Make a pilgrimage this spring to one of the many landmark gardens around the UK coast – from ‘Capability’ Brown-designed pleasure grounds to exotic island oases. Words: Alex Reece. Photographs: Shutterstock/National Trust Images/English Heritage/National Trust for Scotland
1. FOR A PLANT HUNTER’S PARADISE
Abbey Garden, Tresco, Isles of Scilly
This unique terraced garden, created on Tresco by botanist Augustus Smith in the mid-19th century, is a haven for exotic plants, which thrive here thanks to the island’s microclimate. Indeed, the 2016 New Year flower count (an annual tradition, dating back 150 years), found more plant species than ever were in bloom, which is thought to be due to the unusually mild winter. Among those flourishing early are South African aloes, spiky yellow Australian Banksia and soaring blue echiums – which usually show later in spring. But the garden promises year-round interest, along with jaw-dropping views across the Scilly Isles archipelago, and its Valhalla Museum is packed with intriguing maritime finds. Open daily, 10am-4pm. Admission, £15 adult, £5 child, under-7s free (tresco.co.uk/enjoying/abbey-garden).
2. FOR BLUEBELL WOODS
Colby Woodland Garden, Amroth, Pembrokeshire
Visit this wooded valley site in spring and you’ll see: ‘fantastic carpets of bluebells and rhododendrons in bloom,’ says manager/head gardener Steve Whitehead. Then there are the many wildlife-spotting opportunities: check out the seven new ponds planted with water lilies, where you might see nesting ducks, along with dragon- and damselflies. The near-900-acre plot is just a 10-15-minute walk from Amroth Beach on the Pembrokeshire coast. Families will enjoy the rope swings and pond-dipping, and a new mountain-bike trail through the woodland is open for 2016. Open daily, 10am-5pm. Admission £6.60 adult, £3.30 child, £16.50 family (nationaltrust.org.uk).
3. FOR ‘CAPABILITY’ BROWN
Cadland Gardens, Fawley, Southampton, Hampshire
The only garden Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown created directly on the seashore was at Cadland (c.1775), a fishing cottage for his banker, Robert Drummond. Brown’s plan for Cadland, his smallest surviving pleasure ground, makes the most of the fantastic views towards the Isle of Wight. A series of panoramic vistas can be enjoyed from the belt walk encircling his miniature landscape. Open by appointment only (email@example.com, cadland.co.uk, capabilitybrown.org).
4. FOR TULIP FEVER
Walmer Castle and Gardens, Walmer, Kent
In 2015, English Heritage planted around 55,000 tulip bulbs at their properties – and visitors to Walmer Castle and Gardens between April and June this year will be treated to a vibrant display of rare, historic species. Also new last year, was a restoration of the holm oak avenue, which was once the main entrance to the castle. Don’t miss the undulating yew cloud hedge, which lines the Broadwalk, and is one of the garden’s most striking assets. The Queen Mother’s garden, set around a lily pond, provides secluded alcoves in which to sit and admire the seasonal colour. Open daily, 10am-6pm. Admission, £9.70 adult, £5.80 child, £25.20 family (english-heritage.org.uk).
5. FOR CHILD’S PLAY
The Alnwick Garden, Alnwick, Northumberland
This public garden on the North East coast was created by the Duchess of Northumberland 16 years ago and contains the UK’s only Poison Garden (a collection of lethal plants), Europe’s largest treehouse and 200 species of rose. The place is infused with a playful spirit: a Garden of Fairy Tales opened in 2015. To discover another ‘Capability’ Brown showpiece, head to The Duchess’ Viewpoint on the Woodland Walk, which gives a dramatic outlook over the River Aln, Alnwick Castle and its surrounding parkland – a landscape sculpted by the master gardener himself. Open daily, 10am-6pm. Admission £12.10 adults, children £4.40 (under-fives: free), £29.70 family (alnwickgarden.com).
6. FOR ISLAND SPLENDOUR
Mount Stuart, Isle of Bute, Argyll & Bute
The earliest part of this island oasis dates back to 1717, and the estate celebrates its 300-year anniversary this year. Must-sees, according to Graham Alcorn, Mount Stuart’s Living Collections Manager, are: Thomas Mawson’s Rock Garden with its cascading waterfalls, rhododendrons and camellias; The Rock Garden, ablaze with colour in spring and summer, and The Wee Garden, which harbours a collection of Southern Hemisphere plants. According to Graham and Don, ‘There are also fine views of the Firth of Clyde and the isles of Cumbrae.’ To make the most of the marine setting, try the coastal walk along the path from the gates at Kerrycroy village. Open all year round, 10am-6pm. Admission £6.50 adult, £3.50 child, £18 family (mountstuart.com).
7. FOR ARTS & CRAFTS
Kellie Castle & Garden, Pittenweem, Fife
From the grounds of Kellie Castle, which dates back to the 14th century, you can look out over the Lothian coastline, the Firth of Forth and the Bass Rock. This marine backdrop is offset by an Arts & Crafts-style garden where, at this time of year, young vegetables will be coming up in the organic kitchen garden, clouds of apple blossom will be on the trees and daffodils should still be in flower. Rescued from ruin by the Lorimer family in 1878, the castle became the family home of prolific architect Sir Robert Lorimer, and his furniture designs grace the garden today. Open daily, 9am until dusk. Admission £10.50 adult, concession £7.50, family £24.50 (nts.org.uk).
8. FOR MARVELLOUS MAGNOLIAS
Caerhays Castle, Gorran, St Austell, Cornwall
The 140-acre gardens on this South Cornish estate are open from spring to early summer only, so now is the time to explore the property’s Plant Heritage National Collection of magnolias, which numbers a remarkable 600 species. To find out more about these, and popular rhododendrons of the past century, attend one of the RHS-recommended lectures given by the garden’s owner Charles Williams during the open season. A particular highlight of this steep valley site is Caerhays Beach, which is sheltered and family-friendly, and has a vibrant café operating from spring to autumn. Open 20 February-18 June. Admission £8.50 adult, £4.50 child (caerhays.co.uk).
9. FOR VICTORIANA ON SEA
Osborne House, Isle of Wight, Hampshire
Osborne House was Queen Victoria’s seaside enclave and many of the trees here (such as poplars, azaleas and myrtle), were planted by Prince Albert himself to maintain their family’s privacy. The views across the Solent reminded the Prince Consort of the Bay of Naples – and an Italianate influence can be detected in the design of the whole estate. Defining features include a statuary, geometric terraces and a walled garden filled with espaliered fruit trees and herbaceous plants. The Swiss Cottage in the grounds was built as an educational play house for the royal children, while the beach at Osborne, says head gardener Toby Beasley: ‘was the first place Queen Victoria swam in the sea.’ Open daily, 10am-6pm. Admission £14.80 adult, £8.90 child, £38.50 family (english-heritage.org.uk).
10. FOR A GLOBAL GARDEN
Mount Stewart, Newtownards, Co. Down
The gardens at Mount Stewart, on the shores of Strangford Lough, were designed principally in the 1920s by Lady Edith, 7th Marchioness of Londonderry, and bear the hallmarks of her vision in the form of figurative topiary, exotic plant species and animal sculptures. In 2014, the National Trust acquired a further 900 acres surrounding the estate, and this has prompted new planting in and around the woodland garden ‘from all over the world,’ says head gardener Neil Porteous. Neil also recommends exploring the Himalayan-style pathway lined with maddenii rhododendron species, which are highly scented. Open daily, 10am-5pm. Admission £8.50 adult, £4.25 child, £21.15 family (nationaltrust.org.uk).