With a four-week lockdown looming over us in England, we’re all looking for ways to get out of the house safely and keep our bodies and minds healthy. The good news is that, in line with government guidance, the National Trust will be keeping their gardens and parks open to visitors. Hurrah!
Takeaway food and drink will be available from the on-site cafes and restaurants, but visitors will need to book tickets in advance (slots are released each Friday for the following week).
Below are some of our favourite gardens from up and down England. It is by no means a comprehensive list, but we hope it provides you with some local inspiration.
Although the house remains closed for the time being, the gardens offer plenty of delights for the visitor. The parterre boasts carpets of spring bulbs, while other highlights include the Long Garden, the orientally inspired Water Garden – the pagoda was once red, but is now a slightly disappointing green – and the Rose Garden.
Restless children can walk or run for miles through woodland or along riverbank paths, or lose themselves in the yew tree maze, a replica of one originally created in 1894. It covers an area of about a third of an acre, with 550 yards of paths; over 1,000 trees have been used to make the six-foot-high hedges; and it apparently takes an average of 20 minutes to find the way out.
Sheffield Park, East Sussex
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.
The four linked, broodingly silent lakes reflect the abundant and diverse foliage and shrubberies, providing exquisite vistas at every turn. High above stands the Gothic 18th-century mansion designed by James Watt for the Earl of Sheffield; it is now converted into very desirable flats.
The garden’s master plan – including two of the lakes – was begun by Capability Brown in the 18th century, with further modifications in the 19th century. James Pulham, whose company specialised in water features and was responsible for some of the rock constructions in Brighton Aquarium, added cascades. In 1910 Arthur Soames acquired the property and added the magnificent collection of trees and shrubs, making the most of the sloping nature of the site.
Stowe House and Gardens, Buckinghamshire
If you’ve ever entered someone else’s office where the desk is at the far end – maybe the headmaster’s study when you were at school – then you’ll understand what Stowe is about, long before you arrive. A mile and a half, to be precise: that’s the length of the Grand Avenue from the outskirts of Buckingham to the outskirts of Stowe, lined originally with elm trees but now with beech, horse chestnut, oak and lime. Stowe, the house, gardens and estate, all 250 acres of it, is about power; what it looks like, what you should do with it and who should have it.
The gardens offered a symbolic critique from Viscount Cobham – and a good deal of teasing – of Walpole and of George II, who had appointed Walpole as PM. You can trace this through the gardens today, by taking the Path of Vice to the left or the Path of Virtue to the right. The Path of Vice features various buildings inspired by themes of lust, unhappy or illicit love, such as the Hermitage, a dig at Walpole’s patronage of a much younger mistress (whom he would later marry).
On the Path of Virtue, a Temple of Ancient Virtue contrasted with a nearby Temple of Modern Virtue, the latter built as a ruin with a headless statue inside. The Temple of British Worthies, a celebration of philosophers and men of action, includes a bust of Alfred who, according to the inscription, crushed corruption, defended liberty and founded what became the British constitution: a thinly veiled attack on George II and Walpole.
If your interests lie less in political history and more in landscape gardening, don’t miss the Grecian Valley – an early example of the more informal style of landscape for which Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown became famous. Brown worked at Stowe for ten years before spreading his wings as a freelancer.
Corfe Castle, Dorset
Corfe Castle is everything you want a ruined castle to be: built of moody grey stone, towering high on a conical mound and reached across a stone bridge. So it is unsurprising that its image adorns countless calendars, postcards and book covers.
It was also reputed to be the inspiration for Kirrin Castle, which featured in Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five series of children’s books, although this claim has been challenged by numerous other castles. The building oozes history and drama and a wander around the ruins cannot help but stimulate the imagination. Just thinking of the characters who have lived and died here, and the momentous events that have taken place here, can induce the odd shiver.
Killerton Estate was given to the National Trust by Sir Richard Acland, a committed Socialist. Although the house is Georgian, the interior was redesigned in 1900 and a new entrance added in 1926 following a fire, so it now represents the way of life of an aristocratic family between the wars.
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. 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.
Kingston Lacy, Dorset
One of Dorset’s grandest houses, 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. 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.
Tintinhull Garden, Somerset
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. Whatis perhaps less well known is that Penelope Hobhouse, the renowned garden historian, lived and worked here between 1980 and 1993.
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.
The Midlands and the East
Attingham Park, Shropshire
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.
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.
Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk
Surrounding this magnificent Jacobean manor is 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.
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 and, with reasonably priced parking at the hall, make a worthwhile destination in their own right.
Dunham Massey, Greater Manchester
Come to Dunham Massey with kids in tow and there’s no question what you do first – you go in search of the fallow deer. There’s a 150-strong herd living in the park and on a good day you don’t have to go far to find them. Sometimes clusters of them appear on the lawns right up close to the house.
If you’re here in autumn, during the rutting season, you may get to hear the bucks bellowing at each other. In spring, when they shed their antlers, there’s always the chance that you might find a cast-off lying on the ground – and if you do, you’re allowed to keep it.
One of the other big highlights at Dunham is its winter garden, which comes into its own, inspirational best just as everyone else’s garden is looking at its bleak and battered worst. On a crisp December day, the winter sun shows off the glossy coppery bark of the Tibetan cherries and the brilliant white trunks of the Himalayan birches, washed clean of moss by obliging volunteers.
The Siberian dogwoods add extraordinarily vivid pops of red, while close to the ground there are snowdrops and golden aconites and carpets of blue and purple dwarf iris.
The best way to approach the Longshaw Estate is from Grindleford Railway station via Padley Gorge. For those who prefer a shorter stroll, park in the lay-by next to the information barn at the edge of the estate on the B6521.
Longshaw Pond, created sometime around 1827, is the domain of swans, mallards and other waterfowl. While there’s no stately home to view (the lodge is made up of private apartments nowadays), this is a wonderful place to come and reconnect with nature.
The National Trust does some sterling work on the estate: the Moorland Discovery Centre caters for schools and families, offering a range of fun and educational activities and seasonal events. The kitchen garden behind the NT centre supplies the café during its short growing session in the uplands. Tasty, organic food aside, the outside seating makes for some of the best ‘chews with a view’ in the Peak District, weather permitting.
Sitting on the western tip of the Peak District National Park, Lyme Park is flanked by the Peak District hills, while below it the land drops away to the Cheshire Plains.
At a height of almost 800ft, the gardens would be moorland if they’d been left in their natural state. The daunting task of taming this wild landscape began around 1570, but it wasn’t until 1643 that work began in earnest, with the arrival of Richard and Elizabeth Legh. By 1683, there were gravel walks, bowling greens, tennis courts, lawns, hotbeds and greenhouses. By 1860, Lord Newton had added the Italian garden, while the second Lord Newton created a rose garden in 1913.
The garden fell into neglect during World War II, but since the estate was handed over to the National Trust in 1946, it has worked hard to return these delightful gardens to their former glory. This is a place to return to through the seasons, from the narcissi around Reflection Lake and the secluded Rhododendron Walk with its Killtime Ravine (so called because the staff hid themselves from sight when guests were in the grounds) in spring, to the Rose Garden in summer, along with the herbaceous borders, Wyatt and Italian Gardens.
Don’t miss the Orangery and the Rough Cascade Waterfall. From the gardens you can appreciate the 15-bay grandeur of the south front along with the statues of Neptune, Venus and Pan.
Quarry Bank, Cheshire
The tiny village of Styal is home to one of the country’s greatest industrial heritage sites: Quarry Bank, where, in 1784, Samuel Greg built a vast cotton mill on a picturesque stretch of the River Bollin. While the mill itself is closed for now, you get a better impression of it from the outside, huge chimney silhouetted against the sky.
Follow the footpath along the edge of the car park, then right by the square pond (signposted Mill Yard) and as you round the next bend the mill appears in the valley below you. For a closer look, cross over the river to the lawn on the far side and look back – there are a few benches there where you can kick back, relax and listen to the sound of the water rushing over the weir just upstream.
Also on site is an impressively restored walled garden, now looking very fine. The rare curvilinear glasshouses, once derelict, have been magnificently restored and planted with vines and soft fruits, and in the back sheds you can learn about the work of the estate gardeners. Vegetables from the new beds go to supply the café, with any surplus laid out on a produce stall for visitors to pick up.
To the north of the gardens lie landscaped woods, where you can take a walk along the lovely Bollin Valley. Go far enough and you come to the perimeter fence of Manchester Airport – bad news for the poor old Bollin, ignominiously culverted under the runway; good news for plane spotters who get a prime spot to watch aircraft landing and taking off.
Fountains Abbey, North Yorkshire
The remains of the Cistercian foundation of Fountains Abbey, four miles southwest of Ripon and just a few fields away from Markenfield Hall, constitute the ultimate romantic ruin.
Yes, it would be wonderful to see it as it once stood, but there’s a certain charm in willowy grasses and ivy growing out of the roof, wild figs sunning themselves in the abbey courtyard and every crevice and archway stuffed with wild scabious waving in the wind that blows along the valley of the River Skell, the soothing sound of its waters rushing past the ruins to the adjacent Fountains Mill.
From Anne Boleyn’s Seat you can take any number of paths to visit Studley Royal, the formally landscaped 18th-century water park that uses the Skell for its feed. The park was begun by John Aislabie after expulsion from Parliament for his part of the South Sea Bubble scandal in 1720, with the abbey forming part of the vista; his son William completed the scheme – evidently the family had much more skill at landscaping than financial management.
The design of the wider estate incorporates the Deer Park, where you are virtually guaranteed to see some antlered beasts.
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.
A stroll from the Palladian chapel along a half-mile tree-lined avenue to the 140-foot Column to Liberty is wonderfully romantic, especially in autumn when the intensity of light and colour is spectacular. The ruins of an orangery and Jacobean hall lie halfway between the two.
Don’t leave before visiting the restored walled kitchen garden dating to 1734, where you can buy vegetables grown here and enjoy a pint of Wylam Brewery’s finest ale.
Wallington Hall, Northumberland
Four grinning dragon heads greet you on the approach to Wallington
– one of the great country houses of Northumberland. You could easily spend most of a day at this National Trust property, although the house remains out of bounds for the time being.
Wallington’s walled garden is reached at the end of a short walk through woodland and past an ornamental pond. A thin stream trickles through the green oasis landscaped with terraces of plants and shrubs.
A longer walk is enjoyed by descending through woodland to the River Wansbeck (native white-clawed crayfish live in the water and red squirrels in the trees). The river eventually flows under Northumberland’s most elegant bridge – a Palladian crossing on the southern edge of the estate. Wait until you see it bathed in evening light.
Discover more inspiration for discovering what’s on your doorstep with our Slow Travel guides: