ONE thing there is no shortage of in Britain is gardens. Increasing numbers of them, though privately owned, open their gates to the public seasonally, or for a few special days, or all year round. There is an extraordinarily active number of enthusiasts who enjoy nothing better than visiting someone else's garden (though when they find time to work on their own is an enigma). Annually, the National Gardens Scheme, an organization which encourages people to open their gardens for charity, publishes a book listing private gardens open - 2,600 of them in England and Wales in 1991, plus many more in separate guides for Scotland and Ulster. These publications give detailed information about how to find, when to go, and what to see when you get there; admission costs are generally nominal. Really no book upstages these useful aides (easy to find in most British bookshops, at 163&gt;1.50). But even they do not tell the whole story.
A book concentrating on "historic" gardens alone - as Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall's does - Historic Gardens: A Guide To 160 British Gardens Of Interest (Viking, 160 pp., $29.95) may only offer a gazetteer of 160 gardens (with longer descriptions of six of them - including Rosemary Verey's at Barnsley House, Gloucestershire - see adjoining story - that have received "garden of the year" awards), but it still mentions several gardens which are not open under the National Gardens Scheme. One, for example, is Adlington Hall in Cheshire; another Longleat House in Wiltshire. Perhaps such ancient places (the first in the same family since 1312, the second a renowned Renaissance pile), too intent on survival in the modern world, can't afford charity; but both have gardens laid out in ways that would certainly interest visitors with an eye to garden design history, if not plants.
This useful, though perhaps too limited book, gives its most fascinating information in its "components" listings at the back. Here, the garden-tourist can find at a glance which gardens sport such distinctive features as bog gardens, mazes (this, for some reason, is "the year of the maze" in Britain), wildernesses, scented secret gardens, snowdrop groves, etc.
Gardens special for their topiary, their rare bulbs, their mature hedges, or their herbaceous borders are listed, as are places with moats, fountains, or cascades. For devotees of garden architecture, also detailed are the places to find arbors, bridges, dovecotes, ha-has, and even hermit's hollow trees, dog's cemeteries, jousting walls and ruins: each and every one a peculiar survivor from the peculiar past. Understandably, no details of opening times (often very complicated) are given in this book; bu t phone numbers at least would have been a helpful gesture.
The descriptions of the gardens are of masterly concision. They indicate size, history, and ownership. Levens Hall, in Cumbria, for instance, is 8 acres in a park of 250 acres, belonging to Mr. C. H. Bagot. We learn further that "world famous for its ancient yew topiary," the garden "has scarcely changed since its formal parterres and beech circle and all 142&gt;es were laid out between 1689 and 1712." They were designed by the same man who worked for King James II at Hampton Court. The family archives include the plan for the garden in 1730. The park is separated from the gardens by the first ha-ha ever constructed. The park contains strange goats. And so forth. Useful stuff.
But should you not exactly recall what a ha-ha is or looks like ... well, all this author says for the uninitiated, in the short survey of garden history she provides in Part I of her book, is that its invention was attributed to Charles Bridgeman in the 18th century and that it is "a device of key importance in merging the garden with the wider landscape." Since about 70 gardens listed here have a ha-ha, the chances are that anyone who actually uses this generally helpful book as a guide will find out sooner or later.