Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Garden, Ripon, North Yorkshire
Created by British politician and former Chancellor of the Exchequer John Aislabie in 1718, the garden is now a World Heritage Site. If you stand on the hill and look down over the green lawns, you’ll see a big half-moon pond and large sheets of water, which are breathtaking.
Fountains Abbey, founded by 13 Benedictine monks in 1132 and run by Cistercians until it closed in 1539, stands at the end of the gardens. It’s a romantic and atmospheric ruin and makes a good ornament!
In last year’s series of Secrets of the National Trust we detailed how, using special ground-penetrating radar machines, they found hundreds of graves of Cistercian monks, who once lived at the abbey, stacked on top of one another. We knew that information before it was made public, which was a huge privilege.
Studley Royal is also a favourite because it’s in Yorkshire and not far from home.
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Cragside © National Trust Images, Arnhel de Serra
Cragside, Rothbury, Northumberland
This house, gardens and woodland was the family home of Victorian inventor and industrialist Lord William Armstrong in the late 19th century. The beautiful gothic house – the first in the world to be lit by hydroelectricity – was built on a rocky crag high above the Debdon Burn on bleak moorland where nothing was growing.
Armstrong constructed three lakes and planted more than seven million trees, and the conifers – spruces, pines and Douglas firs – are now 150 years old and have transformed the landscape into something between North America and the Himalayas. Impressively, Cragside is home to the UK’s tallest Scots pine, standing at just over 131 feet – the same height as ten double-decker buses stacked one on top of the other.
Walking across a footbridge, high above the trees with the river way down below, is a truly astonishing feeling. During one visit to Cragside, I remember that the sky was blue, yet it was still raining and I thought, ‘But there’s not a cloud in the sky’. In fact, the water was blowing off the trees, right across the valley!
As well as a rock garden – one of Europe’s largest – the spectacular formal garden, which is some way from the house, spans three acres and is laid over three terraces. Cragside is dramatic and beautiful. A place not to be missed.
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Hill Top © National Trust Images, James Dobson
Hill Top, near Sawrey, Hawkshead, Cumbria
At Beatrix Potter’s 17th-century house and gardens in the Lake District, which inspired so many of her timeless children’s books, you can’t help but feel that she has just gone out for a couple of minutes. All her favourite belongings are still there, you can sit at the window where she painted the winding lane in The Tale of Samuel Whiskers and see the dry-stone wall and curve of the road and the rhubarb patch, where Jemima Puddle-Duck laid her eggs, still grows by the gate.
The garden isn’t big, but it suits the spot. The little wall, the iron gate, the vegetable patch and the flowers are wonderfully evocative.
I know Beatrix Potter’s life as well as I know my own, because I’ve read such a lot about her. I was a huge fan and the first book I read about gardening was The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
I love the fact that Beatrix was a real country woman at heart. She strove against her parents, who wanted her to be a respectable London town person, and she bought several thousand acres of land, which she bequeathed to the National Trust. A lot of lake land owned by the National Trust was given to them by Beatrix Potter.
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Antony House © NTPL, John Millar
Antony House, Torpoint, Cornwall
My friend Richard Carew Pole owns the classically beautiful Antony House with 25 acres of parkland and landscaped gardens, which was used as the set of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland film in 2010. When I first visited, many years ago, I asked Richard, ‘How long have you lived here?’ He said, ‘Ooh, around 450 years’. Antony has been in his family since the early 1700s.
The grounds, created by Humphry Repton – one of the greatest landscape gardeners – include a formal garden with topiary, an ornamental Japanese pond and sculptures, and sweep down to the Lynher River. When you look down to the water from the top of the hill, it’s magical.
It is at its best in early spring when the Antony woodland garden is an amazing spot for serene walks among the 600 varieties of camellia, 250 types of magnolias and beautiful rhododendrons and azaleas.
They call it genius of place and Antony has genius of place. It’s truly special, a place to escape.
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Stowe © National Trust Images, Hugh Mothersole
Stowe, Buckingham, Buckinghamshire
A picture-perfect English garden sculpted, in part, by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, an 18th-century landscape architect, who earned his nickname by reassuring aristocratic clients that their estates had the ‘capability’ for improvement. His work for Lord Cobham at Stowe, where he was head gardener for a decade until 1751, was one of his first big commissions.
The gardens were created to represent the ‘path of life’ and in the L-shaped Grecian Valley to the north of the house, which Capability and his men excavated by hand with spades and wheelbarrows, temples were built with the salacious intention of using them for drinking, feasting and hanky panky! While filming Secrets Of The National Trust I went underneath the Temple of Venus into a great chasm to see where a water pump used to be. That was a real stepping-back-in-time moment.
Stowe is Arcadian English, 18th-century landscape at its best: temples, bridges, follies and arches all joined by winding paths, which make Stowe great for a circular walk to admire the breathtaking views over rolling hills.
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Sissinghurst © National Trust Images, Andrew Butler
Sissinghurst Castle Garden, near Cranbrook, Kent
This garden is a series of ‘rooms’ – with names such as The White Garden, The Rose Garden and The Nuttery – divided by hedges and you walk from one to another. It typifies early 20th-century gardening and Sissinghurst and Hidcote in Gloucestershire are the two that do it best.
Vita Sackville-West, a poet and writer, created Sissinghurst in the 1930s and although her marriage to Harold Nicolson was unconventional – they both had complex love lives – the fact that he did the garden layout and she did the planting meant, in gardening terms, they fitted together well.
I first went to Sissinghurst on a warm June afternoon in 1973 and when I walked up the Elizabethan tower the atmosphere was electric. There was hardly anybody there and I could hear the birds singing outside. I’d read all about Vita, this strange woman with this amazing garden, and it was one of those ‘she’s going to come around the corner’ moments. I could definitely feel a spiritual presence.
Years later, I went back and Nigel Nicolson – Vita and Harold’s son, who lived in one of the houses in the garden – was home and as I walked past his window he was listening to Desert Island Discs on the radio, and it was me being interviewed by Sue Lawley. It was a wonderfully reassuring moment.
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