I love August in Britain, a time to enjoy decisions and choices made in the garden in previous summers and then find new ones. Readers’ inquiries for August have changed since 2019. Earlier they wanted advice on where to visit gardens during challenging hot weather while on holiday in Provence, Tuscany, Sicily and even Greece.
I found these requests incorrectly placed, but very encouraging. On a sun and pool holiday was a significant part of your desire for gardens. However, August is not the month to see most of Southern Europe at its best.
Since the conquest, the old old Britain has become the standard of August in Britain by default. It offers so much to gardeners who are willing to leave big cities. I use it for purposeful travel, for next year’s new plants and for a deeper appreciation of English landscaping. Here’s an outline of how all three work.
Britain’s range of historic gardens is unsurpassed. Sometimes they inspired Europe; other times they used European style. Enough surviving, at least in perimeter, to fill a dozen August with happy outings. On hot days, the shade of a head tree or a park tree is a joy.
In Oxfordshire, large survivors exist within a small radius of Oxford, more than most students realize in the history and literature of the university. They would take more than a short vacation. The eighteenth-century Shotover Park and Nuneham Courtenay, Anglo-Indian Sezincote, the large site of Cirencester Park, laid out by Lord Bathurst and best seen in a survey of the summit of Cirencester Cathedral: these beautiful surroundings retain historic bones and are worth checking out for their open days during the month.
Larger sites are even more accessible. During the closing of last year, I started at the Blenheim Palace in Woodstock, almost as big as Versailles, but more understandable on a first visit. The most important more of it remains a wonder, despite recent invasions of damweed. Master designers, including Vanbrugh, London and Wise and Capability Brown, have contributed to what is still visible, even with the recent turmoil of summer money-making opportunities.
Blenheim is such a huge survival that it is sometimes lacking in the idea of gardeners about where to go. During a recent dry summer, the lost outlines of London and Wise’s original parterres at the palace became visible through the brown lawn.
On a smaller scale, the nearby Rousham Park is indispensable, not just for the house and the gothic façade, as we illustrated here when I wrote in June about the BBC adaptation of Nancy Mitford’s The Striving for love, for which the house and its immediate grounds were the vicinity. The true genius of the place is the landscaped garden outside, which descends over a sloping grass bank to the River Cherwell.
It retains several of the original temples and architectural features and copies of original statues, all of which have been part of the garden since the redesign of the maestro, William Kent, from the late 1730s. Here, as Horace Walpole later wrote, “Kent first jumped the fence and saw that the whole of nature is a garden”. In August, the play of light and shadow is heavenly.
Two larger, nearby landscapes in Buckinghamshire are also indispensable. The well-known is Stowe, whose large house is still a celebrated school, but the park and gardens have been in the hands of the National Trust since 1989. The temples, monuments and underlying meanings of the garden require a good map and a full day on foot. to be appreciated, but they remain unsurpassed.
Vanbrugh, Bridgeman, Kent and Capability Brown also all work here on a large scale, mostly for Lord Cobham, their patron of Whig. Enough has been saved or restored to give an idea of their evolving play with the landscape, but a modern guide is essential to enjoying what their buildings and grassy features were meant to be.
From the A41 of Bicester, near the town of Ludgershall, the remarkable house and large park at Wotton Underwood is not so well known, but is Stowe’s natural pair. On a sunny day in early July, I surrounded them with a group led by John Phibbs, an expert on Capability Brown and for years an advisor to the site. The long circular walk along the lake is the one that follows, taking visitors on what Phibbs well explained as an ornamental farm, or decorated farm, in the middle, laid out in the middle of the 18th century.
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It is just as well preserved in perimeter as in Britain. Intermittent bridges and wooden temples have been restored, making the plan and the carefully chosen vantage points more understandable. It has a special open day billed from 31 August to 31 August, and since its master patron was Lord Grenville, later a Georgian prime minister, it is associated with William Pitt and British political history.
From Croome Court in Worcestershire, with its church by Capability Brown, to the fine lakes and park of Studley Royal in North Yorkshire, from the magnificent 18th-century landscaped park in Stourhead in Wiltshire to the Victorian and orientalising gardens of Biddulph Grange in Staffordshire , Walkers in August, picnickers and gardeners are spoiled for choice. Britain’s range of historic gardens in the park is unsurpassed, an encyclopedia of changing tastes and aesthetic principles.
For gardens with flowers, the choice is just as remarkable. Of the hundreds here, some are my best, all with plenty to see in August. Kiftsgate Court in Gloucestershire remains grateful, even after months of lockdown, despite the energy of its family owners. Great Dixter in Sussex is run on a larger scale and carries on the ideas and plantings of its former occupant, the famous Christopher Lloyd.
Up in Shropshire, Wollerton Old Hall delighted me with its highly planned plant and color control during my first visit last year. It is a pleasure and an inspiration for smaller gardens through the many cameo plantations in the constituent parts.
The beautiful gardens in Coton Manor, Northamptonshire, are another family achievement, one of the most satisfying examples of color planning and placement, especially as the year progresses. It gives me impetus after every visit to try to do better at home.
These beautiful gardens sell excellent plants on stalls near their entrances. Many nurseries have had an increase in demand since the restriction began, and therefore the supply of those with online service began to decline long before the end of the season. Personal visits are a way to hit special items, especially through digitally unwilling sources.
Then travel with the RHS Plant Finder text at hand, the most important guide to the densely rooted undergrowth of nurseries on which all our gardens depend. I will not give specific nursery names because customers go down and clean it. Pay attention to the Plant Finder entries and then check it out online to see where it lies regarding your great garden outing. There will be hits and misses, but many more hits.