Magnificent trees, early blossom and carpets of daffodils greeted us on Saturday when we returned to our old stomping ground of Windsor Great Park. We used to live nearby and spent a great deal of time walking the myriad of paths through the parkland. It’s an amazing place covering some 1000 acres, with miles of woodland walks, the lakes of Virginia Water, ornamental gardens and plenty of wildlife.
Documents show the parkland goes back as far as the Saxon times when it was used as a hunting forest for the monarchy and nobility. It has the largest collection of ancient oak trees in Western Europe with several over one thousand years old. Over the years various monarchs and their gardeners have landscaped areas of the park and one of my favourite places is the Valley Gardens. These are 250 acres of sweeping views down to Virginia Water, meandering paths through woodland and areas devoted to specialist planting and were created after the Second World War by the deputy ranger Sir Eric Savill and his head gardener Hope Findlay. The acid soil conditions make for some spectacular collections of rhododendrons, azaleas and magnolias which can compete with any Cornish garden I have visited.
My favourite season in the Valley Gardens is spring and it was just getting under way when we visited at the weekend. There was some early blossom, the first flowers of the rhododendron collection had emerged and the magical sight of a carpet of Narcissus cyclamineus, which like to grow in slightly boggy conditions, with their swept back petals.
Over the next month or so the gardens will become a mass of reds, pinks and purples as the azaleas come into flower but my favourites have to be the magnificent magnolia collection.
Back in 2005 we visited on a beautiful spring day to see and smell the magnolias in full bloom. It had been one of those perfect spring’s where there were no late frosts to turn the flowers buds to mush and the petals brown.
Although the Valley Gardens are at their height in spring, there is plenty to see throughout the rest of the year. They are a great place for a picnic in the summer where you can sit amongst the cooling blues and whites of the hydrangeas and marvel at the enormous gunnera. As summer moves into autumn Sorbus produce vibrant berries and the leaves of maples, birches and liquidambars set the gardens alight.
All through the year the Great Park is a wonderful place to see wildlife, including deer and a resident parakeet flock. It’s certainly one of the best places to see all 3 types of woodpecker and you should be able to spot a red kite or two.
The best thing about all of this is it’s free. There is a part of the park, the Savill Garden, a self contained and specially designed ornamental garden that charges an admission fee and has visitor facilities such as a shop and restaurant but the Valley Gardens and the rest of the park cost nothing and I think that’s pretty great.
For more information go to Windsor Great Park’s website.