The best royal gardens to visit this summer (and the Queen's favourite)

·13-min read
best royal gardens uk visit summer 2021 - GAP Photos / Robert Smith
best royal gardens uk visit summer 2021 - GAP Photos / Robert Smith

You don’t need an invitation from The Queen to get a close-up view of these royal gardens. From the beautifully designed Sunken Gardens at Kensington Palace to the 100-acre garden at Hillsborough Castle with a “hidden” lake, a ferny glen and a pinetum, there's plenty to see and do this summer, for families of all ages. Here, we count eight of the best royal gardens to visit (or picnic at) in the warmer months. You never know, you might even spot her Majesty.

Buckingham Palace, London

⇢ Open for pre-booked visits July 9-Sept 19.

“I’m just off for tea with the Queen at the palace…” A daydream for many people, but the fantasy comes true for about 30,000 subjects each year – in normal times, at least – who are invited to one of the three royal garden parties held during July and August.

Many gentlemen guests wear morning coats and toppers, while ladies don colourful dresses and hats. Beefeaters are in attendance and a military band plays as tea is served and some 20,000 sandwiches and small cakes are consumed.

Buckingham Palace is the official London residence of the sovereign and until quite recently the only way to see the garden was at an official party, but in recent years the grounds have been open to the public in summer.

The 39-acre garden comprises a wide lawn that leads to a lake (with island) fringed with woodland, where giant planes and specimen trees – 85 oak varieties alone – can be viewed from serpentine paths. These neatly edged walkways are surfaced with a fine, sand-like gravel, a nice old-fashioned touch. Lower down, flowering shrubs might draw the eye, including a recently planted azalea collection.

Other attractions include a 156m-long herbaceous border, in fashionably “exotic” style, on the north-eastern edge of the garden, a magnolia dell – the deep pink Magnolia ‘Vulcan’ is a star variety, along with even darker pink ‘Black Tulip’ – a cascade into the lake, a fine avenue of Indian horse chestnut trees and a formal rose garden. The fruit from a national collection of mulberry trees is collected by kitchen staff to make mulberry soufflé.

Five acres of meadows, with around 250 wild flower varieties, may sound like a fashionable idea, but they date back to the time of George III, when part of the garden was turned over to pasture for livestock. One secret is the apple-scented camomile lawn, by the lake on its eastern side: it blends perfectly with the main lawn.

Traditionalists will be pleased to know that the palace’s lawn is still mowed with three cylinders in 190cm-wide formal stripes in two directions to create a chequered effect.

Although Buckingham Palace is perhaps the most formal of all the royal residences, the garden is extensive enough for the family to enjoy respite and exercise – though this last has not been without incident.

In a letter dated winter 1841, Prince Albert, a good ice skater, related how he had fallen through the ice on the lake “and had to swim for two or three minutes in order to get out”. He continued: “Victoria was the only person who had the presence of mind to lend me assistance”.

Picnics permitted; see Royal Collection Trust to book your visit.

Kensington Palace, London

⇢ Open Wed-Sun

The Sunken Gardens are a particular highlight at Kensington Palace, London, for their vibrant colour and design - Getty Images
The Sunken Gardens are a particular highlight at Kensington Palace, London, for their vibrant colour and design - Getty Images

The palace – known to the Royal household as “KP” – is intimately connected with the memory of Diana, Princess of Wales, who lived here from 1981 until her death in 1997. The formal sunken garden at KP was redesigned by the palace’s former head gardener as a white garden in memory of the Princess, for whom it was apparently a favourite spot, and it was from here that the Duke of Sussex, her younger son, chose flowers for his wife’s bridal bouquet.

This garden is also the site of the memorial statue of the Princess, due to be unveiled by her sons on July 1, which would have been her 60th birthday. Princes William and Harry grew up in one of several apartments at the palace, where they also had the use of a roof garden.

There are various private gardens hidden from the public for the use of their royal tenants. Nottingham Cottage is one of a cluster of smaller buildings to the north of the main palace building. The two-bedroom house has a small paved and walled courtyard garden, about 9m by 6m, with a barbecue in one corner (at least to judge by the photos posted on Instagram by the Duchess of Sussex a few years ago).

Apartment 1A, almost a wing of the palace, is now the residence of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and has a private garden of perhaps half an acre, which is still known by some insiders as Princess Margaret’s Garden, as it was originally fenced in as a wedding gift from the Queen in 1961.

The Princess made various additions to the garden over the years – some were gifts, such as a fountain that was a present from Mrs Heinz (of baked beans fame) – and some were quirky ideas, such as a section of racecourse grandstand, which became the garden’s terrace.

To book your visit, see Historic Royal Palaces.

Balmoral, Aberdeenshire

⇢ Garden open daily until Aug 2

The Royal family seem to be more at home here in Aberdeenshire than anywhere else, surrounded by tartan, heather and the sound of bagpipes. It is the ideal environment for countryside pursuits such as riding, walking and deerstalking, which most members of the family prefer over gardening.

Like Sandringham, Balmoral is a private residence owned by the Queen and is not part of the Crown Estate. Her Majesty traditionally spends part of the summer here, as does the Prince of Wales. It was Prince Albert who oversaw the original tree plantations.

The walled garden, revamped under the direction of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, provides much of the fruit and vegetables consumed by the household in summer, while elsewhere there are glasshouses, a conservatory, a rose garden and planted walks through the woodland, with rhododendrons and azaleas. Next to the Scottish baronial house is a formal garden created by Queen Mary in the 1920s.

The rustic-styled Garden Cottage of 1863 overlooks the Water Garden, to the west of the main drive. Two rooms of the cottage were used by Queen Victoria as a breakfast retreat and study (it was here she wrote her diary), while the rest of the building was a gardener’s quarters – which must have been a little disconcerting for him.

For more information or to book a visit, see Balmoral Castle.

Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh

⇢ Open Thurs-Mon, closed until July 2

The six-acre gardens at Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh, are the venue of the Queen’s summer garden party in late June - Getty Images
The six-acre gardens at Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh, are the venue of the Queen’s summer garden party in late June - Getty Images

The scale of the six-acre gardens behind the palace, at one end of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, often takes visitors by surprise. As the Scottish headquarters of the Royal family, it is the venue for the Queen’s summer garden party in late June – held on the pristine lawns against the dramatic backdrop of the ruined Holyrood Abbey (founded in 1128), with Arthur’s Seat rearing up in the distance.

Around 8,000 guests are invited, and the cake of choice is strawberry tart. Official figures state that 9,000 of these tarts are consumed – which works out to slightly more than one per person.

The best time to visit is in May or June, when the gardens are at their peak. The focus is on colourful bedding plants in rockery-style beds around the lawns, typically a sea of pink argyranthemum with dark dahlias popping through.

The pot displays – in the grand piazza and on the Great Stair – tend to be structured around Japanese maples, with sweet peas also playing a significant role. The gardeners grow most of their own stock in seven glasshouses.

A new “physic” garden of medicinal plants was opened to the public last year on the Abbey Strand, a short street outside the palace. With planting created by Irish landscape designer Catherine FitzGerald, it consists of three sections: a grid of raised beds, a meadow of medicinal plants (including mallow and sorrel) to evoke the 15th-century monastic gardens of the abbey, and a formal garden of tulips, crocuses and other bulbs, laid out in a geometric display.

For more information or to book a visit, see Royal Collection Trust.

Sandringham, Norfolk

⇢ Gardens open daily except Fri until Oct 14

A favoured residence privately owned by the Royal family since 1862 and traditionally used at Christmas, the Norfolk estate has been opened to the public during the summer since 1908.

The gardens at Sandringham have a pleasantly relaxed feel. The west lawns, overlooked by the front of the house, were in the 19th century the site of fashionable ornamental parterres, but now they comprise simple sward, which leads down to one of two lakes, fringed by flowering shrubs (rhododendrons, hydrangeas) and adorned with the gnarled artificial Victorian rockwork known as Pulhamite.

This is not the place to come for long herbaceous borders and dense plantings. One recent online comment read: “Gardens are really just manicured park land, would have liked to see more planting.” But that is slightly to miss the point.

A formal garden enclosed by hedges just north of the house contains some fine flower borders, but the overall atmosphere of the estate is formed by the woodland walks (magnolias, camellias), planted up in the late 1960s. There are also some fine old trees to enjoy on the estate.

To book a visit or for more information, see Sandringham Estate.

Hampton Court Palace, East Molesey

⇢ Open daily

The Privy Garden at Hampton Court Palace, East Moseley is a beautiful sight in all seasons - Richard Lea-Hair
The Privy Garden at Hampton Court Palace, East Moseley is a beautiful sight in all seasons - Richard Lea-Hair

The gardens we see today evoke the time of William and Mary (1689-1702) with a bit of 20th century thrown in. On the east side of the palace is the Great Fountain Garden: a semicircular “goose foot” of three gravelled paths radiating out towards the park, with Longwater Canal – the Long Water – beyond. On the south side is the restored Privy Garden, top.

Besides the famous maze, there is also the grapevine – nearly 200 years old and still bearing fruit (the variety is ‘Black Hamburg’). And don’t miss the orangery and its terrace, where in summer plants are displayed in Dutch pots as they would have been in William and Mary’s time.

For more information or to book a visit, see Historic Royal Palaces.

Highgrove, Gloucestershire

⇢ Garden tours (with or without champagne) can be booked for individuals or groups until mid-September

The Prince of Wales no longer lives full-time at Highgrove, Gloucestershire, making it more accessible for visitors - Chris Jackson Collection
The Prince of Wales no longer lives full-time at Highgrove, Gloucestershire, making it more accessible for visitors - Chris Jackson Collection

The Prince of Wales no longer lives full-time at this small Gloucestershire mansion near Tetbury, which means the garden is now more easily visitable than it was in the 1980s and 1990s, when he was making dramatic changes.

There are several wonderful moments, such as the topiarised Thyme Walk, which leads up to the house façade, the Prince’s private Sanctuary building made of clay and straw, and the walled garden. There is also the Chelsea award-winning Carpet Garden, pictured, which is based on a Turkish carpet in Highgrove House.

Don’t miss the wild flower meadows in season (including the Transylvanian one filled with plants from the Romanian region), and the fine beech trees on the estate. In the 1990s, Julian and Isabel Bannerman designed various rustic temples and other features in the woodland, including the celebrated stumpery. (When the late Duke of Edinburgh came across these old tree trunks sprouting ferns, he apparently quipped: “When are you going to set fire to this lot?”)

To book a visit, see Highgrove Gardens.

Windsor Castle, Berkshire

⇢ Open daily until Oct 31

Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle, Berkshire, where she received a Duke of Edinburgh rose by the Royal Horticultural Society - Steve Parsons
Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle, Berkshire, where she received a Duke of Edinburgh rose by the Royal Horticultural Society - Steve Parsons

Is there a garden at Windsor Castle? One could be forgiven for asking the question. The answer is: yes, several gardens, and not just the immaculate lawns in the castle precincts.

First, there is the formal rose garden on the east terrace, which is adjacent to the Royal family’s apartments and is very much the monarch’s private domain, though it was opened to the public for the first time last summer (there are no plans for a repeat).

The Moat Garden at the foot of the Round Tower consists chiefly of plantings against the moat’s inner wall – effectively a long herbaceous border, which has recently been revivified in cottagey style by Tom Stuart-Smith as part of his landscape plan for the castle. Visitors can peer over the wall directly down on to the plants – don’t miss the small private garden that belongs to the constable of the castle perched somewhat precariously up by the Norman Gate on the north side of the moat.

In 2002, Stuart Smith created a new Jubilee Garden at the beginning of the visitor route from the ticket area on Castle Hill, leading up to St George’s Gate. This area has been planted with serpentine walks and lawns dotted with shrubs and trees, the aim being to bring a flavour of the wider park to this part of the castle, where it meets the town.

Most garden areas can be viewed as part of a visit; for more information, see Royal Collection Trust.

Hillsborough Castle, County Down

⇢ Open Wed-Sun

Take a walk through the shadowy glens and fern forests of Hillsborough Castle and you'll find Lady Alice’s Temple - Richard Lea-Hair
Take a walk through the shadowy glens and fern forests of Hillsborough Castle and you'll find Lady Alice’s Temple - Richard Lea-Hair

This Georgian country house and garden in north-west County Down reopened to the public in 2019 after its transfer into the care of Historic Royal Palaces. A £20 million restoration has made it much more of a tourist destination than previously, and well worth a visit.

Hillsborough – which the government bought from the Hill family in 1925 – remains an official residence for the Queen as well as, on a day-to-day basis, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

The focus of the revamp was the immaculate four-acre walled garden, where there is as much emphasis on modern varieties of produce for the castle café as on heritage fruit and vegetables such as golden beetroot and the espaliered pear collection for which the garden has long been known. There is also a long double herbaceous border.

The garden extends to nearly 100 acres in total and includes a “hidden” lake surrounded by rides and walks, an impressive yew walk, a ferny glen, a pinetum, and a Victorian rotunda known as Lady Alice’s Temple, pictured.

Of particular interest to the Queen is the rose-embowered Granville Garden, on the west lawn, created in the 1940s and 1950s by her aunt Lady Rose Bowes-Lyon.

The garden is overlooked by the State Dining Room, giving the Queen a direct view of it from her seat in front of the fireplace during official gatherings.

To book a visit, see Historic Royal Palaces.

Which royal garden are you planning to visit this summer? Let us know in the comments
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