Hever Castle Gardens
To Hever Castle this morning with the Garden Media Guild, there to wander through the gardens with head gardener Neil Miller as our guide, but not before, ancient mariner like, I’d fixed my eye upon Sarah Cole, the poor Marketing Manager, and got her to spill the beans upon everything that’s going on at the childhood home of Anne Boleyn.
Unsurprisingly, the gardens play a key role in the success of the venue as a destination for return visits – as beautiful, famous and impressive as the castle and surrounding buildings are, with all their associations with Tudor history and, more recently, the Astor family, it’s the seasonal interest of the plantings that keeps people coming back time and again, beginning with Snowdrop Walks in February, the Dazzling Daffodils in March, the Tulip Celebrations in April, and ending with Autumn colour and Christmas events at the other end of the year. Such a varied programme is necessary for the survival of any historic house and garden, not least the private venue independent of the corporate machinery of the National Trust or English Heritage, and it’s true that Hever has an atmosphere which is unlike any of the properties around managed by these two organisations. It’s arguably the best site of its kind in the area for children’s activities (Sarah told me they’re presently building a new play area by the Astor Wing entrance), and being one of the few gardens in the area that allow visitors to bring dogs, it really is a case of fun for all the family. Which, as a phrase, reeks undeniably of trite marketing speak, but as a strategy is of vital importance if we want our nation’s gardens to be not only accessible destinations, but desirable destinations to as many people as possible. Of course, entry price and transport links play into this debate, but that’s what parks are for, and – oh, the parks budgets… a discussion for another day.
But of course it was the gardens we’d come to see, and I’d thought it wise to leave Bill at home, as he does tend to steal the show. As well as eat the plants. We began in Anne Boleyn’s orchard (I’m not entirely convinced the apple trees are quite of that vintage), where the ground is carpeted in daffodils. The team have been working with the multi Chelsea Gold Medal winning Johnny Walkers (of Walkers Bulbs, bulbs.co.uk) to create the Dazzling Daffodils festival which ran last week, and we were privileged to have Johnny’s company on the tour today. Under Johnny’s watchful eye, Neil’s garden team planted 7,000 daffodil bulbs for this year’s display, in addition to the many thousands already in situ. Even for a hard-to-please daff skeptic such as me (I can happily stand a Narcissus pseudonarcissus, a ‘Thalia’, or even a N. poeticus at a push, though this recent article from Miranda Janataka on the Hardy Plant Society’s website has challenged me to expand my tastes) couldn’t fail to be impressed.
From there, past the moated castle, miles of beautifully clipped yew (“I love yew” “I love yew too!”) the half moon pond, through the golden gates and into what many will see the crowning glory of William Waldorf Astor’s redevelopment of the gardens, the Italian Garden, laid out in the first decade of the twentieth century to house his collection of statuary and sculpture. With its golden sandstone colonnades, manicured lawns and pergolas, all leading inexorably toward the loggia and fountain at the head of a huge lake, it provides a breathtaking spectacle on a grand scale. But for lovers of detail, there are also little vignettes along the 200 metre Pompeiian Wall, which is divided into separate rooms, each three or four meters wide, and each depicting a scene of the devastation following the eruption of Vesuvius. Well, that historical context was a bit lost on me… I was too busy enjoying the counterpoint of stone and plants – thin cypresses, eccentrically contorted vines, sculptural acers in bud, and pockets which, later in the year will be full of annual bedding. In some the bedding had already arrived – and its very much an acquired taste. I can stand it, for a bit, because, even if it does look a bit like someone’s let a 1970s parks department loose in Rousham, there’s a kind of joy evident in it which, even if it’s not quite my thing, is a pleasure to be swept along with.
It was a brief trip, but even on a drizzly day in early spring, there’s an awful lot to recommend Hever’s gardens. Later in the year, when the rhododendrons are in bloom, not to mention the roses (of which there must be acres), it will be a picture. I’ll be back for sure.
Have you been to Hever Castle and explored the gardens? Or does it look like the kind of garden you’d enjoy? And what’s your opinion on bedding? I’d love to hear what you think, either on twitter, or in the comments below.