It didn’t take much prompting to convince my husband to come with me to England when I said I couldn’t wait any longer to see rose gardens on my must-visit list. The gardens include Mottisfont Abbey in Hampshire, Hidcote Gardens in Gloucestershire (both of which are run by the National Trust) and Abbey House Gardens in Wiltshire. He Google-mapped our route to the nearest centimetre, found us great places to stay, and waited in the parking lots while I visited the properties.
Wait, WHAT? Yep, that’s right. It took me some convincing, but he assured me he’d be far happier with his puzzles in the car, or in a cafe, than gazing at Bourbon roses and marvelling at the pruning and training techniques employed by the genius gardeners.
And so I’ve enjoyed the first two gardens in rather splendid isolation, getting the chance to glimpse the roses just approaching their peak.
Mottisfont is as miraculous as you may have heard, with Graham Stuart Thomas’s collection of old roses stretching across brick walls, spread over 7-foot arches, or pegged down to create arches of colour close to the ground, as you see with rose Mme Isaac Periere here. I grow this rose, but it doesn’t look as healthy as this. It felt as if every rose in England was growing here, and that might just be the case — every old rose, anyway, which are the kind I love most. The gardens were tended for more than 30 years by David Stone before his retirement last year, and the health and beauty of the gardens are testament of his and his successors’ wonderful hard work.
At Mottisfont I also got the chance to have a sniff of roses I’d only ever read about, including Desprez a Fleur Jaunes (which isn’t fragrant enough for me to bother with) and Rosa Spinossisima, which Gertrude Jekyll reportedly included in most of her garden designs, and which smells wonderful.
I also discovered a white rose called Lamarque at Mottisfont which is meant to be difficult to grow, but it had a rounded, full scent and an overall grace that could make me change my generally low opinion of white roses. Arching over a brick wall that was already studded with pale lichens, Lamarque looked and smelled sensational.
But it was at Hidcote (where my husband said he enjoyed an uninterrupted 2.5 hours of newspaper puzzles) where I fell in love with Blairi No. 2, a very old and overlooked rose that nevertheless has every characteristic I love most about the old roses.
The fragrance is indescribably rich but not heavy; and its flower changes colour dramatically, from palest pink-white buds to light pink heads that develop warm, dark-pink centres. The texture of the petals is like wrinkled tissue paper, and the plant (which I think must be 50 years old at least) that stretched across the warm gable wall of one of the Hidcote outbuildings reached right up to its thatched roof, with canes and canes of healthy growth. Only some canes were filled with flowers, but the overall magnificence of this rose already has me searching my mental inventory of spaces in my garden for any south-facing surface I could grow it on. There’s not a lot I wouldn’t do to get Blairi No. 2 into my life.
Hidcote wasn’t quite what I expected. Yes, there were the endless garden ‘rooms’ I’d heard of, but there were also several empty expanses that I was grateful for: the hide-and-seek layout of the smaller rooms left me a bit disoriented, and the empty spaces were restful to the mind.
The kitchen garden, which the kindly woman at Hidcote reception advised me not to miss, was a delight of pleached apples skirted by merry, purple-headed chives, as well as rows of cutting flowers like cosmos, lupins and cornflowers. I noticed they’d stopped the cosmos after three sets of leaves to promote flowering, which is something I’ve done ever since a flower farmer in Virginia advised it (I did a short YouTube video showing the technique here – how to get more cosmos by making a bold, low cut when dead-heading).
I heard a couple visitors at Hidcote being a bit uncharitable about the relaxed planting style — “I couldn’t live with a garden like this,” one said, pointing at a crowd of plants that jostled each other — but I loved it. Hidcote allows plants a bit of freedom, and it’s a wonderful experience: it looks more like a real garden than a showpiece, with some areas left to self-seeders (like sweet rocket, Welsh poppies, columbines).
But there are also sculpted and formal areas, like the much-photographed white bench framed by white wisteria, which was visited by a hungry red admiral butterfly while I was watching.
At the time of writing, we’ve still to visit Abbey House Gardens in Wiltshire, and it’s currently pelting rain here. But I hear the garden owners provide umbrellas, so even though the puddle outside my window is dancing with raindrops, we’re suiting up and heading out.
A note on garden-touring: it’s not so bad going around the gardens myself, although I felt more than a little guilty that my husband holed up in cafes rather than walk around with me.
But at this stage of the tour, I’m convinced we’re both doing what makes us happiest: having a few days of indulgent me-time, away from work and parenting responsibilities, and enjoying relaxing dinners and chats without thinking about email, deadlines or school lunches.
Being driven from garden to garden while I relax and take in the ludicrously gorgeous English countrywide feels terribly indulgent — I feel like a horse box, being lugged from place to place — but I’ll get over it. When a casual glance out the car window shows castle-like cottages draped with roses and flowers like something from a story book, it’s hard to feel guilty for long.
And we’ll be back at the deadlines and school lunches in no time, so we might as well make the most of it, dancing puddles and all.
Have you visited any outstanding rose gardens you’d recommend I see? Let me know in the comments.