British gardens

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.

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.

West to Cranborne, toward Shaftsbury, and high into the hills, I stopped the car and stood outside for a look across the hills spreading to the horizon. I watched the baby lambs jackknife in the air, their tiny hoofs together, while their mamas stood by, stalwart, gray, and matted with burrs, observing me as I took their photo.

From Shaftsbury, it was a short drive northwest to Stourhead, a National Trust garden that is considered by connoisseurs perhaps the finest example of the 18th-century classic English pictorial landscape. What that means for a tourer of gardens is something startlingly beautiful.

Three miles northwest of Mere, in Wiltshire, Stourhead was laid out in the 18 th century by its owner Henry Hoare, a brilliant amateur landscape designer. With its hillsides dotted with classical temples, serpentine lakes, and winding woodland paths, it is the mood and image of another era.

For the best effect, enter the garden, not through the town of Stourton, which is generally full of people buying ice cream and post cards, but from the house on the route suggested by Hoare, for a beautiful sequence of dramatic vistas and classically inspired scenes.

Paths curve round the lake and through the woods, full of bluebells and foxglove just coming into bloom in late May. For those interested in the classic English landscape garden, Stourhead is almost unsettling in its evocative quality of the 18th century. Even the crowds swarming up to the various temples, across the lawns, then receding like waves to paths by the water's edge fail to lessen the impact of this pictorial quality. Families picnicking in the grass, young men pushing baby carriages, big-kneed girls in white ankle socks and pink high heels, and old men with walking sticks all add their own charm to the landscape.

The next stop on this garden tour was Barnsley House, the garden of Mr. and Mrs. David Verey in Cirencester. Although it was originally laid out in 1770, it has become very much the 20th century in scale and appeal, with dooryard herb garden, a fragrant entrance to the kitchen, and the rich selection of plantings, providing color and texture virtually all year round.

Barnsley House, very much photographed for publications both in Europe and the United States, is open all year round. The chances are pretty good that if you arrive on a Wednesday (open day), Rosemary Verey could spare some time to talk about her work. Author of ''The Fragrant Garden'' and co-editor of The Englishwoman's Garden and a knowledgeable gardener, Rosemary Verey has a charming and sparkling sense of humor. Her 21/2-acre display gardens are richly planted, and the Laburnum Walk with its panicles of yellow blooms is a highlight of the garden in early June.

The vegetable garden, adapted from a 17th-century design, is a medley of paths, squares of cabbages, onions, chard, beets, etc., edged with box and accented with arbors planted with old-fashioned sweet peas. All the result of years of research, it is also lovely and whimsical in a way few vegetable gardens are.

On your way through the Cotswolds, a stop in Oxford is practically a given. Along with the colleges of Oxford University, there is Britain's oldest and one of its smallest botanical gardens. The garden, founded in 1621 and owned by the university, is open all year. You might want to spend the night in Oxford and the next morning have a leisurely breakfast, then continue to Blenheim Palace, about eight miles north of town. Blenheim, slightly southwest of Woodstock, in Oxfordshire, is owned by the Duke of Marlborough and was the birthplace of Winston Churchill.

Both the palace and the original grounds were designed by architect John Vanbrugh, completed in 1727. Having gone through many changes of taste and styles, today the grounds still retain a lake designed by ''Capability'' Brown in the mid-1700s and a 20th-century re-creation of an elaborate water parterre of fountains set in curving patterns of still water, surrounded by stone - one of the most brilliant features of the gardens.

Blenheim is grand and the park is vast. It requires a determination equal to its size to explore it on a warm day. With the sun baking the pavement, I passed through the series of vast walled courtyards with glimpses through massive ornamental gates to the surrounding landscapes. But walking from the weightiness of this massive architecture, motionless with grandeur and practically weighted with eternity through the cloisters to the Water Garden, provides a brilliant effect.

Suddenly there is a grand gesture, snapping the weight of centuries, and there is motion - water rushing, spilling, springing into the air in cool relief. In the water parterre, it is as if the very nature of water has been distilled into this frame of clipped box and stone.

Northwest of Oxford in Chipping Campden, is Hidcote, one of the most influential 20th-century gardens in England. It is a series of small gardens, each with very different plants and design elements, created by an American, Maj. Lawrence Johnston, from about 1905 to 1945. It served as a major influence for Vita Sackville-West's Sissinghurst. Hidcote is a property of the National Trust, and there is no peak season. It is open from April to the end of October. Each week, each month, has its own flowers coming into bloom.

Hidcote is a garden much like a brilliantly conceived game of horticultural chess, each movement compelled by the surrounding spaces of plants, color, form, and textures, a skilled essay of informal and formal design.

The success of the round reflecting pool, for example, mirroring a vast expanse of sky, is made all the more effective by the narrow confines of the entrance paths and surrounding gardens. As if in a playground, visitors are always turning corners and being confronted with almost theatrical garden effects.

Hidcote has a tendency to be crowded, but if you get there at 11, when it opens, or at 7 (the last admission at night), you will probably have a better chance of seeing it without the crowds of people peeping round its many corners. Or, outfitted in a raincoat and boots, on a rainy day when rain dapples the pools and white roses become almost luminescent in the soft gray light, perhaps then you'll find the quietude this garden of genius demands, for a deeper appreciation.

My last garden stop was in Cumbria, in the town of Ravengoass, on the coast within sight of the Isle of Man. Muncaster Castle's gardens, a collection of rhododendron on 300 acres, had been described as some of the best in Europe. Like a growing number of England's grand homes, Muncaster, though still very much a private home, is open to the public a certain number of days each year. The present owners, Sir William and Lady Pennington-Ramsden, also make the castle available for gracious overnight accommodations. In the evening, after dinner in the dining room, a rather baronial affair, wallpapered, as it were, with leather embossed with gold leaf, we retired to the library for conversation by the fire. Later, as the fire burned low, we bade each other good night and I made my way upstairs along the long stone corridors to my rooms.

The next morning, after breakfast and a few crumbs fed to the peacock, I was given a tour of the gardens. The rhododendron season had mostly passed, but the gardens were still striking, set against dramatic rock outcroppings and deep valleys. The paths, winding in and around the deep woods of mature rhododendron, suddenly opened to grand panoramas of the surrounding countryside, and from the very top of the hill, the coastline stretched in a line of blue and emerald green.

It is a privilege to visit one of these gardens for an afternoon, but it is an even greater one to live with one of them, even for a few days. When you can wake up and step out barefoot into grass still wet with dew and breath the fragrance of lilacs before breakfast, or take a walk after an evening shower, when the damp earth is so rich you can almost taste it, that a garden fulfills its reason for being - giving our day a sense of completeness and our spirits peace.

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