Take your pick and help champion these extraordinary gardens around Britain.

So deeply is The National Trust ingrained in the British psyche that when, in the first lockdown, its properties closed, it felt seismic, like comfort blankets being stripped away. And yet, many of the most extraordinary houses and gardens that are open to the public do not come under the auspices of the NT, lovingly tended instead by private families – many of whom have often maintained them for centuries – or small charitable trusts, local authorities or educational institutions. That they do the work they do with such dedication is to the enrichment of all of our lives.

Historic Houses comprises the largest collection of notable houses and gardens in the UK, supporting those who take care of historically important places and, in many cases, providing the lifeline that allows them to remain independent. HH is, after all, an advocate of independence which, it believes, engenders diversity and individuality.

Of course, many of the sublime houses and castles that come under the care of HH have commensurately sublime gardens, a good deal of them open to the public. And yet, while Historic Houses’ properties attract appreciative visitors in droves, the properties are still not as well-frequented as those run by such cultural behemoths as The National Trust and English Heritage.

To encourage people to eulogise and spread the word about their favourite Historic Houses to visit and thus generate visitors and – crucially – revenue that allows these wonderful places to stay open, its annual Garden of the Year Award is back for its thirty-seventh year.

As Ben Cowell, Director General of Historic Houses, says, ‘We are a nation of garden-lovers. The experience of lockdown has only made us appreciate the wonders of the garden even more. This is true whether we are lucky enough to tend a garden of our own, or simply enjoy visiting professionally maintained gardens to appreciate the work of talented gardening teams.

Every year, we hold a vote in a competition to find the UK’s greatest garden. The eight gardens in our shortlist represent the very finest gardens open to the public across the country. They range from Nancy Lancaster’s creation at Kelmarsh Hall in Northamptonshire, to Gordon Castle on the east coast of Scotland, to the gardens of Lowther Castle in the Lake District. Also included are Charles Barry’s ornate terraces at Harewood in Yorkshire, set within in a landscape created by ‘Capability’ Brown, the botanical treasure trove of colour and arboreal delight at High Beeches in East Sussex, and no fewer than three gardens from Kent, the Garden of England.’

Run in alliance with Christie’s, the race will doubtless be hard-fought. Champion your favourite and cast your vote here before 20 September 2021 (the winner will be announced in November). Most importantly, do go and visit these soul-enriching places.

Last year, Mapperton Gardens in Dorset walked away the victor. Here are the eight nominees to choose from in 2021.

Main image: Riverhill Gardens

Doddington Place Garden


Kent



The Charles Brown Trollope-designed many-gabled Doddington Place was built in 1860 and has been in the Oldfield family for a century. Situated spectacularly in wooded countryside on the North Downs, the gardens were first properly cultivated by Mrs Douglas Jeffreys (neé Oldfield), who moved in in 1906, having decided to buy the house based on the views and grounds alone. The spirit and charm of the Edwardian age lives on here. Visit the website to find out more here.

Gordon Castle Walled Garden


Moray



It is a wonder that Gordon Castle Walled Garden is not better known. Situated between the River Spey and the Moray Coast, it has the distinguishing accolade of being one of both the oldest and the largest kitchen gardens in Britain, lovingly modernised and restored by Arne Maynard. Open all year round, it is an especial joy to visit thanks to the café, which is stocked with freshly picked produce right from the garden. Visit the website to find out more here.

Harewood House Gardens


Leeds



When the words ‘Capability’ and ‘Brown’ are uttered together, horticulture enthusiasts know that they can be assured of a treat in store. They will not be disappointed by a visit to Harewood House Gardens, which was built in the 1840s and features a sublime formal Italianate terrace. Breathtakingly beautiful, the visual feast is not bounded by the 100-acre garden alone; directly beyond there are stunning views across some of Yorkshire’s most beautiful landscapes. Visit the website to find out more here.

High Beeches Gardens


West Sussex



Sussex abounds with gardens of significance. And yet this gem remains something of a hidden treasure. Set on the High Weald, it is home to a wealth of rare trees and shrubs, and is magnificently planted in order that there is always something to feast eyes upon, no matter the season. As they say, ‘In spring the magnolias and camellias are under planted with swathes of daffodils and the woodland glades and vistas are, in early summer, carpeted with bluebells and filled with the colour and fragrance of the many rhododendrons and azaleas’. There are twenty-seven acres of woodland and water gardens to explore, making this a true botanical treasure. We love the advice of neighbour John G Millais to its owner, Sir Robert Loder, who bought the house in 1846. He told him never to overcrowd; to concentrate on one genus; and use only the very best plants. Words to live by for gardeners everywhere. Visit the website to find out more here.

Kelmarsh Hall Gardens


Northampton



This Palladian-style hall, built in the 1730s, is all elegance. Its gardens, which are Grade II-listed, are relaxed, informal and, simply, dreamy. Go to wander its walled, sunken and rose gardens, as well as the woodlands and lake, all of which were designed principally by Nancy Lancaster, with Norah Lindsay and landscape architect Geoffrey Jellicoe. Visit the website to find out more here.

Lowther Castle Gardens


Cumbria



When it was constructed at the turn of the 19th-century, Lowther Castle Gardens boasted a room for every day of the year, while its gardens were the envy of the north. All that changed when, in 1957, the castle was demolished, save for the façade and outer walls. It lived on as a relic, inhabited by farmyard animals. Today, the romance of the ruin is a sight to behold, while the gardens remain as extraordinary as ever. Set over 130 acres, they were first formally laid out in the 17th-century by the first Viscount, Sir John Lowther, who was, they say, ‘a profound thinker and – significantly for the gardens – a committed vegetarian’. Visit the website to find out more here.

Penshurst Place Gardens


Kent



Currently under the stewardship of Viscount De L’Isle, Penshurst Place once belonged to King Henry VIII who used it as a hunting lodge and later bequeathed it to his son, Edward VI. In 1552, it was passed on to Sir William Sidney, the incumbent’s forebear. Since then, the Sidney family have been in situ for 460 years. One look at the beautiful gardens is instructive enough for us to fathom why they might not want to leave. One of the few surviving baronial halls, it is surrounded by eleven acres of walled gardens, all enchanting beyond belief. Visit the website to find out more here.

Riverhill Gardens


Kent



In 1840, John Rogers bought Riverhill (not, in fact, situated on a river, but taking its name from the Saxon word ‘rithe’, meaning hill), with its expansive views across the Weald. Today, four generations of his family still live on and run the estate, as invested as their forbear once was. John Rogers was a great botanist; one of the founding members of the Royal Horticultural Society and a friend of Charles Darwin. His great passion was bringing home rhododendrons and azaleas from the east, which he did to spectacular effect at Riverhill. After a real life ‘country house rescue’ in 2009, its walled gardens, rose walks, rock gardens, terraces and wood gardens remain as glorious now as then. Visit the website to find out more here.

By Nancy Alsop
May 2021

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