The SAD lamp is at full whack, I have twinkly fairy lights decorating pretty much every available surface and enough candles to get us through a winter of power cuts but even this isn’t enough when we’ve had the dullest November since 1929 (Met Office) and December is continuing in the same vein. I’m now resorting to trawling through photos of the spring and summer in an attempt to alleviate the relentlessness of the grey. This is admittedly a risky strategy as gazing at images washed with colours and warmth and then staring out at rain splattered windows and a murky sky could, rather than raise the spirits, make me retreat under my duvet until March.
It wasn’t as if it was a summer which would go down as a classic in terms of weather, a rather typical cool affair and an August which was another wash out. Looking through the photos, one day does stand out and not just because the weather was so perfect. As a belated birthday day out for Wellyman we decided to revisit Hidcote, a garden we had last been to over 10 years ago, and combine it with a trip to a garden that for some reason had up until that point passed us by, Kiftsgate.
It was the end of June, beautifully warm but not too hot and not a cloud in the sky. Hidcote was a joy. The 10-year redevelopment plan undertaken since our last visit had made a huge difference to the visitor experience and the planting. There was a nice touch as we bought our tickets and wandered into the house where Lawrence Johnston, the creator of Hidcote, used to live. It was staged as if it was the 1930s with music playing and fresh flowers in vases. You could imagine Johnston had just popped out to play a game of tennis or wander around his garden. Visitors are free to plonk themselves down on the squishy sofa and drink in the atmosphere. You can also grab a racquet and a ball and take to the tennis court if you want. I remember from our last visit this being an empty, unused space but now it has a net and equipment for visitors to have a game. We had a go, although to call it tennis would be much too flattering, but it was fun. I know the National Trust has come in for some stick in recent years for its policy to be more inclusive by encouraging guests to immerse themselves in a visit. For some it’s the Disneyfication of our culture for me it was a few simple touches which made it a more enjoyable experience and which brought the place to life.
As for the gardens, well, they were stunning and much improved. Hidcote is one of the National Trust’s most popular gardens and one of the country’s best examples of an Arts and Crafts garden. Why’s it so popular? Probably because it exemplifies what most of us think of as the classic English garden. Interestingly though Hidcote was created by an American, albeit one who fought in the British Army and became a naturalised citizen, and owes much of its design and the formal layout to Italian gardens. The planting was voluptuous as you would expect for a garden in late June and it’s this billowing planting, spilling from the formal beds, that makes Hidcote so special. Of course, the stunning setting and beautiful honeyed stone of the Cotswold house help enormously too.
Looking back the photos have reminded me how it was such a fabulous year for roses and they looked incredible at Hidcote. Perhaps my favourite spot and an area which had seen the most change since we were last here was the lily pool, plant house and the flowers beds surrounding the two. Johnston’s original plant house had fallen into disrepair and was removed in the 1950s but the National Trust have built a new one, which has meant the return of sub-tropical plants to the gardens. The planting in the beds surrounding it and the lily pond was just beautiful.
Then came Kiftsgate which is literally just across the road from Hidcote. Even though we’d lived in the area years ago we had never visited this garden. We had arranged to meet Harriet a friend we had met via Twitter who lived nearby. There’s something extra special about sharing a garden visit with people as equally obsessed by plants as you. I’m sure we’ve all visited a garden with a non-gardener before and realised the different wavelengths you’re both on when they glaze over at the first mention of a plant name. Then there’s the wanting to linger by a particular planting combination or ducking down to search for plant label to turn around and see your companion disappearing off at a great lick in search of tea and coffee. It can be a painful experience for both parties. I’m lucky Wellyman shares my passion but it was an added bonus to wander around with Harriet.
Kiftsgate has many similarities to Hidcote. It was created by Heather Muir at the same time Johnston was creating Hidcote. Heather and her husband weren’t gardeners and there was a blank canvas when they moved to Kiftsgate. It was Johnston who encouraged Heather to create the structure of the garden. There’s an Italianate flavour with formality in the layout and the steep bank with its dramatic view across to the Malvern Hills terraced in the 1930s by Italian gardeners. The garden is now gardened by her granddaughter Anne Chambers.
The iconic image of Kiftsgate is the reflective pool with its bronze gilt leaved sculptures hovering above the water on the site of the old tennis court. I liked the change of pace it gave the garden and the modern minimal feel which was such a contrast to the rest of the garden. As for planting, well it was a feast for the eyes. From roses and geraniums to the stunning yellow border. Something that really caught my eye were the mounds of honeysuckle. They didn’t appear to be climbing varieties that had been trimmed but they were growing like neat shrubs. The plant list suggests it’s a bush form of Lonicera belgica but I can’t find any reference to this online. Has anyone any ideas?
I loved this Pennisetum ‘Red Buttons’ which had been used en masse lining the edge of a path in the same way lavender is often used.
It’s a day that, looking back at it now, prods me in the direction of what I want from the coming a year. To experience more gardens, spend more time with friends and meet more people who share my love of plants.