Leading 28 people on a tour of English gardens might sound like a daunting task. And it could have been, except that I had a lot of factors in my favor:
Previous visits to some of the gardens. An on-the-ball travel agent who nailed down every last detail. The nicest group of travelers and garden enthusiasts one could hope to meet. Perfect weather (yes, in springtime England). And the good fortune to have a tour escort who is also an avid gardener. How could the trip not be a success?
Well, it did get off to a bit of a shaky start. When you arrive at London’s Heathrow airport two days before the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, you have a lot of company – thousands of other travelers, in fact – while going through Customs. A process that has taken my husband and myself a few minutes on previous trips grew to a two-hour ordeal this time.
When we finally made our way to the arrivals hall, what a relief it was to make eye contact with a friendly looking gal holding a “Susan’s in the Garden Tour” sign. We knew the trip was officially underway when our tour escort, Cosetta Zanobetti, led us to our private coach.
Our journey from Spokane to see 12 spectacular gardens and – perhaps even more importantly – attend the Chelsea Flower Show, required three home bases: the Cotswolds, East Sussex and London.
The first full day was a long one, but our high spirits kept us going. Following a one-hour drive to Oxford, we arrived at Waterperry Gardens. This was the site of the School of Horticulture for Women, established in the 1930s by Beatrix Havergal to teach women a marketable skill.
We quickly ate our lunches so we could rush out to see what the garden had to offer. You can imagine our delight at seeing wisteria vines in full bloom, masses of Purple Sensation alliums and perfectly clipped hedges that framed the different areas of the garden. A stop in their delightful garden shop provided the first opportunity to purchase mementos.
We continued on to the Cotswolds to our first hotel, the Old Swan and Minster Mill, set in the quaint village of Minster Lovell. I wish I’d thought to take photos of the faces of my fellow travelers when they laid eyes on the wisteria-covered, half-timbered old inn. What I saw was pure joy. By the time they came down to the restaurant for our welcome dinner, they were ecstatic.
While based in the Cotswolds, we visited Waddesdon Manor and Gardens, the scenic village of Bourton-on-the-Water, and Hidcote Manor Garden.
Even though Hidcote looks like a very English garden, it was actually designed by an American – Major Lawrence Johnston – between 1907 and 1938. It is particularly memorable for its series of garden “rooms” that everyone enjoyed exploring and occasionally getting lost in.
Having our own coach afforded us a surprise from time to time, especially when one has an amiable and flexible coach driver. One day, he and our tour escort decided we had time for an unplanned stop in Shakespeare’s birthplace, Stratford-Upon-Avon.
The day we headed southeast for our next home base of East Sussex was particularly memorable. The first stop was Wisley Gardens, the historic home of the Royal Horticultural Society, and it is massive.
We had set aside four hours to explore the gardens but could easily have lingered longer. Perhaps we all spent too much time gawking at the finest display of rhododendrons we’ve ever seen? The group also enjoyed touring the enormous glasshouse, vegetable garden and orchard, and the trials field where plant varieties are evaluated on their merits.
It was soon time to head for Chartwell House, the family home of Winston Churchill. We began with a self-guided tour of the house that is filled with mementos from his life there. After a stop in the studio where Churchill spent many hours painting, we explored the family’s expansive walled kitchen garden.
Exhausted but happy, we checked into the Georgian-style Buxted Park Hotel, located in Uckfield.
The next day was a long but exciting one that included visits to Great Dixter, the village of Rye and Gravetye Manor and Gardens.
Great Dixter is well-known by English garden fans as the home and garden of writer and landscape designer Christopher Lloyd. This stop allowed us to equally appreciate the mid-15th-century timbered home and Lloyd’s exuberant planting style.
Gravetye Manor was originally the home of Irishman William Robinson from 1884 to 1935. It is now a hotel and Michelin-star restaurant situated on some of the most beautiful grounds in England. We enjoyed learning that Robinson had such a huge impact on gardening style, he is affectionately known as “the Irishman who taught the English how to garden.” After a pleasant stroll through the gardens, we were treated to the most memorable dinner of the trip.
The following day, we headed to Sissinghurst Castle Garden and Nymans Gardens.
Everyone was particularly eager to see Sissinghurst, knowing it is the quintessential English garden. There were those delighted faces again as the group eyed the stunning plant combinations or viewed the garden from above after climbing the iconic fairytale tower.
On the way to our final home base of London, we toured Penshurst Place. It started with a delightful tour of the house, which dates to 1341. Our enthusiastic guide shared tales of King Henry VIII’s use of it as a hunting lodge in the 1500s. Once out in the garden – which is one of the oldest still in private ownership – we fanned out to explore the parterre, water features and formal gardens surrounded by impressive yew hedges.
A panoramic coach tour of London was next on the agenda, after which we check into our final hotel, the Radisson Blu Edwardian Vanderbuilt in the Kensington district. While sad that the first six days of our trip were over, we were buoyed what would be happening the next day: the Chelsea Flower Show.
This bucket-list event takes place each May on the grounds of the Royal Chelsea Hospital. The temporary transformation of the grounds is amazing. Despite the large crowds, we enjoyed visiting the show gardens and the vendors’ booths for unique purchasing opportunities. Everyone’s favorite was the Great Pavilion, a huge tent that housed stunning floral displays of nearly every type of flower.
A visit to the more intimate Chelsea Physic Garden was on our itinerary the next day, affording us an insight into the use of plants for medicinal purposes. There was time to explore more of London on our own. Some shopped at Harrod’s or Fortnum & Mason, while others museum-hopped.
The final day was devoted to the enormous Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew. At nearly 300 acres, there was plenty to see including the largest Victorian glasshouse in the world, the Japanese garden with its 10-storied pagoda and the new treetop walkway.
During our farewell dinner on the final evening, there wasn’t a dry eye in the group. The perfect way to ease our sadness, however, was the thought of planning another trip to explore more gardens of the world with our new-found friends.
Contact Susan Mulvihill at Susan@susansinthegarden.com