is perfectly symmetrical, but look closely and you can see from the mullioned windows of the right half that it dates much earlier than the left. Behind this compact facade is a rambling house in mottled stone, filled with the curiosities of its early-twentieth-century owner, Charles Paget Wade, who collected everything from bicycles to Samurai warriors and used the house to display his eccentric hoard while living in a tiny cottage (‘The Priest’s House’) beside the Manor. The interior of the house is worth a visit in its own right, but the surrounding garden is no less filled with delights, treasures and humorous oddities.

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Our tour began with a pleasant ten-minute ramble from the parking area, away from the promising tea-rooms and dangerous plant centre, along a winding path bordered by tall hedgerows through which could be glimpsed the sheep pastures of a green valley, and on past an orchard filled with large, untamed apple trees heavy with rust-coloured apples, through a pair of stone pillars and onto the formal front lawn.

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At our feet, the tiny pink and white origami hearts of Cyclamen hederifolium were dispersed between trees and sheltering under lichen-mottled walls. Asters, roses, catmint, helenium, red-berried honeysuckle and several varieties of clematis filled the colourful but simple borders, and blush-coloured Japanese anemones, elegant in their eager simplicity, popped up all over the grounds.

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Water appears regularly throughout the gardens at Snowshill Manor, in a large copper, dripping into a rough stone trough draped with harts-tongue ferns and unusual vines, trickling from gargoyles, and calm and still in a small formal square pool.

But most notably and delightfully is the water in the large pool that forms the centre of the lower terraces of the garden, a foil and prop for Wade’s pièce de résistance, his model Cornish fishing village, Wolf’s Cove, recently restored to its former charm and boasting houses, huts, a railway, bridges, harbour, ladders, a stone hovel, upturned dinghies and two pubs.

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Elsewhere not to be missed were the dovecot and the neat kitchen garden, bordered with dahlias. I can relate that the tea-rooms did not disappoint (I can recommend the flapjacks), and several little treasures from the plant centre including two Heucheras and an Osmunda regalis ‘Purpurascens’ found their way back to my car. And I’m pleased to say that my mother was not abstemious in either the flapjack or the plant-purchasing department.

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Snowshill Manor is owned and managed by the National Trust, and details of opening times, admission prices, and how to get there can be found on their website.

And of course, coming shortly to these pages will be Part 2: Hidcote Gardens.

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Galanthophilia (and other charms of spring) at Shepherd House, Inveresk

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Are you a galanthophile? For me, a relatively new gardener, things could go either way: there’s still for me to develop the urge to collect rare, expensive snowdrop bulbs; or else galanthophilia may never take hold and I will be content to enjoy plain old G. nivalis dotting its pretty, native head around my borders for the rest of my life.

In fact, I am thrilled by any snowdrop, including nivalis, and I am not yet prepared to spend up to fifty pounds on a rare snowdrop that varies in tiny, almost indistinguishable ways. I say ‘not yet’, because it is just the sort of bandwagon I could see myself hopping on in later life.

Therefore it didn’t seem like too bad an idea to cultivate some prior knowledge by visiting a galanthophile’s garden, Shepherd House Garden, for their snowdrop weekend as part of the National Gardens Scheme. Shepherd House Gardens is a private garden of about one acre containing more than 70 different varieties of snowdrop, each one carefully labelled with name and distinguishing feature. [For a previous visit to Shepherd House Garden in early summer 2016, click here]

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I studiously and obediently observed the snowdrops, trying to distinguish the minute differences between them. Some were obvious straight away: the yellow of the aptly named ‘Primrose Warburg’, for example; others less so: I tried in vain to see the scissors of ‘Daphne’s Scissors’, lifting the delicate heads and peering inside to no avail. It was only when I got home and started processing my photos that the scissors suddenly jumped out at me.

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G. ‘Primrose Warburg’

But for many of the varieties, the name was just a name. I couldn’t understand what had caused someone to notice that a snowdrop seedling found in a garden was a different variety from those snowdrops that surrounded it. It would take an avid galanthophile, studying each snowdrop that appeared, to spot the differences. It made me wonder about all the new snowdrop varieties popping up in the gardens of non-galanthophiles that go unnoticed. I mean, could I be unwittingly harbouring any rare snowdrops among my plain ordinary nivalis? There is one patch of snowdrops down by my Sarcococca that is slightly taller and came out much earlier than their compatriotsIs it a new variety, or just nivalis doing better in a more advantageous environment? I would have to compare it with about 1000 other varieties, using a magnifying glass. And in the end, even if it were a new variety, would the tiny variations matter to anyone except a collector of names?

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I suppose these unappreciative questions mean that I am not, yet, a galanthophile, or possibly even one in the making. I am not much of a ‘details’ person, rather someone who appreciates the aesthetics of the bigger picture, a mass of snowdrops among winter aconites, or spreading under a tree whose leaves are bathed in pale sunlight, and in such idyllic vignettes the variety hardly matters, as long as the snowdrops spread wildly and enthusiastically.

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Elsewhere in the garden, spring was making herself known. Crocuses, anemones, hellebores and dwarf irises made well placed spots and carpets of colour. A crab-apple hedge was bright with red crab-apples against the blue fence posts, cheerful urns of violas made unexpected appearances in shady corners, and early white blossom stood out against an ochre wall.

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Shepherd House Garden remains one of my favourite retreats from the city. It maintains a feel of a private, family garden whilst elevating itself above the ordinary by the wit, art and imagination of its owners, the Frasers, who can usually be spied pottering about the garden among the visitors. It is open for charity at various times of year, as well as on Tuesdays and Thursdays during spring and early summer (see website for details of this year’s opening days).

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‘Now the leaves are falling fast’: Dawyck, late autumn

Listed as one of the ten best places in Scotland for autumn colour, Dawyck (it rhymes with oik), near Peebles, is one of Scotland’s three regional Botanical Gardens and lies down quaint, quiet lanes with the grand hills of Tweeddale looming mysteriously beyond. A light dusting of snow had fallen on the hills, and I stopped the car several times to take photographs. This made me late, but it was worth it.

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Gloom descends at around three-thirty in these parts, and it was already two when I arrived at Dawyck. I bought a coffee from the tiny café in the main building, and armed with a map and my camera, made my way into the Gardens where I quickly and intentionally got lost.

Having been several times to the Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh, I think I expected Dawyck to be a similar version on a smaller, more provincial scale. It is, in fact, a completely different type of place, an arboretum, and once part of a country estate, now devoted almost entirely to trees.

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The air was still and damp, and it seemed as though I was the only visitor, so desolate was the place. (Later it transpired that I had been the only visitor). The trees had lost most of their leaves, which lay in coppery piles alongside the paths, and thickly under the canopies. The only living creatures I saw were a pair of exotic-looking glossy black pheasants, which strutted confidently through the grass, and soon afterwards another pair of pheasants, this time the ordinary kind.

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Dawyck Botanical Gardens was once part of the Dawyck Estate, and the gloomy, gothic façade of the old house graced several views, looking terribly like a Scottish Baskerville Hall. Parts of the grounds are private, and close to the house the woodland melted seamlessly into tantalising, chained off garden. There were large, mossy stone urns and even mossier stone steps lending themselves to the general burden of Victorian grandeur, but away from the house I could have been in any starkly beautiful woodland, this one distinguishing itself to the sharp eyed only in the number of non-native trees. The Botanical Garden was enormous, and soon I was as lost as can be, far away along the smooth, still paths, up and up the hill and further into the wood.

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I ate a picnic of bread and hot soup from a flask while sitting on a moist bench, and idled my way through the woods, before remembering that the place closed at four and I was at least half an hour from the main building. I reluctantly began my return, taking a different path from the one I had come along, stopping to read briefly the instructive boards that described the nearby trees, fungi and wildlife. I passed over a little bridge and beside a small pool beside which stood an enormous and ancient larch tree, and then found myself in a beautiful birch wood, followed by some breathtakingly beautiful sorbus trees full of berries red, white, or pink, whose branches were entirely covered in curly green lichen.

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My lasting impression is one of solitude, stillness, damp and closing gloom. Of carroty trees and old moss, of snaking paths and knee-deep dead leaves, and of hurrying back to the main building and reaching it just as the clock struck four and the receptionist was coming out to look for me, still regretting that I couldn’t have stayed another hour, even though as light was fast disappearing

Dawyck Botanical Gardens, near Peebles, is open daily from 1st February to 30th November and entry for an adult costs £6.50, with reduced rates for concessions and children, and free entry to Friends of the RBGE.

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Harlow Carr in Autumn

I am dying to share my photos of the beautiful RHS gardens at Harlow Carr in North Yorkshire. I couldn’t have asked for better weather, or a better time to see these rich autumnal colours. A slide show will do far better justice to the gardens than any amount of words, so here it is!

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“Time Rolls His Ceaseless Course”: Abbotsford House and Gardens

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“Time will rust the sharpest sword/ Time will consume the strongest cord/ That which molders hemp and steel/ Mortal arm and nerve must feel.”

If you are a fan of historical and romantic novels, you may be familiar with the works of Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), one of Scotland’s most famous and prolific authors. His classics, Ivanhoe, Rob Roy, Waverley, and many others, brought him a good deal of fame and fortune, and with his riches he bought a large piece of land on the banks of the River Tweed, near Melrose in the Scottish Borders, where he gradually built a large, romantic house in place of the farmhouse that initially stood there. He also designed a set of beautiful gardens, and that of course was what brought me to Abbotsford on a brilliantly blue, sunny day in October.

 

The gardens consist of three garden ‘rooms’: the South Court beside the house, the sunken Morris Garden to the east, and the Walled Garden beyond that, reached through a stone archway. The South Court and Morris Gardens, while prettily laid out with topiary and lawns edged with roses, verbena and alchemilla, play only a supporting role to the Walled Garden, which is where the most impressive planting is in place. This is where food would once have been grown to feed the family and many visitors to the house, and today there are still many fruit trees and vegetables grown among the flowers.

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“In listening mood, she seemed to stand/ The guardian Naiad of the strand.”

The garden is laid out on a grid, with a wide, central path leading to the glass house, built to resemble a jousting pavilion.

Among the flowers growing in the Walled Garden, happy marriages are made between ammi and crocosmia, nerines and hostas, asters and astrantias, roses and clematis, and the persicaria glowing brightly before a white-lichened stone wall.

The gardens appeared neat and well looked-after, yet not too neat (like the best gardens) and overflowing with life and vigour; the plants and bountiful wildlife were repaying in full the care and attention of the gardeners.

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“Come fill up my cup, come fill up my can/ Come saddle your horses, and call up your men;/ Come open the West Port, and let me gang free,/ And it’s room for the bonnets of Bonny Dundee!”

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“To all, to each, a fair good-night/ And pleasing dreams, and slumbers light!”

I could have spent a lot longer wandering the straight paths, admiring the fruit trees, clouds of ammi, and glimpses of the castle over the walls.

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“It is a strong castle, and strongly guarded; but there is no impossibility to brave men.”

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“And you may gather garlands there/ Would grace a summer’s queen”

The River Tweed runs at the bottom of the estate, and looking back up to the house you could see what a grand scale it was built on, and evidence of the whimsical and haphazard building plan that Scott pursued over the decades, gradually replacing the old farmhouse with sections of the new house, a few rooms at a time.

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“My dear, be a good man – be virtuous – be religious – be a good man. Nothing else will give you any comfort when you come to lie here… God bless you all.”

Scott went on a year-long tour of Europe just before he died. Throughout his trip he was dogged by ill-health, and he longed to come home to Abbotsford and gaze upon the River Tweed once more. His wish was granted, and shortly after his return home, he died in one of the rooms that looked out across the valley to the river running steadily below.

Scott’s life was one of the most extraordinary achievement, resulting from decades of industrious work and dogged ambition. He gained immense importance and popularity, and his novels have captured the hearts and imaginations of generations of readers. Part of his legacy remains in Abbotsford House and its wonderful gardens, and a better afternoon could not be spent visiting them.

Abbotsford House lies in the Scottish Borders, and is a 20 minute walk or 5 minute bus ride from Tweedbank Station. The train to Tweedbank, which runs along the recently opened Borders Railway, departs (appropriately) from Edinburgh’s Waverley Station and the journey takes a short hour through spectacular scenery. The cost of a return is about £11.20 per adult at the time of writing.

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“Steady of heart and stout of hand”

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“Oh, young Lochinvar is come out of the West/ Through all the wide Border his steed was the best.”
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“If thou wouldst view fair Melrose aright/ Go visit it by the pale moonlight.”
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“I cannot tell how the truth may be; I say the tale as ’twas said to me.”
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“Her blue eyes sought the west afar/ For lovers love the western star.”

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“O Caledonia! stern and wild/ Meet nurse for a poetic child!”

Shepherd House, Inveresk

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Rendered speechless by the perfection of Shepherd House Garden in Inveresk, East Lothian, I have instead created the above slideshow tell you everything you need to know.

Over and out.

Post script. I have just come back to my senses enough to realise that my dear readers may wish to see a link to the Shepherd House websitehere it is. I have half a mind to go back to SHG again next week and do a proper write-up.