Britain’s gardens in April reveal more than they know
Story and photos by Dorothy Dobbie
The psyche of the people of Britain, who look nature square in the eye and meet her head-on, both playfully and domineeringly, speaks through her gardens.
It is late April, a little rainy, the clouds are interspersed with sunshine that falls like a benediction. The gardens are just awakening. Dazzling autumn planted bulbs impose themselves on the muted landscape. They are laid out in great sweeps of bright blue hyacinth, sunny yellow daffodils and lipstick red tulips. Itis clear that they are not native here, but their cheeriness is welcome just the same. Their lives will be short but showy.
We are at the Royal Horticultural Society’s headquarters, a 60-acre garden at Wisley in Surrey, 90 minutes from London. After three days in the city, we are ready for some fresh garden air and some not-so-man-made marvels. The gardens do not disappoint. Unexpected swathes of pink, coral, white and red rhododendrons glow through the mist among the still naked trees and shrubs. A late camellia imitates tall roses. Magnolias push their tulip-shaped buds from leafless branches. Along the water ways, skunk weed grows like low-lying sunshine, beautiful in spite of its unpleasant name (and, up close, odour). The air is chill and damp, but invigorating, and when the sun touches down, it leaves a wash of sweetness in its path.
For tree lovers, this is a good time to be visiting the gardens of England. A few short weeks from now, all these glorious blossoms will have succumbed to domineering foliage. Lovely as they are, the leaves will hide the haunting forms and stately shapes of the magnificent trees. Now, though, you can enjoy the secrets of the mighty oaks, marvelling at the twisted branches that are graced with just a hint of green. The mottled cream and white trunks of sycamores (the famed London planer trees) stand out against both the dark green lawns and the weathered buildings. If you came later in spring, you would miss the blackness of over-wintered evergreens. You would not see the tender green veils of emerging weeping willow leaves sweeping the waters of the River Cam at Cambridge, where our group takes a water-based tour, via punt. We ignore the odd cloudburst admiring the endurance of our young punters who seem to take the cold water in their stride — er, stroke.
This time of year, there are lessons to be learned about how English gardeners use woody plants in the landscape: how they’ve trained sturdy wisteria vines to craft canopies and cover arbours, how they’ve interlaced branches to create walls and tree hedges, and how by pollarding and pruning they can alter the shape of a tree, while extending its life at the same time.
There are flowers, too. Nodding blossoms of yellow and orange fritillaria point shyly earth ward. Primulas light up the ground in their many jewel-like colours. The stately spurge, Euphorbia characias spp. Wulfenii, is everywhere, flaunting lemon-yellow flower umbels on structural, three-foot stems. The gigantic Gunn era has sent its magnificent cone-shaped blossom skyward even before the enormous leaves have fully unfurled. Bluebells wink, cobalt blue, from the woods and shady areas.
Here and there, a palm tree surprises our tour visitors.
Who knew, they say, that England was so tropical?
Back at Wisley, a rockery rises suddenly, filled with compelling miniature flowers and dwarf shrubs. Water spills from volcanic rock into a little stream that runs over more rocks, leaving nooks and crannies offering many revelations. The rock garden is over a hundred years old; it demonstrate show plants and rocks can team up to present marvels of mystery in miniature. Another, at the botanical gardens in Edinburgh, is even more wonderful and much larger.
It’s off to Cambridge for the dreamy water tour and an even wetter tour of the Cambridge Botanical Garden, where, for me, the wonder of the whole trip was a blue jade vine, Strongylodon macrobotrys, found unheralded in an ancient glasshouse. This stunning turquoise flower is painted the ra-rest colour of the plant world.
In Yorkshire, we visit Harewood House which is often still in use by the Royal family at Christmas time. The grounds include a gorgeous woodland walk, largely untamed, but the tour of the home steals the show as we are led through the magnificent main floor rooms (the family still live upstairs).Through a drawing room window, we glimpse the terraced garden built by Capability Brown. Beyond that, in the distance, can be seen the lake, where we walked just moments ago. It’s a dreamy place and the story behind the house is romantic and dreamy too. In 1929, it became the home of the beautiful Mary Princess Royal, the daughter of King George V, sister of King George VI.
As we travel up the spine of England, we drop by Sherwood Forest, and while we didn’t see any merry men, we did encounter ancient trees, unbowed in spite of the rain. An overnight stay at the Wood Hall Hotel in West Yorkshire presents its guests with a chance to explore what it was like to live in a country manor house. The 44-bedroom hotel was built about 1850 on property owned by the Vavasour family since the Middle Ages.
Edinburgh was a surprise highlight. The town is steeped in history and tradition, but not far from each other, Grey friars Bobby Pub and the Elephant House, stand out for their stories. Grey friars Bobby (the pub serves good food, too), is named in honour of the little Skye terrier who, back in themid-19th century, so missed his master, a night watch man named John Grey, he guarded his grave for 14 years. The Elephant House, a humble coffee shop with a warm feeling, was the place where J.K. Rowling wrote most of the first book of the Harry Potter series. Its backroom windows overlook the legendary Edinburgh Castle, parts of which date back to the12th century. A visit to the “loo” reveals the heartfelt love of Rowling’s thousands of fans, who have inscribed messages to her on every surface, including the ceiling.
There is no denying the beauty of the gardens in Britain, but what is most memorable is the way they and the outdoor life informs the culture of these fabled isles. London is a perfect example: there are parks everywhere and green spaces make this monster city of more than 8.5 million people, the largest in Europe, more than livable. “It is,” declared our American tour guide, “my favorite city in the world.”
Subconsciously, she is hearing the British voice through her eyes. That voice is tough as seen through the calculated bending of woody trees and shrubs to the gardener’s will. It is practical and innovative as seen in the way gardeners conquer the wild in nature, while respecting it, too. It is tenacious as seen in the preservation of the built infrastructure from Hadrian’s Wall to the magnificent buildings that characterize its towns and cities. And it is masterful and visionary as seen through the planning and sculpting of vast landscapes for nothing more than the pleasure of being in them.