Highclere Castle Gardens
I visited the grounds and gardens of Highclere, which nestles in the rolling countryside of North Hampshire, on April 10. It was towards the end of a cold period, after a long cool start to Spring , which had seen heavy snowfall earlier in the week. I was aware that I would probably be a little late for the Spring bulbs, and too early for late Spring blooms; but I was not disappointed with what I found.
At first site it would appear that it is in an area of chalky downland, but there are nearby ridges of London clay and corallia, although it is difficult to detect as a casual observer. As you enter the estate along an attractive drive, you see glimpses of the castle through the trees: and what trees they are! Beautiful mature specimens of broadleaf and conifer are set to perfection along the green countryside. They have been here for a long time.
On entering the grounds in front of the castle, it seems that there are no gardens. Wrong. The title 'Secret garden' is indeed appropriate. I followed the pathway around the side of the castle, pausing to admire the views and the striking Etruscan folly. Hiding behind a small copse are the arches of a walled garden, past a greenhouse, neither of which can be seen from the Castle environs.
In a small dell the walled garden hides topiary, lawns and rose beds, all of which would merit a visit later in the season. As you pass around the end of a large hedge, a long herbaceous border emerges, and promises a Summer of delights.
This garden is on the site of ancient land belonging to the Bishops of Winchester, and although it is known to have been an orchard in earlier times, one can't help wondering what sort of planting was to be seen here back in the 12th century. The estate has been enhanced and developed down the years since the first Earl of Carnarvon collaborated with Lancelot 'Capability' Brown back in the 18th century. The result is a lovely environment for the current plantings.
After passing through a gap in the wall, you find yourself on a winding path that is lined with attractive looking borders, and at this early time of the year the paeony spikes tinged with red are standing vertically, predicting blooms in the early Summer. Some late delicate Narcissi are still looking good, and the coloured foliage of a Mahonia is a foil for the newly emerging tree buds. A small clump of bright Polyanthus also attracts my attention.
The secret garden was designed by Jim Russell, who was also involved with the borders at Castle Howard. The path out of the secret garden leads into a short avenue of beeches originally planted by Robert Herbert in the 1730's, but now being restored and improved with further planting. I scrambled up a short bank to the lawn at the back of the house, with the crunch of last year's beech nut shells under foot.
The tranquility here is lovely, the birds are singing, the woodpecker is tapping in the distance, and the insects are buzzing around the Prunus laurocerasus.
Leaning against another folly, I noticed several small grave type headstones. One of them clearly reads 'The Faithful Fiddle, 1840 to 1857'. Long before the 5th Earl had financed Howard Carter on the expedition that discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922.
Location: Hampshire RG20 9RN
Map: SU 446588
Geology: Limestone over great oolite.
Nearby London clay and corallia.
Refreshments and toilets: yes
Opening: see web site
or phone 01635-253204
Dogs: guide dogs only