10 glorious UK garden fantasias to visit this summer (2024)

Wildside, south-west Devon

If you are holidaying in the West Country, don’t miss one of the very limited chances to visit Wildside, a few miles north of Plymouth, which opens at the end of the month, and again in August. If you’re not, it’s worth a special trip. Wildside is the most exciting of gardens – the extraordinary creation of Keith Wiley, an obsessive gardener, tirelessly driven by horticultural curiosity, ecological exactitude, rage and grief. He ignores all the usual gardening rules and makes new ones, guided by his close observation of plant communities in natural landscapes across the globe. (It is only by casting off the straitjacket of long-established horticultural practice, Wiley insists, that gardeners can discover their true creative potential.) There are myriad unusual plants to see, and plants used in imaginative ways. It is no surprise that Wildside has been hailed as the most adventurous garden in the UK.

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Over 18 frenetic years, Wiley has sculpted 1.2 hectares (three acres) of flat field on the rainy fringes of Dartmoor into a series of hills and valleys, canyons and pools, and redeployed the topsoil to create a fantastic variety of habitats ranging from the foothills of the Himalayas to the conifer forests of California, from mossy Cornish valleys to the sun-baked hillsides of Crete. Get lost among the narrow, twining paths, pause to rest in a bamboo arbour and be transported to a Chinese glade. Emerging from the labyrinth of paths, there’s a fragrant Mediterranean courtyard, enclosed by a leafy pergola and softly painted adobe walls. But alongside the usual Mediterranean suspects, plants more accustomed to polite manor house borders – roses, clematis and regal waxy lilies – are forced into proximity with yuccas and palms and billowing grasses, to electrifying effect.

Beyond the courtyard lie The Canyons, the artificial mountainside created over years by Wiley working his digger, where slopes clothed with birches and fragrant pines give way at this season to hummocks of swaying grasses and sheets of agapanthus, punctuated by red hot pokers and fiery crocosmias: it is a jaw-dropping sight.

His latest mission is to devote part of this area to a South African bulb garden, a more authentic version of the South African meadow garden that first made his name in the 1990s at the nearby Garden House. It is intended as a tribute to his late wife, Ros. When Ros died of lung cancer in 2019, the project was still in its infancy – a deep pond remodelled into a cascade and stream, and the first experimental plantings made in beds of pure sand. Now Wiley is seeking crowdfunding to complete it, as a living memorial celebrating the vivid colour beloved by his painter wife. The focal point of the garden, he hopes, will be a two-tier pavilion overlooking the scene, offering respite for people with cancer and their carers.

Open 28-31 July and 12-15 August, 11am-5pm, adult £10, child £5, under-5s free, wileyatwildside.com

The Japanese Garden at Cowden, Clackmannanshire

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“In a sheltered foothold of a grassy range of hills, that stretch from sunrise to sunset, lies the gardens of my dreams,” wrote the intrepid Scottish traveller Ella Christie, who was inspired by her travels in the far east in 1907 to create a Japanese garden at her Cowden Castle home. The first western woman to meet the Dalai Lama, she hired a female designer, Taki Handa, to help her create Sha Raku En, “the place of pleasure and delight”. Taki designed a 2.8 hectare stroll garden around a new lake, incorporating views of the Ochil hills. Built and maintained by Japanese gardeners and craftsmen, it was long considered the most authentic Japanese garden in the west.

After Christie’s death in 1949, the castle was demolished and the garden lay derelict and vandalised until Masao f*ckuhara, known for his exquisite gold medal-winning gardens at Chelsea, rode to the rescue in 2014. Traditional features, such as turtle and crane islands, zigzag and arched bridges and a “karesansui”, or dry garden, have been lovingly restored, and a new thatched pavilion offers the perfect spot to enjoy this vision of blissful serenity, interrupted only by the odd red squirrel.

Open daily to 30 October, 10.30am-5pm (from 31 October: Wed-Sun, 10.30am-4pm); adult £8.50, child £5.25, under-5s free, family (2 adults, up to 3 children) £26, cowden-garden.myshopify.com

Lowther Castle, Cumbria

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There’s something for everyone at Lowther Castle – no longer, perhaps, a “hidden gem”, but an increasingly popular garden destination in Cumbria, which has triumphed over adversity to accomplish the most ambitious (and still ongoing) garden restoration in Europe.

Only a heart of stone could resist the shameless romance of a garden planted to twine through the ruins of a gothic castle – a northern version of the garden at Ninfa near Rome. It is the brainchild of designer Dan Pearson, who has also contributed the tapestry garden that stands in the castle’s forecourt (planned to resemble a threadbare tapestry, which was handy when the project was so short of funds that plants were scarce), a stylish minimalist courtyard and, most recently, a rose garden planted in the shape of an English rose.

History buffs will enjoy unravelling the traces of Lowther’s previous gardens, from the first baroque gardens laid out in the 1690s (the epic viewing terrace no less dramatic today), to the sequence of “lost” Edwardian pleasure gardens, now mossy and overgrown, added by Hugh Lowther, the dashingly spendthrift “yellow earl” of Lonsdale (he had a fondness for the colour), who blew the family fortune and abandoned the castle in 1936. Children, meanwhile, will find their own castle to explore: the spectacular Lost Castle adventure playground in the woods.

Open daily 10am-5pm, adult £12, child £9, under-3s free, family (2 adults, up to 3 children) £38, lowthercastle.org

Jervaulx Hall, North Yorkshire

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Few gardens are fortunate enough to have a ruined Cistercian abbey as a backdrop. Probably the best known of such gardens is Unesco site Studley Royal, the 18th-century water garden in Yorkshire that has Fountains Abbey as an ornament (though it took generations to secure it). But nearby Jervaulx Hall, opening as part of the National Garden Scheme, has the lesser-known and even lovelier Jervaulx Abbey as its neighbour, while the ruins of the abbey mill form part of the garden and offer splendid views over the River Ure.

The 3.2 hectare garden includes formal gardens with mixed herbaceous and shrub borders, a parterre, croquet lawn, courtyard and fountain, an impressive glasshouse and vegetable garden. There are extensive woodland areas containing some magnificent older trees, notably redwoods and cedars, as well as more recently planted ornamentals. The garden also displays an intriguing collection of modern sculpture, some of which celebrates its ecclesiastical setting.

Open 20 July and 10 August, 12pm-5pm, adult £7, child free, findagarden.ngs.org.uk

Felley Priory, Nottinghamshire

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One of the few compensations for driving up and down the M1 is the opportunity to stop off at Felley Priory, just half a mile and a world away from the motorway. Roses clamber up rosy Tudor walls, pergolas groan under the weight of clematis, vines and honeysuckle, a tennis-court turned rose garden explodes with colour and scent. But the thing that sets Felley apart is the subtle and scintillating use of colour in the densely packed herbaceous borders – glorious on a sunny day, and positively breathtaking in the purple light of a sudden summer storm. These are worth studying in detail, packed with exciting combinations of rare and unusual plants, some of which are available to buy in the adjoining nursery.

The garden feels timeless, but in fact it is relatively young, begun by the grandmother of the present owners in 1976. Her first act was to plant protective yew hedges, now clipped into scallops and buttresses, accompanied by jaunty topiary castles, chickens and knots. A rickety door in an ancient wall leads through to a pond and orchard, with views of the rolling countryside beloved by local boy DH Lawrence. You won’t want to get back in your car …

Open Tuesday-Friday, 9am-4pm (plus some Sundays), adult £6, senior £5, child free, felleypriory.co.uk

Portmeirion, Gwynedd

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There’s no denying Portmeirion is seriously weird. It is nothing less than a pastiche Italian village transplanted to the scenic shores of north Wales – the life’s work of visionary architect Clough Williams-Ellis, who acquired the site in 1925.

Visitors generally go to enjoy the eclectic architecture, cobbled together from fragments of architectural salvage (Williams-Ellis called his dream project a “home for fallen buildings”) or to revel in 1960s nostalgia: the cult TV drama The Prisoner was filmed in Portmeirion. But it’s equally fascinating for its gardens – for it is the planting as much as the colourful paintwork and picturesque bell towers that create the illusion of bringing Portofino to the Dwyryd estuary.

Village gardens, piazzas and belvederes are lavishly adorned with palms, umbrella pines and cypress trees, not to mention delightfully wonky topiary and swathes of hydrangeas in eye-popping colours. The gentle microclimate of the Gulf Stream also works its magic in the 28-hectare woodland garden that surrounds the village: the Gwyllt (or Wildwood) garden shelters important collections of exotic trees and shrubs created by previous owners (notably George Henry Caton Haigh, an authority on Himalayan woody plants), a “wishing tree” and a dreamy Chinese garden designed by the architect’s daughter. Strangest of all is the dog cemetery, created by Adelaide Haig for her 17 companions, to whom she was reputed to read the Scriptures from behind a screen every Sunday.

Open daily 10am-5pm (advance booking required), adult £17, child £10, under-5s free, family (2 adults, 2 children) £45, portmeirion-village.com

Pensthorpe natural park, Norfolk

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Before Piet Oudolf became famous, he designed the Millennium Garden at Pensthorpe, near Fakenham – his first large-scale work in the UK. In those days, the poster boy for the kind of sweeping naturalistic planting that has revolutionised Europe’s gardens was just an innovative Dutch nurseryman growing unusual plants. By 2010, he was a world-renowned designer, and returned to Pensthorpe to refine his work.

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Pensthorpe is first and foremost a nature reserve, created from former gravel pits to offer a sanctuary for wetland and farmland birds. So Oudolf’s Millennium Garden sets out to narrow the gap between garden and natural landscape with a richly textured tapestry of colourful perennials and grasses, reaching a peak in August and September. You can also enjoy a woodland garden by wildflower pioneer Julie Toll, a sculpture garden featuring work by artist-blacksmith Jenny Pickford and Robin Wright’s giant wirework dandelions. (There is also a 12ft fairy, though children may be more entranced by Pensthorpe’s excellent play facilities.) And all the family can enjoy the Wildlife Habitat Garden, offering ideas to help us attract wildlife into our own gardens, with an emphasis on bees.

Open daily until 4 September, 10am-5pm, adult £12.95, senior and child £11.95, pensthorpe.com

Chapel Farm Close, Suffolk

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For those who think their outdoor space is too small to be worth bothering about, take a tip from adventurous young gardener Ross Lee. Posting a picture of his extraordinary Suffolk garden in Gislingham village, he tweeted a reminder “that no matter where you start in life you can create something beautiful”. He should know. Ross began gardening, rather by accident, with a single rose from a pound shop, graduated to buying plants from car boot sales, and, knowing nothing, taught himself basic gardening from YouTube videos. It’s hard to believe this clever, densely planted garden, stuffed with any plant that takes his fancy from hydrangeas to hostas, tree ferns to bananas, has been created from the blank space behind a new-build in just two years.

Ross is proud of the serene Zen vibe he has created in his tiny space. He himself has also been transformed, from troubled teenager to budding garden designer and social media star, with his own YouTube channel. Check it out next month, when his tropical-feeling oasis is among the Gislingham village gardens opening for the National Garden Scheme.

Open 6-7 August, 11am-4.30pm, adult £5, child free, findagarden.ngs.org.uk

Woolbeding Gardens, W Sussex

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It takes a certain amount of effort to visit Woolbeding. Although it is owned by the National Trust, it remains a private house. There is no car park, so book a timed ticket in advance and secure a place on a minibus from Midhurst. But it is worth all the palaver to enjoy this glorious garden on the banks of the River Rother, the joyously idiosyncratic creation of the late Simon Sainsbury and his partner, Stewart Grimshaw. Entrance is through an angular courtyard garden, leading to a broad lawn ornamented by a striking water sculpture by William Pye, and a folly marking the spot where once stood the tallest tulip tree in Europe, felled by the 1987 hurricane. Happily, many remarkable trees still remain, notably two snakily spreading Oriental planes.

Formal garden rooms intricately planted by society designer Lanning Roper in the 1970s give way to a pint-sized pleasure ground laid out round a lake, which packs in a ruined abbey, hermit’s hut, Chinese bridge, grotto, gothic summerhouse and Italianate secret garden. Developed from the start of the new century by Julian and Isabel Bannerman, it is an exercise in pure fantasy, well worth the short walk along the riverbank.

Open Thursdays and Fridays (advance booking essential), adult £10, child £5, nationaltrust.org.uk

Godolphin Garden, Cornwall

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Godolphin is as unlike a typical National Trust garden as you can imagine. No showy borders. No gift shop. No crowds. Instead, wander down a shady, miraculously unfrequented lane to discover a delightful jumble of medieval buildings sheltering an ever-so-slightly ramshackle pair of gardens.

Godolphin was once rather grand, and what remains here is historically important – clear remnants of a Tudor garden, which overlaid an earlier medieval garden – so one of the oldest and most significant garden layouts in Europe. But you don’t need to know any history to soak up the magical atmosphere, to enjoy exploring the ancient pathways and remains of once noble terraces that survive in the Side Garden, or to imagine evenings of lute music in the intimate walled garden now known as the King’s Garden. Look out for bee “skeps” set in special holes (or boles) in the walls, which trap the scents of lavender and roses.

Open daily 10am-5pm, adult £10, child £5, family £25, nationaltrust.org.uk

Ambra Edwards is the author of The Story of the English Garden

10 glorious UK garden fantasias to visit this summer (2024)
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