Last week I treated myself to a road trip and visited a couple of gardens slightly further afield. I'd been tempted by a tour around the gardens at Luton Hoo courtesy of their PR people, and it seemed churlish not take them up on their offer ;)
Never heard of Luton Hoo? Neither had I until a few weeks ago...
... as you can see the drive up to the hotel is lined with mature trees. This creates a tunnel-like approach and a sense of anticipation...
... until the draw dropping reveal of a huge and imposing property designed and built by Robert Adam in 1767. In its hey day that whole area in front of the house was loose gravel, which the gardening staff raked every day. Now it's a bonded surface, much to the relief of Keith, the Head Gardener!
Skirting around the Grade I listed mansion to the right, I found the formal gardens and this view back towards the hotel's terrace. Lots of people were there sipping tea, coffee and cocktails. It's also where I found my guide for the afternoon, Head Gardener Keith Hersey.
Keith has gardened at Luton Hoo for 33 years (since qualifying at Silsoe College) and has seen it in its glory, then decline, and its current recovery. Now he's at the heart of and in the middle of a 10 year programme of restoration to bring the gardens back to life.
I'm sure Keith won't mind me telling you that in the process of looking after the gardens, he has totally fallen for the place and regards the garden as his. After all, at one time it was only him there to love and look after them.
Now there's a team of 5 to look after the gardens, so we're definitely looking at much happier times :) Mind you, it takes 6 weeks to cut all the hedges and topiary!
Keith is an enthusiastic guide and has a great fund of stories to tell. This may have been the spot where Edward VIII finally decided Wallis Simpson really was the 'woman he loved' as they stayed at Luton Hoo just before he abdicated the throne. The Queen and Prince Philip spent part of their honeymoon here and her godson, Nicholas Philips was the last private owner until his death in 1991 (much more on Luton Hoo's history here). The house was part of the royal hunting circuit, so this is the place to be if you want that whole country house/Downton Abbey style experience.
Beyond the garden, there are over 1,000 acres to explore of a Grade I listed landscape designed by Capability Brown. The property was originally over 4,500 acres (making it the second largest Capability Brown designed estate, only Blenheim is larger), but it was split into two when the house was sold to the Elite Hotel Group in 1999. The other part of the estate can also be visited separately, which includes a walled garden.
However, a smaller estate doesn't mean there aren't classic Capability Brown styled views on hand. Just in front of those trees dead ahead is the lake, another element Capability Brown liked to place in his landscapes. The large urns you can see are just 2 of the 76 which Keith stocks from his north facing greenhouse (yes I know, north!). Keith was a bit surprised to find it was north facing too, but says it just means he grows his plants a bit harder and at least he doesn't have to worry about having to shade it in the summer.
And here's the view back towards the house. This was the front of the house originally and I'm standing not far from the croquet lawn, complete with comfy bench nearby which a couple had just flopped down on after finishing their game. Other leisure options include a golf course (which I found was quite well hidden), a spa and clay pigeon shooting. At this point, Luton airport is also very visible if I swing my camera to the right, though I didn't find the sight or the noise from it that obtrusive whilst I was there.
Another leisure option is the lawn tennis court. I love how it's a 'secret garden' hidden behind tall hedges, which double up as the barrier stopping stray tennis balls escaping too far. The restored pavilion you can see in the distance is mounted on wheels so it can be moved into the sun or shade as required. I want one!
And this is the next project in Keith's 10 year plan, the restoration of the Victorian rock garden Sir Julius Wernher built for Lady Alice at the end of the 19th Century. It'll take about 18 months to complete, but I still enjoyed my wander around in its current state.
As you can guess, I thoroughly enjoyed my afternoon's visit with my knowledgeable and entertaining guide. The hotel has a varied 'Ladies Who Lunch' programme and I'm pretty sure Keith will be repeating his popular spot on that next summer :)
My thanks to Elite Hotels, and especially to Keith for their hospitality last week. This probably isn't my only post about Luton Hoo as Keith has kindly lent me his massive archive of photos and slides to look through, taken over his 33 years at the property.
And that's not quite all...
If you like what you see, you might like to know Garden Answers has a very tasty looking competition to win a luxurious stay at Luton Hoo. The closing date is September 19th 2013.
This visit and my other Taste of the Good Life earlier in the summer have given me much food for thought. I've come round to thinking an extended visit is a much better way of assessing a garden, by having the ability to 'live' in it and experience a number of different lights and moods. And what could be more delightful than visiting a garden of interest which also offers accommodation?
Here's some further ideas on this thought. Some have historical interest, some are more for foodie gardeners and some have both. Some I've visited, others are by reputation waiting for me to explore. Your ideas and experiences are also welcome.
- Tylney Hall Hotel - in the same luxury hotel group as Luton Hoo. In Hampshire this time, with a Gertrude Jekyll garden
- Gravetye Manor - where William Robinson had his home and developed many of his ideas about the natural garden
- Barnsley House - formerly the home of Rosemary Verey. There's an option to become a Garden Club member as well as dining or staying at the hotel.
- Bressingham Hall - Alan Bloom's former home is now a B&B, right in the heart of The Dell, with Foggy Bottom also on hand. The Dell pioneered island beds and Foggy Bottom the conifers and heathers style of planting. There's also the national collection of Miscanthus and Adrian Bloom was updating the conifer style quite substantially when I visited. (gardens visited but not blogged)
- The Pig - I had a fab afternoon with my blogging pals having A Taste of the Good Life and would love to stay there :)
- Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons - I haven't been, but Threadspider went all dreamy about it when she spoke to me about her visit
- The Manor House Hotel at Castle Combe - Michelin star food in a fabulous setting, plus fresh produce from the kitchen garden and estate. All sampled by moi :)
- National Trust cottages - plenty of options to stay at some of the properties with notable gardens. For instance, at Lytes Cary Manor this is an entire wing of the manor itself.