Gardening: Green and pleasant pedigree

Crisp topiary, rambling camellias, proud parterres - Anna Pavord offers a guide to gardens to visit
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Like anyone else who is interested in gardens, I carry around in pockets and work bags a grubby collection of vaguely horticultural notes scribbled on the backs of envelopes. "Remember Prunus yedoensis," said one I excavated recently. Remember in what sense, though? Is this a ghastly cherry that I must never think of planting in our garden? Or is it so wonderful that I can't do without it a moment longer? Having read it up in WJ Bean's Trees and Shrubs, I'd guess the second.

There are notes about places, too. "Must get to Heale to see the magnolia." That's Heale House at Middle Woodford, one of my favourite gardens in England (open daily 10am-5pm, admission pounds 2.75), where a vast Magnolia x soulangeana frames a genuine Japanese teahouse straddling a tributary of the Avon. There are also notes about gardens that I don't know, but that other people have recommended to me: Tapeley Park at Instow in Devon (open daily except Saturdays, 10am-5pm, admission pounds 2.80) owned by the son of the Christies at Glyndebourne. That's on my list of places to visit this year.

But what I like best of all is dropping in on places that I know absolutely nothing about. It happened this week when I called at East Bergholt Place, at East Bergholt in Suffolk. "Fifteen-acre garden originally laid out at the beginning of the century by the present owner's great-grandfather," said the brief description in the National Gardens Scheme Guide. "Particularly beautiful in spring when the rhododendrons, magnolias and camellias are in full flower."

That's the kind of description that would fit dozens of gardens in the West Country, but it's not what you expect to find in Suffolk. Rupert Eley, who has recently taken the garden in hand, explains that his great- grandfather was a cousin of the Williams family of Caerhays and Lanarth in Cornwall. He was also the first secretary of the Royal Horticultural Society's Rhododendron Group, and subscribed to George Forrest's plant- hunting expeditions in China and Tibet. This is a garden with a pedigree.

It was very run down when Rupert Eley and his wife, Sara, took it on, and there is still a huge amount of work to do here. The storms of 1987 and 1990 took away many of the trees that were sheltering the old rhododendrons. The long-term cover has to be slowly re-established. The formal areas round the house had become slightly shaggy. Now the topiary is in crisp shape and the elegant rill that runs from a square pond down the backbone of the garden has been cleared ready for replanting.

This is all costly work and the Eleys are subsidising it through the nursery that they have laid out inside the brick walls of the old kitchen garden. They keep a brilliant range of trees and shrubs, and I came away with a fine Magnolia delavayi with evergreen, paddle-shaped foliage, and a holly, Ilex aquifolium `Myrtifolia', which has elegantly etiolated leaves.

He's set out on a lonely road, young Rupert Eley, with everybody around now buzzing about herbaceous plants and few people understanding trees and shrubs. I admire him for that, and for his ability to think ahead 30 or 40 years, when the trees he is planting will just be starting to make something of themselves. The garden is open Tuesday to Sunday and bank holiday Mondays (10am-5pm, admission pounds 1.50). Don't expect a showpiece. Enjoy the magnolias and ponder on the strangeness of a Cornish garden transplanted, soul intact, to England's eastern rim.

Long Close at Woodhouse Eaves, Leicestershire, was another chance find. From the outside, the garden gives nothing away. The house sits close to the road that runs through the middle of the village, protected by a high stone wall. Inside, the ground falls gently away to the north, with the garden at first terraced into formal lawns and a grass tennis court, separated by long herbaceous borders. Beyond the tennis court, the planting becomes wilder: magnolias, cherries, amelanchier, rhododendrons.

Like East Bergholt, this garden is not a showpiece, but it is settled, old-fashioned, unassuming and happy. The last owner, Mrs Jackson, apparently gardened here for 50 years before her death last year. The place now needs some tweaking and replanting, but not so much as to disturb the contentment that swilled round the place in waves the sunny morning I was there.

Blue Clematis alpina was draped over the branches of an old cotoneaster. Big, rambling camellias lined a walk down the left-hand side of the enclosure. Toadflax and moss spread over the stone steps and paths. Moss filled the lawns, too. This made them blissfully soft to walk on (though I know that some gardeners would be sucking their teeth and tutting over that). A snowdrop tree, Halesia monticola, was just coming into flower, and old- fashioned cultivars of rhododendron such as `Dragonfly' were making their unchivvied way into bud.

Down at the bottom of the garden, when the house seems miles behind you, there is a serene view out over water meadows bounded by hawthorn hedges. The tower of Old Woodhouse church rises in the distance - pure Constable. The meadows belong to the house and are managed in agreement with the Countryside Commission to encourage wild flowers. That's a treat to come in June. Meanwhile, Long Close is open daily from Monday to Saturday (9.30am- 1pm and 2- 5.30pm, admission pounds 2).

For a real showpiece, go to Waddesdon, between Bicester and Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire. The garden is little changed from the one laid out towards the end of the 19th century by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild and his French landscape designer, Elie Laine. The estate was bequeathed to the National Trust in 1957, but much of the recent restoration work has been initiated by the present Lord Rothschild.

His daughter Beth, who trained at Kew, is responsible for the design and replanting of the staggering parterre on the south side of the house. It is at its best now, swilling with the scent of golden wallflowers set against brilliant blue pansies. Gold and blue are the Rothschild racing colours.

The scale and standard of gardening here are both equally breathtaking. Ten thousand lilies of the valley have been planted with camassias in the woodland garden. Eighty-five thousand spring- and autumn-flowering crocuses have been set along the ash tree walk. Nine thousand wallflower plants were used in the parterre and nine thousand black tulips are just about to burst into flower alongside them.

If you get a chance, visit the newly opened bachelor's wing in the house, if only to catch sight of the immaculate little roof garden, which gives on to the smoking-room. Clipped Portugal laurels set in fine Versailles boxes stand in the four corners, and the walls are covered with green- painted trellis, carefully carpentered to fit round the windows. The knot garden that fills the centre is made from box planted in long, coffin- shaped troughs. It's a model for anyone who is trying to grow plants in an impossible place. The garden at Waddesdon Manor is open Wednesday to Sunday and bank holiday Mondays (10am-5pm, admission to the garden only, pounds 3).