The best gardens to visit over the bank holiday weekend
Easter has always been a uniquely special weekend in the garden visiting calendar. The message of hope embedded in the Christian festival is complemented by a similar message in gardens. Whether it falls early or late, Easter always seems to be the moment when the renewal of spring is fully apparent and the restrictions of winter – short daylight hours; cold and damp; plant growth restricted to a few seasonal specialists – begin to recede.
Summer may be many weeks away, but with extending daylight hours and the chance of increasing warmth and sunlight creating rapidly warming soil, plant growth begins to surge, creating a mood of celebration that is hard to miss. Gardens definitely come out of winter hibernation in the same way that some animals do, and they complement the excitement and activity for which they provide the setting, from nest-building and egg-laying to birth and the rearing of newborns.
We are lucky in large parts of the UK that the spring season around Easter sees some of our most delightful and iconic garden plants at their best, from universal favourites such as daffodils, apple blossom and early tulips to sensational seasonal specialisms like gorgeously scented Viburnum carlesii, delicate erythroniums with their nodding pagoda-shaped flowers, or soft-petalled spring-flowering clematis alpina and clematis macropetala.
Add to all of this the fact that the Easter weekend has two bank holidays, so there is plenty of time to get out, visit a garden and enjoy the easily accessible relaxation this has to offer. Visiting a garden open in aid of the National Garden Scheme will give you the satisfaction of helping to directly support some of the country’s best-loved nursing and caring charities.
Founded in 1927 to raise funds for district nursing, currently the National Garden Scheme donates around £3 million every year to a group of nursing and health charities. The money is raised at open gardens throughout the year and donated to the charity by generous garden owners. At the end of the year more than 80 per cent of what they raise will be donated to the group of beneficiaries which includes Macmillan Cancer Support, Marie Curie and Hospice UK.
To discover all the gardens participating in the scheme, go to the website at ngs.org.uk. But for a snapshot, here are some of the 50-plus gardens opening in support of the National Garden Scheme over the Easter weekend in England, Wales and Northern Ireland – where gardens opened for the charity for the first time in 2022. Here, the wonderfully named Old Balloo House and Barn is open on Friday and Saturday to show off an impressive array of daffodils.
Gardens in the north of England are often slower to start opening because their spring season starts later, but in Cheshire, clematis enthusiasts will not want to miss Adswood, which is open on Saturday and Sunday and has a collection of 150 varieties, providing a feast of colours and texture through the year, including many spring-flowering varieties. (Admission must be booked online in advance for this garden, whereas for most others it is an option, or you can just turn up and pay at the gate.)
One of the most westerly NGS gardens on the mainland is Treffgarne Hall in Pembrokeshire, open on Easter Monday. The garden benefits from the mild, maritime climate that comes from being just a few miles from the coast, past which the Gulf Stream flows, and has a fabulous collection of magnolias and species rhododendrons as well as some real exotics such as acacias, embothriums and crinodendrons.
Many garden owners show remarkable loyalty to the National Garden Scheme, in some cases opening their gardens for decades. Among them is a distinguished group of 75 opening in 2023, which formed part of the 609 gardens that opened in the scheme’s first year of 1927. In that year, all gardens charged one shilling admission and they raised £8,000; in 2022, 3,500 gardens opened and raised £3.8 million. Kiftsgate Court in Gloucestershire, which has been opening since 1930, is open on Monday, when you can enjoy the treasures of one of England’s most renowned gardens.
Visitors are always intrigued by the garden’s story of having been created by three women; the current owner, her mother and her grandmother, each of whom have preserved the creations of their predecessor at the same time as adding new features of their own.
Over the years many Old Rectory gardens up and down the country have become firm favourites with visitors, none more so than the Old Rectory, Pulham in Dorset, which is open on Monday, and where you can enjoy four acres of delightful design and planting. In Wales, close to the English border in Gwent, the long history of the Victorian Old Rectory, Penhros has been enhanced by a fine collection of spring-flowering plants throughout the garden which is open on Sunday. Like many gardens in Wales, it is also blessed with fine views across surrounding countryside, so the perfect place for a relaxing Easter stroll.
Three gardens open in the south east of England over Easter offer a good reflection of the variety of gardens that open for the National Garden Scheme. At the Old Vicarage, Washington in West Sussex, you will discover intriguing variety throughout the three-and-a-half acres of the country garden that surround the Regency house (not open). The smaller garden of Shieling in Surrey has been faithfully restored to its original 1920s design, which includes a large rock garden and unusual woodland perennials. Copton Ash in Kent is a plantsman’s garden par excellence where you will find a host of small rarities including many unusual bulbs and alpines and some recent plantings of Mediterranean plants that are a reflection of climate change.
At the start of the Easter weekend you can visit two delightful gardens in Oxfordshire, both open on Good Friday. First, in south Oxfordshire, the garden of Midsummer House is a good example of what can be achieved in a few years. With views up to famous White Horse Hill, it has an enviable outlook, but the detail of planting in the small garden, whether in the formal area in front of the house or along the stream that flows through, is equally memorable. In north Oxfordshire, Sarsden Glebe offers a feast of spring features from planting in terraces around the elegant rectory (not open) to an immaculate walled kitchen garden and, perhaps best of all, a sea of blue and white anemones in the wild garden.
On the other side of the country, in Essex, Feeringbury Manor is also open on Good Friday. This is a true plantsman’s garden and at this time of year you can discover the jewelled lawn, scattered with a mixture of spring flowers and an array of small species tulips, so delicate compared with their better-known but blowsier relations.
The portfolio of gardens that opens for the National Garden Scheme changes from week to week, so you can constantly discover something new or unexpected. Among the gardens opening over the weekend after Easter is a group that includes the Old Rectory, Farnborough, where John Betjeman once lived and where the present owners have created a beguiling series of garden rooms containing a variety of unusual plants.
On the south Wales coast of the Vale of Glamorgan, the garden of Slade tumbles down to a path leading straight on to the beach. Views overlook the Bristol Channel and at this time of year spring bulbs and fritillaries fill tubs or are scattered through the garden’s grass slopes.
Felley Priory in Nottinghamshire is a consummate country house garden with immaculate yew hedges framing lawns and deep borders. Of particular interest at this time of year is the collection of unusual narcissus and bluebells that will be beginning to carpet the woodland. Yew topiary is another feature at Felley, but at the small village garden of Balmoral Cottage in Kent it is the garden’s stand-out feature, superbly clipped into birds and other shapes.