I have visited Hidcote a number of times over the years but usually just for a quiet stroll and a cup of tea or lunch. Today, I approached it with a little more intent but I quickly found that trying to ‘do’ Hidcote comprehensively can be slightly challenging as there is no straightforward route to follow that takes in every one of the garden’s different ‘rooms’. As a result, I did a lot of to-ing and fro-ing and it felt like I’d visited the Old Garden around fifty times by the time I was finished… not that this is a hardship as every visit to the Old Garden brings views of the spreading cedar outside the Manor, which is one of my favourite things at Hidcote. And, all things considered, Hidcote is simply a very nice place in which to to and fro.
Hidcote was the creation of Lawrence Johnston – son of American parents but mainly a native of France and Britain – who moved here in 1907 and transformed a plain hillside in the Cotswolds into a beautiful garden. Unfortunately, Johnston didn’t leave detailed diaries or notes about his work at Hidcote so there is not a vast amount known about the process involved in putting together the garden we see today. However, it is widely recognised as a highly influential garden and it is suggested that the National Trust learnt a lot about garden management from its experiences with Hidcote.
Johnston apparently took inspiration wherever he could find it so there is no single theme or influence at work at Hidcote. His name is apparently in the visitors’ book at Nymans (also NT-owned) so he clearly visited other gardens looking for ideas. He even went on several plant-hunting trips around the world in the 1920s and 1930s, including a visit to South Africa (with Reginald Cory who created his own garden at Dyffryn in Wales, also owned by the Trust), plus trips to Mount Kilimanjaro and Yunnan province in China.
The guidebook highlights three key stages in Hidcote’s development, with the areas closest to the manor house having led the way between 1907 and 1914. Johnston’s mother Gertrude Winthrop was probably heavily involved in these years as Johnston would have been backwards and forwards from Hidcote to various army postings. Similarly, he was away at war for parts of the second phase (1914-1920), which extended the garden to the west, adding on the Stilt Garden, Mrs Winthrop’s Garden and the Theatre Lawn. The final phase (1920-1930) included the creation of the Long Walk and the wilder areas to the south.
This gives some idea of how diverse the Hidcote experience is but you need look no further than the visitors’ map for confirmation as it has a key listing no fewer than 30 separate gardens or areas of interest. I tried to cover most of them today and took a lot of pictures but I had real trouble choosing which shot to use for my header photo as the long views that are popularly used to illustrate Hidcote were too full of people to be much use to me. So, I plumped for a close-up of the Red Borders.
Despite the summer holiday influx of visitors, August is the time to visit if you’re a fan of dahlias or hydrangeas (I love the former but have had my fill of the latter as my Dad has a garden full of the blooming things!). However, you will have to negotiate numerous traffic jams at this time of year, as there are only narrow gaps between the hedges as you move from garden to garden and there were a lot of very British exchanges of ‘after you’, ‘no after you’ to be heard. Then, while gently strolling through the Stilt Garden, I was regaled with the rules of ‘It’ as the children on the Theatre Lawn, the other side of the hedge, planned their afternoon’s entertainment. No more than a few strides further on, I was then deafened by someone snoring… and, no, I have absolutely no idea how that person was managing to sleep with all those children just a few feet away!
Mind you, the beauty of Hidcote is that the separation of the gardens into different ‘rooms’ means that even on the busiest days you can probably find an empty bench or a quiet spot if you wander off the beaten track. I sat and read some of the guidebook in the Winter Border, which was relatively quiet.
As with any garden, it is impossible to pick out the highlights as they will be different at different times of year and even on different days. As I said before, the dahlias and hydrangeas were in full force today, while the Red Border was fairly spectacular and the water lilies in the pond outside the Plant House were putting on a good show. A blackboard near the entrance draws your attention to some of the more striking things to look out for so that’s useful if you are short of time and want a more structured visit. For the random rambler, though, other pleasant surprises that will suddenly open up as you make your way through the hedges from garden to garden include the Bathing Pool (although I certainly wouldn’t want to bathe in it), the Fuchsia Garden, the White Garden (with its supposedly bird-shaped topiary, below) and the Long Walk.
I was also quite struck by the progress that has been made in the Kitchen Garden. Last time I visited there was an area being cleared by a few resident pigs, but today this is fully planted up with potatoes (I didn’t ask where the pigs are now as I’m sure I wouldn’t have liked the answer). I also spotted Perpetual Spinach as one of the crops… Popeye’s delight, perhaps, but many a child’s nightmare!
In a lot of National Trust properties, there are warnings to keep visitors a safe distance away from the beehives but at Hidcote, they have an observation hive so you can gently open it up and watch the bees hard at work behind the glass, an interesting thing for kids (or anyone really) to have a look at before they go off and play tennis or croquet, which are both on offer as visitor activities nearby.
Before I left I headed back to have a browse in the secondhand bookshop in the Manor (negotiating the Old Garden yet again) only to find that it’s no longer there… boo hiss! I couldn’t find any sign of it elsewhere either so I’m hoping it’s just in a transitional stage and is being moved rather than abandoned. I nearly always pick something up at these NT bookshops so I was most disappointed to go home empty handed. Mind you, I’m currently wading through Anna Karenina, which I bought at Acorn Bank in Cumbria, so perhaps Hidcote did me a favour and left me free to complete that particular challenge before handing me another.
Highlights: The spreading cedar, the dahlias
Refreshments: Pea and rocket soup with a roll and crisps
Purchase(s): Couple of cards
NT Connections: Nymans (Johnston’s name is in the visitors’ book); Dyffryn (Johnston travelled with Dyffryn’s creator Reginald Cory on a plant-hunting trip); Tintinhull House Garden (Phyllis Reiss, the creator of Tintinhull, used Hidcote as an inspiration).