If you’re working from home and ‘social distancing’, the world probably feels a small place at the moment. But the current advice is that you should make time to get outside and enjoy some of Britain’s open spaces. And the National Trust have pledged to keep open most of their gardens, woods and parks – offering a host of options to get some well-needed fresh air.
The main houses, shops and cafes will close, but visitors can choose from hundreds of glorious outside spaces. Here, we pull together some of our favourite National Trust gardens across England. And if you're in need of more inspiration for walks and outdoor activities in your local area to help you avoid cabin fever, take a look at our Slow Travel series – written by local authors, they open up Britain’s special places in a way that no other guides do. And they’re a great armchair read too!
On the northernmost tip of Cheshire’s Peak District, just within the national park boundaries, sits one of Cheshire’s grandest stately homes, surrounded by a glorious 1,400-acre estate. This is the place to come on days when you need to blow the cobwebs away; it’s stirring stuff, striding across the parkland and soaking up the far-reaching views across hills and moors and down to the Cheshire Plain.
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The house's gardens, which are part formal and part naturalised, are laid out on three sides of the hall. The recommended route is to wander round in an anti-clockwise circle. That way, you start with views over the Dutch Garden (where box-edged beds filled with spring and summer bedding create intricate colourful patterns around a fountain pool), then head round the south side of the lake, which, on still clear days, frames a photogenic reflection of the house. Carry on round to find a rhododendron walk, a deep ravine filled with lush greenery, herbaceous borders and, as you come back towards the house, an Edwardian rose garden and formal terrace.
All 50 acres of these Cheshire gardens, including the arboretum, rose gardens and 100-year old Japanese garden, are justifiably famous. There’s an Italian Garden (designed by Joseph Paxton), a conservatory (designed by Lewis Wyatt), a fernery and a maze. They’re all absolutely beautiful but the walled kitchen gardens are, arguably, the most impressive. Most places make do with one walled garden but Tatton has three, crammed with an abundance of fruit and vegetables.
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Surrounding the house and gardens you get 1,000 acres of open parkland in which to wander, discovering ponds and woodlands and looking out for the resident red and fallow deer.
This wonderful estate comprises 5,000 acres of land on the Hertfordshire–Buckinghamshire border in the Chilterns. It has been managed by the National Trust since 1926. The Trust uses livestock to manage the environment. Grazing sheep keep the chalk downland in good condition. The landscape includes oak and beech woodlands, chalk downlands and commons, each supporting a different range of wildlife.
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The estate is crossed by a network of footpaths, bridleways and cycle paths. If you choose the circular walk via Old Copse and Thunderdell Wood, you’ll enjoy views across the valley as well as a close look at the area used in the past to manage the movement of deer. But there are many other options, through woodland or around the estate boundaries.
Plenty of wow factor here, from the moment the pinnacled gatehouse comes into view, amid a great sweeping roll of parkland, bisected by a long avenue of beeches. If you visit in spring, the clouds of pink, red and creamy blossoms as hundreds of magnolias, camellias and rhododendrons erupt into bloom in the woodland garden. The formal gardens are an exercise in Victorian perfection: box-framed beds packed with a seasonal succession of bright bulbs and annuals, clipped yews and lawns so trim they might have been laid by a carpet-fitter.
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The Cornish woods here take some beating. The Great Wood is criss-crossed with paths, each so inviting it’s hard to know which way to turn, though the broad track that runs downhill to the river, known as the Lady’s Walk, is perhaps the most popular – partly because it’s the start of a lovely walk that takes in a stretch of the Fowey and brings you back to the house via the long beech avenue. If you take one of the less-travelled paths, you’ll discover an orchard of Britain’s rarest tree, the Plymouth pear, established here, far from the danger of cross pollination, as part of a rare species recovery programme.
Parts of Godolphin’s gardens are over 700 years old and much of the special atmosphere derives from the feeling that time and horticultural fashion have slipped past, leaving a sort of leafy, self-contained lushness, just on the right side of unkempt.
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Beyond the gardens are 550 acres of National Trust-owned estate woods to explore, beneath which lies the source of Godolphin wealth: tin- and copper-mine workings, some dating back to the 16th century. A head-clearing stroll up Godolphin Hill, which pushes its bare crown above the treeline, offers bracing views of Cornwall's coast.
Hidcote Manor Gardens and Kiftsgate Court Gardens
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Located opposite one another in the northern Cotswolds are these two wonderful but very different gardens. Hidcote was designed in an Arts and Crafts style by American-born Major Lawrence Johnston at the start of the 20th century, and what’s so stimulating about it and its garden ‘rooms’ is that Johnston’s gardening skills were entirely self-taught, so you can visit and wander from ‘room’ to ‘room’ with the belief that, ‘if he can do it, so can I’. Tall hedges of beech and yew provide both the walls and the wallpaper for each little garden room, and every individual garden has its own character, some tranquil and calm, others raging with vibrancy.
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Kiftsgate lies opposite the entrance to Hidcote Manor, with perhaps a more favoured location on the very edge of the escarpment, where the garden runs down the steep hillside. It’s the home of the rambling Kiftsgate rose (Hidcote gives its name to an electric blue lavender) and of Anne Chambers, whose mother and grandmother tended the garden before her. It really is a plantswoman’s garden, with unusual species throughout – Anne and her husband are extremely knowledgeable on the plants growing in their little bit of escarpment – but take some time to sit and reflect in the Lower Garden, where the soaring pine trees shelter you as you look out across wooded hillsides and the Vale of Evesham.
For 200 years, until the mid 19th century, Woodchester Park was the seat of the Ducie family who designed and constructed the landscape park around their home, since demolished. It included formal gardens and large fishponds as well as carriage drives providing panoramic views over the estate.
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During the late 19th century the estate, under new owners, was planted up to trees, which have now matured, creating a new wooded park. The National Trust now owns Woodchester Park and visitors can wander through the 400-acre estate all year round. The Trust is performing a gradual restoration of the park, thinning out some of the plantations to create the vistas that there once were. It is an idyllic place, regardless of tree count, to go for a walk, either through the shaded beech woods, annually filled with bluebells and wild garlic, or through the more open glades and pastures alongside the string of five lakes created by the Ducie family.
Just over the Wiltshire border, the 2,650-acre Stourhead Estate is one of the area’s key attractions. As the name indicates, it is here that the River Stour rises. The 18th-century gardens are magical, inspired by the great landscape painters of the 17th century and grand tours of Europe.
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A magnificent lake constitutes the centrepiece, fed by the infant River Stour, which shimmers with the reflections of autumn colours as the leaves change hue. Classical temples, a romantic bridge and a mysterious grotto create a dreamy atmosphere; the European influence is clear with a mini Pantheon and a Temple of Apollo among the features.
Kingston Lacy Estate
Kingston Lacy was the home of the Bankes family from 1665 until 1981, when Ralph Bankes bequeathed the magnificent 8,500-acre estate to the National Trust.The house is surrounded by formal gardens and 250 acres of landscaped parkland, grazed by Red Devon cattle.
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The garden features an Edwardian Japanese area and a Victorian fernery, which contains over 20 varieties of ferns. Paths lead from the formal gardens through the park and woodland, awash with daffodils and bluebells in spring. Longer walks, bridleways and cycleways lead around the estate, and are mapped in a leaflet available at Kingston Lacy.
Dumfries and Galloway
The gardens at Threave are a delight. Even if you’re not particularly green-fingered, there’s a blackboard in the visitor centre on which helpful notes are written with suggestions of what to look for depending on the time of the year.
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There are glasshouses, a sculpture garden, nature reserve, a walled garden and various themed garden rooms, including a secret garden, rhododendron garden and a rose terrace. Threave is particularly popular in spring for its specialist and extensive range of daffodils.
East Devon and the Jurassic Coast
The best part of Killerton is undoubtedly the garden, all 20 acres of it, with huge lawns sloping down from a multicoloured copse that, in the spring, is ablaze with rhododendrons and magnolias.
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There are numerous large and rare trees dotted around, including a magnificent Lucombe oak, a hybrid Spanish oak created by William Lucombe at his Exeter nursery in 1762 and brought here three years later.
Felbrigg Hall Gardens
Outside the 17th-century Jacobean country house are a nicely restored, and still productive, walled garden and a splendid 18th-century dovecote that stands centrepiece to a kitchen garden with potagers. Extensive orchards are filled with traditional 19th-century fruit varieties, a fine collection of camellias, an 18th-century orangery and a Victorian pleasure garden.
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The 5,200 acres of parkland, lakes and mature woodland have a number of waymarked trails allowing free access for walking and cycling in daylight hours.
Once you set foot in this Georgian parkland on the outskirts of Gateshead, you will feel as cut off from the 21st century as you would on any remote National Trust estate. The grounds have all the grandeur you would expect of an 18th-century landscaped garden with eye-catching monuments, wooded walkways, classical architecture and open vistas.
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A stroll from the Palladian chapel along a half-mile tree-lined avenue to the 140-foot Column to Liberty is wonderfully romantic. The ruins of an orangery and Jacobean hall lie halfway between the two.
Some people visit Cragside just for the gardens and woodland walks. As its name suggests, the 19th-century country house is built into the craggy sandstone hillside and makes use of the rocks and varying heights to create romantic vistas. The wider landscape is very much part of Cragside’s appeal and there are no walls shutting out the moors, burns and crags. Close to the house are formal terraces, picturesque bridges, an intricate bedding carpet, and the largest sandstone rock garden in Europe.
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Narrow paths below the house wind through heathers and alpine plants and past a couple of cascades. A slender 1870s footbridge with elegant ironwork reaches across the Debdon Burn at some height offering a superb view of the mansion through the trees. A short walk takes you to more formal gardens where hardy and tender plants from around the world bring an unexpected vibrant colour palate to the otherwise natural tones seen elsewhere on the estate.
Attingham’s parkland covers around 4,000 acres and, although that’s only half the area it claimed in the early 1800s, you can still spend entire afternoons getting joyfully lost, exploring the woodland, deer park, walled garden and – for children and their parents – the expansive Field of Play (sometimes called the Shoulder of Mutton due to its shape), with tunnels, dens and logs.
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Look for the Parkland Walks leaflet as you enter the estate, detailing the gentle Mile Walk (on even ground, suitable for wheelchairs and pushchairs), as well as the Woodland, Deer Park (with more than 250 fallow deer – keep an eye out for feeding times) and World War II Walks.
Set around a handsome 17th-century Grade I-listed house, Tintinhull was designed by Phyllis Reiss following her move to the property in 1933, before it was passed over to the National Trust in 1961. What is perhaps less well known is that Penelope Hobhouse, the renowned garden historian, lived and worked here between 1980 and 1993.
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Much smaller and more intimate than most, the gardens comprise a sequence of compartments, or ‘rooms’, partitioned from each other by a wall or a hedge. All in all, it’s a delightful synthesis of perfectly clipped lawns, well-tended flowerbeds and soothing pools; there’s also an abundant kitchen garden, an orchard and a woodland walk. Any of the seven gardens make for an ideal reading spot, so you’d do well to bring a book, perhaps a flask of tea too, and take your time.
Ickworth House Garden
The park, open all year, was landscaped by Capability Brown between 1769 and 1776, although the basic design goes back to around 1700 when the first Earl of Bristol carved out the landscape to his own requirement after the original Ickworth Hall was demolished in 1701.
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A herd of deer was introduced in 1706. Also seek out the Italianstyle garden with its terrace walk created in 1821, the walled kitchen garden and the Victorian stumpery that contains a large fern collection and stones from the Devil’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.
A short walk up the main road (which has a footway) from Sheffield Park station, at the southern end of the Bluebell Railway, leads to this, one of the greatest of all English gardens. Like many others in the Weald, this 120-acre garden and arboretum is renowned for its dazzling show of azaleas, kalmias, cherries, rhododendrons and other flowering shrubs in May and June, but the interest is year-round, with carpets of bluebells and daffodils in spring.
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In particular, the autumn colours rival those you might find in New England, when maples, tupelo trees, swamp cypresses, birches and eucryphias and others combine to make a mesmeric show of golds, reds, oranges and yellows. The four linked, broodingly silent lakes reflect the abundant and diverse foliage and shrubberies, providing exquisite vistas at every turn.