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Three Cotswolds Gardens & A Country Park

Three Cotswolds Gardens & A Country Park

By Brian Spencer

Travelling south on a Slack’s Travel coach, we made a stop for our driver’s statutory break at the Georgian spa town of Royal Leamington Spa.  Wide streets lined by pure white elegant Cotswolds stone terraces built in the Regency stile, made a perfect introduction to the countryside of our destination.

We were dropped off directly opposite the gracefully colonnaded Royal Pump Rooms where in Regency times, attractively dressed ladies would dally with their squires, or chat to their friends while ‘taking the waters’.  With changes of fashion, no longer are the Pump Rooms used for their original purpose, but nowadays have a second life housing the Leamington Spa Art Gallery and Museum, together with Royal Leamington Spa’s Information Centre.  Directly opposite the Royal Pump Rooms a gateway opens on to the Grade II Listed Spa Gardens, a series of three winding gardens alongside the meandering River Leam.  This attractive green space has become today’s equivalent of a place to gently exercise, or meet friends.  With only an hour or so at our disposal, we chose to wander round Jephson Gardens that were laid out in 1846, allowing patrons of the Royal Pump Rooms across the road to take exercise after taking the spa waters.


The flower beds were just being laid with bedding plants, but their colour was already there, making itself felt as we made for what we thought was a large aviary, but it turned out to be a welcome café.  A little further along the winding riverbank path we came to a large domed temple-like building named after Dr Henry Jephson, after whom the park is also named.

Below Dr Jephson’s memorial a tiny rose garden is in memory of the people of Lidice, a small town near Prague. They were murdered on masse, or deported to concentration camps in revenge for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich on 27 May 1942.  He was responsible for the slaughter of thousands of innocent Czechs. The memorial garden also commemorates the Czech Special Forces soldiers who carried out the attack, after training near Royal Leamington Spa.

From Leamington Spa we made our way to Shakespeare’s birthplace, Stratford upon Avon, our base for the next few days.


This our first garden was once the home of Tudor Queen Katherine Parr, the last and only surviving wife of King Henry VIII.  She is buried in the castle’s Church of St Mary that stands within the castle making Sudeley the only castle with an English queen buried in its grounds.  The gardens fill most of what are now the ancient ruins, with the Banqueting Hall forming a pleasing background to the formal flower beds.  

The castle has over 1,000 years of royal history. Over the millennia, many royal personality have stayed there, ranging from Richard III, to most of Henry VIII’s wives and the king himself.  Henry’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I also rested there, but neither she nor anyone until modern times, could possibly have come up against the sight of polar bears, or elephants apparently wandering freely around the garden, or on a small island in the mill pond.  These are made of wicker twigs by a local artist.

Sudeley Castle and its gardens have been home for its present owner, Elizabeth, Lady Ashcombe for fifty years.  She can occasionally be met while strolling around the grounds, enjoying them just like any other visitor.  Inside the castle where rooms can be explored, there is a small exhibition of the castle’s history.  Outside, a playground and a pleasantry can occupy the energies of any child, or provide them with ice cream while parents enjoy a welcome cup of tea.

The garden proper is laid out in small formal beds surrounding a fish pond where a carefully placed plank acts as a kind of ladder to help this year’s baby frogs enter their main world.  It was whilst walking past the mill pond on our way up to the castle that my eye was caught by movement a little way beyond the pond.  What appeared to be an un-manned lawn mower was steadily making its way down the steep hillside, towards the pond.  As I watched in awe, it reached the pond, but rather than topple over into the water, it simply turned and began to cut another ruler stripe, this time going up to a man operating a hand-held transmitter – clever eh?


The Arts and Crafts rooftop outline of an Edwardian manor house drew us forwards beyond Hidcote’s secluded car park, not far from Chipping Campden. This was to be our venue for the day, a place to explore at will.  The 10 acre garden laid out by Major Lawrence Johnston in the early nineteen hundreds, is now owned by the National Trust.  During his military service in India, he wandered far and wide in the Himalayas, becoming an avid plant collector.  During his retirement, he developed skills as a garden designer, finding the right environments for plants he first came across on his travels throughout the Indian sub-continent. He was also responsible for several gardens around England, as well as his own at Hidcote.

A small gate in a corner of the main courtyard leads off past a welcoming café and into a series of interlocking flower beds and borders.  Being late spring, most of the daffodils had finished, but late flowering wild narcissi were in full bloom; open sections were all ready for bedding out colourful annuals in beds sheltered by sturdy, well-tended hedges. A left turn led to the aptly named Old Garden, a collection of small beds to the front of the main house.  Next, and on returning to the main garden area, the raised circular pond known as the Bathing Pool, but to my mind only deep enough for paddling, had the by now ubiquitous ladder to help young frogs swap their environment from deep water to damp grass.

Arrow-straight paths led past borders devoted to plants of a single colour, in this case red. Half way along, beyond the shaded Long Walk, onwards our walk took us through a pillar garden to a small rockery. Here the choice is either back towards the Old Garden and up to the house, or, as we did, follow a woodland track, past the Great Lawn and through the Beech Alley to the vegetable garden and orchards.

The already colourful herbaceous twins of the Long Borders led us from the orchards, on and into the shelter of the Plant House where the flamboyant petals of an orchid made a fitting end to our exploration of Hidcote’s gardens.


This garden, our last on the tour, caused much discussion amongst the party. What was the meaning of ‘rococo’?  Checking the dictionary didn’t really help, apart from giving the hint that it was something to do with elaborate 18th century baroque designs originating from Europe, the only way to find out was by visiting Painswick House on the western edge of the Cotswolds.

It was back in the 1740s that the Hyett family designed a garden filling the shallow valley below their home at Painswick House.  The rococo style, a flamboyant and risqué style was already fashionable amongst the Continental aristocracy. Not wishing to be left behind, the Hyett’s decided to copy the idea and create their own version in the steep Cotswold’s valley, where their friends could enjoy themselves without fear of castigation.

An invitation to a moonlit party at Painswick might end with couples drinking at the Exedra Pool, or snuggling up in one of the follies.  This was an outdoor room designed for pleasure, furnished with plants and vines and enhanced by fabulous views of the garden and surrounding landscape.

The garden we visited was accessible from a gravel path running (as we chose), clockwise from a gate guarded by Pan’s statue near the main house.  The garden path leads steadily towards the Eagle House, a cosy open sided rest house.  Beyond it the path zig-zags quite steeply down to woodland surrounding Swan Pond.  It then curves up past the Plunge Pool, where Georgian swains could cool their ardour.  Uphill to your left at this point there is a maze, but finding it is almost as difficult as attempting the maze.  However, if you want to take a rest and admire the layout of young vines and a kitchen garden filing the valley sides, the Doric Seat makes an ideal resting place.  From here the path curves round the valley head, back to the car park by way of a friendly café.

As fashions changed, the garden was redesigned, but eventually abandoned to woodland in the 1950s, but its restoration was led by Lord and Lady Dickinson in 1984 and is now run as an independent registered charity.


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