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Daffodil garden at St. James Park in London.

English Gardens of the Royals and the Aristocracy

By Jim Sweat


There is something about flowers, trees and shrubs that gives us a perpetual reminder of the beauty in life. I suppose the nurturing of that life is why so many of us tend to our own gardens, whether it be a simple houseplant in a window struggling to survive amidst the towering monoliths of a big city, or a vast plantation with acre upon acre of bountiful crops.

As home to some of the world's most beautiful and diverse gardens—nurturing life as lovingly as any place on earth—England is a favorite destination for those who place great value on nature's handiwork.

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Apple tree archway at Highgrove.
Photo by: Andrew Butler

Chelsea Flower Show

Each year in late May, tourists from around the world flock to the famous Chelsea Flower Show. Favored by the Royal Family, this annual weeklong exhibition of flowers and plants has been taking place in London since the mid-1800s. Most visitors spend the better part of a day winding their way through the maze of garden and flower exhibits built and designed by some of the world's best horticulturists.

I recently returned from the U.K., having been there to scout out some special gardens and venues for a trip I'll be hosting next year in conjunction with the Chelsea Flower Show. My friend Susie Worthy, a longtime resident of London, shared some of her favorite places, where owners of fine country estates open their homes and gardens for private and public touring. A number of these belong to members of the British aristocracy who have been opening their homes for several years to help fund the upkeep of these residences.

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Flowered archway at Highgrove.
Photo by: Andrew Butler

Highclere Castle

We headed west out of London, leaving the thickly populated city, and ventured into the rolling hills of the countryside. A long winding country road led us to Highclere Castle. This estate was designed by the man who also built the Houses of Parliament.

Lady and Lord Carnarvon, the 8th Earl of Carnarvon, are the current owners and residents of Highclere, which has been in their family since 1679. The 6,000-acre manor is home to a collection of Egyptian artifacts, acquired by the 5th Earl of Carnarvon during visits to Egypt. He also financed Howard Carter's discovery of the tomb of King Tut, and was said to have fallen victim to the pharaoh's curse when he died from an infected mosquito bite in Egypt in 1923.

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Upon our arrival, we enjoyed a private tour of the lower level public rooms, which were lavishly furnished with art and furniture from the Lord and Lady's ancestors. We were particularly fascinated by the impressive Egyptian exhibit, much of it focusing on the discovery of the King Tut tomb.

Looking out over the grounds, I was intrigued by several building facades in the shape of temples dotting the estate. I learned these are "follies"—or decorative buildings designed to add beauty and perspective to the acres of fields and gardens. Some of these follies had practical uses, but most were simply for aesthetics.

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Bowood House

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Lord and Lady Lansdowne at Bowood.
Photo by: Bowood

We continued our drive to Bowood House. Charles Lansdowne, the 9th Marquis, took over the reins of this grand estate when his father retired some 38 years ago. At the time, the major source of revenue was driven by agriculture. Lord Lansdowne realized early on that he needed to bring some commercial enterprise to Bowood in order to help fund the vast estate.

Lord Lansdowne and I shared a drink and conversation in one of the beautiful public rooms of his new Bowood Hotel, Spa and Golf Resort. He explained how he managed to turn huge parcels of acreage from rolling hills of pastureland into what has now become an upscale resort. As he talked about these accomplishments, I sensed the great pride he took in making sure the additions to his estate were handled caringly so as not to upset its history, having been in the family for more than 250 years.

He invited us to a tour around the estate in his Range Rover, so I automatically jumped in the right "passenger" side. Of course, in the U.K., this is the driver's side! After noticing the steering wheel in front of me, I sheepishly switched seats, and we headed out.

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The recent deluge of rain precluded us from visiting his prized rhododendron acreage, so we struck out across the golf course past a huge valley filled with deer to the Bowood House, his grand home that seemed spread across the horizon. The fragrant gardens were plush with huge, round manicured trees, climbing roses, vegetables and exotic plants from around the world.

When I was told that I was going to be spending time with someone I should address as "Lord Lansdowne," my first thought was that I was going to meet one of those royal chaps you see in old British movies who speak like they have a plum in their mouth. But to my surprise, Lord Lansdowne was extremely friendly and seemed to want to get to know me as much I did him.

During a spectacular dinner that evening in the resort's Shelburne Restaurant, Susie shared more details about the Lord and his property, and the great pride he takes in the new 43-room hotel. It was officially opened on May 16, 2009, by HRH (Her Royal Highness) Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall. (She and husband Prince Charles are good friends with Lord and Lady Lansdowne.)

In addition to the 18-hole golf course, spa and several great outdoor activities, Bowood is very close to other popular tourist sites, including Bath, Stonehenge, Salisbury and Highgrove. This has made it a popular hub for tourists wishing to add in side trips while visiting Bowood.

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Highgrove

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Private garden of Prince Charles at his weekend
home at Highgrove.
Photo by: Andrew Butler

The next morning, we made our way to Highgrove, country home of Prince Charles. Purchased by the Prince in 1980, it became the weekend residence for Charles and Diana in 1981. Over the years, he has prided himself on the diligent work that he and his staff have done to transform this 900-acre farm into one of the most famous organic garden estates in the world.

As we wound our way through the country roads and the small towns that looked as if they hadn't changed in centuries (some of the homes still covered with thatched roofs), we understood why this area was a great weekend escape.

After a very thorough security check at the guardhouse, we met up with our guide in the Orchard Room. We were alerted that our garden tour would be delayed because the Prince was still in residence. Within a few minutes, though, the whooshing sound of a huge helicoptor broke the silence. It landed on the ground and quickly whisked Prince Charles to his home in London.

I wasn't sure what to expect from the Prince's personal garden. Our guide shared that the Prince has a hand in all aspects of the various gardens' planning. Highgrove is a collection of many small and eclectic gardens connected by a footpath. One area is called "the stumpery" for its amazing twist of stumps and exotic plants that the Prince has collected over the years. Located in another garden area is the tree house he and Diana built for their boys. There also is a garden dedicated to the Prince's beloved grandmother, the Queen Mother, who passed away a few years ago at the age of 101. We were actually close enough to get a peek into the windows and check out the furnishings inside.

A wonderful component of the Highgrove tour is its gift shop, which is stocked with items that are handpicked by the Prince. Among the large selection of items they sell are signed limited watercolors of garden scenes painted by the Prince himself. All profits generated from the gift shop go to the Prince's Charities Foundation, a group of not-for-profit organizations.

From large gardens belonging to members of Britain's royals and aristocrats, to modest public and private gardens on a much smaller scale, you can rest assured that a visit to England will provide you with a feast for the eyes.

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Plan Your Own Getaway Today

Stop by your local AAA Travel Agency to start the journey.

Writer's note: Jim Sweat has been developing unique AAA travel itineraries for almost 30 years. He returns to the U.K. to personally host this stunning tour designed specifically for garden enthusiasts. The trip includes the Chelsea Flower Show and some of England's most spectacular gardens. You may even meet a Lord or Lady along the way. Travel the famous Royal Scotsman (part of the Orient Express family of trains) for a trip to the western Highlands of Scotland.

 

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