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British gardens

By Margaret HenselSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 31, 1983


For the British, picnics and gardens go together like scones and thick Devon cream. A favorite family event is to pack a hamper to the point of bulging with sandwiches and cakes and drive into the countryside for a round of garden touring and a picnic on the grass.

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For visitors to England, garden touring is also a rich opportunity to share a quintessential British passion. On a recent trip, I also found it a wonderful opportunity to talk with the English on all matter of things, from views on the Common Market to the proper way to divide delphinium.

Some of the gardens I visited were private, others public; garden styles varied from the 18th-century romantic landscape park of Stourhead to the 20 th-century garden rooms of Hidcote and Sissinghurst. Although my tour took place in May and June, most of the gardens have successive seasons of bloom and can be enjoyed anytime during their open season.

While in the area south of London there are certainly plenty of gardens to see, there was one I was particularly intent on visiting - Sissinghurst, created in 1930 by Vita Sackville-West and her husband, Harold Nicholson.

In the garden, with the golden glow of afternoon against the worn brick walls billowing with Clematis and tangles of climbing roses, it was indeed like stepping into a different world; a place of visual poetry where each shrub, each flower, had been placed like brush strokes of a painting.

Lured to the left, I entered the White Garden. The last of the storm clouds was drawn out across the sky, and the White Garden glistened from the morning's rain. Silvery lamb's ears were matted down with raindrops, while the rilled petals of white iris quivered in the wind. There was a kind of unearthly, silvery brilliance in the gray light.

All of the plants in the White Garden were chosen to complement the theme of silvery and white tones. Here the mood is subdued and softly romantic, but with a clarity and resolution of design purpose that makes this garden perhaps the most famous part of Sissinghurst.

In the Cottage Garden, yellow, blue, and white violets crowd the paths along with iris and rock roses. Against the walls of the cottage the climbing rose ''Mme. Alfred Carriere,'' its white petals falling upon the paths and doorstep, mingles with the tangle of yellow blooms of ''Lawrence Johnston.'' Planted with rich, warm yellows, reds, and oranges, the Cottage Garden apparently continues this theme throughout the growing season, and like all the other areas of Sissinghurst offers something new to look at each month as different plants came into bloom.

If you can, arrive early, just as the gardens open, later in the afternoon, or on a rainy day, because the gardens can become very crowded, with as many as 2,500 visitors in a single day. Other gardens in Kent and surrounding counties are Chartwell, the home of Winston Churchill; Wakehurst Place - the suburban extension of Kew Gardens; Gravetye, the former home and gardens of garden designer William Robinson; and Wisley, gardens of the Royal Horticultural Society - of special interest to home gardeners.

The next garden on my tour was Exbury Gardens, an easy day's drive west into the southwest corner of Hampshire. Here Lord Lionel de Rothschild further developed the azaleas that became known to English and Americans as Knap-Hill Exbury azaleas.

Until the Knap-Hill Exbury azaleas were developed, hardy, deciduous azaleas with brilliant, large blooms were not available. Apparently Lord Lionel worked with tens of thousands of crosses, which now provide northern gardeners with hardy azaleas and showy blooms in a rainbow of colors.

Exbury is primarily a spring garden. In May the landscape of ponds and interconnected streams, paths, and great expanses of lawn are encircled by equally impressive groupings of magnolias, camellias, and rhododendron.

A short way north of Exbury and the coast is the town of Beaulieu. Here the wild moor ponies hang around the street corners while children feed them the remains of their lunches, despite the protests of parents and signs to the contrary. Outside town, past fields of buttercups and peonies, I drove up into the wind-swept plateaus of the New Forest, a wild and powerful landscape.