Secret Britain (part 1): 50 little-known coasts, woodlands and gardens

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David Randall starts where the guidebooks stop. This week, he reveals 50 little-known coasts, woodlands and gardens where you can spend hours walking and discovering hidden delights

Everyone has their favourite places they think are known only to them and a few others – passed, perhaps, down through their family like some arcane trade secret. Rarely, however, do you find them in "what to do in the holidays" guides – so often the recyclers of the terrifyingly obvious.

So, we thought it might be useful to have a stab at assembling a list of Britain's best-kept summer secrets – the usually unheralded places that might form the basis of an agreeable day out, or even a weekend trip. We approached a huge variety of organisations that care for our countryside and heritage and asked them: what are your hidden gems? The National Trust, Wildlife Trusts, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, VisitBritain, National Piers Society, Woodland Trust, English Heritage, heritage bodies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and several others, like Roger Borrell, editor of Lancashire Life magazine, and Paul Jones of the Press Association, all responded keenly.

The result, plus a few of our own selections we could not resist including, follows, this week and next. Each issue we will present 50 places worthy of a visit. We start with Coast, Woodlands, and Gardens; next Sunday, we will have Wildlife, Heritage, and Scenery (a category for places that didn't fit neatly into any of the above). We have done our best to make sure every region is represented.

A few of the places may seem familiar, but they have been included because of some little-known aspect. Ventnor Botanic Gardens on the Isle of Wight, for instance, is one of the island's more visited gardens, but few know of its reputation as the most haunted piece of horticulture in Britain.

We want to hear your suggestions, too. Send them via the IoS message board (see link below), or by letter to the editor. We will then, the Sunday after next, share them with everyone. That way, we will, together, have produced a good look at Britain's best-kept secrets.

To have your say on this or any other issue visit www.independent.co.uk/IoSblogs

Secret Britain: Coast

Britain has thousands of kilometres of coast, and only a fraction is industrialised, urbanised or candy-flossed. The rest – virtually all accessible on foot – awaits your discovery. Here are 20 less obvious gems. For guidance to thousands more, see below.

1. Rathlin Island, Northern Ireland

Sitting six miles off the coast, and L-shaped, this is the Province's only island inhabited by humans. Seabirds live here in rather greater quantities, with puffins, kittiwakes, and razorbills much the most conspicuous and noisy locals. There are also seals, and, inland, meadows with the parasitic plant yellow rattle, and butterflies like the grayling and dark green fritillary. The treacherous rocks have caused more than 40 known shipwrecks. There is also the cave where Robert the Bruce saw his spider, which indicates just how near Rathlin is to Scotland. The Mull of Kintyre is about a dozen miles away.

2. Isle of Eigg, Scotland

A Hebridean island 10 miles off the coast, and a place for whom the word "unspoilt" could have been coined. It is five miles by three, and has a wide range of landscapes. The coast has otters, seals, dolphins and whales (minke are the most usual). There are meadows and woodland, with the rare corncrake (the bird whose call sounds like a credit card being dragged along a comb), the pigmy shrew, butterflies such as the green hairstreak, dark green and small pearl-bordered fritillary, painted lady and orange tip, and 12 kinds of orchid. There are also moors and towering crags where ravens and eagles dare, plus woods.

3. Silecroft, Cumbria

Few Lakeland visitors ever get as far as Cumbria's little-known, but stunning coast. This is one of the region's very best beaches – five miles of sand and shingle, where there is always room, and less than an hour's drive from Ambleside. It has won an EU water quality award eight years running, and there is a pleasant village with all the usual amenities. Watersports, fishing, canoeing and waterskiing are available. And, from the summit of nearby Black Coombe it is claimed that, on a clear day, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man and 14 counties of England can be seen.

4. Arnside, Cumbria

The perfect place from which to view the innermost part of Morecambe Bay and its treacherous incoming tide. Sitting on a wall with a drink in your hand watching it rip past is one of the experiences of seaside Britain. Roger Borrell, editor of 'Lancashire Life', commends it for being: "A great village, ignored by tourists heading lemming-like to the Lakes. Historic bakers making wonderful bread, and meat and potato pies, and you can go for long walks along the coast." Nearby is an area of outstanding natural beauty – and we don't mean the Lake District.

5. Llandudno Pier, Conwy

A wonderful Victorian confection reaching 2,295ft out into the sea. One of Britain's most unusual, as well as longest piers, it is said to be the thing after which Piers Morgan's mother named her son. Opened in 1877, it is unique in having two entrances, and also has a 45-degree turn at about a third of the way along its length. Its kiosks make it look, according to one description "rather like a Maharajah's palace floating on a lake", with "brackets of iron lacework, an outstandingly pretty balustrade like an enlarged fish net, and ogee roofs curling away to the sky".

6. Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire

One of the best places to view sea birds in Britain. A flattish island of 750 acres, it has sheltered bays, headlands, rocks, and sneaky little inlets which generations of birds have found ideal for breeding. They include 6,000 pairs of puffin (called the "Pembrokeshire Parrot" locally), the world's largest colony of Manx shearwater (120,000 pairs), guillemots (10,000 pairs), razorbills, choughs, fulmars and kittiwakes. There are also peregrines, and short-eared owls. There are usually about 200 seals here, and sponges and corals grow in the warm waters. The island is one of three marine nature reserves in the country.

7. Puffin Shuttle, Pembrokeshire

This is a bus service, and probably the most scenic one in all Britain. Its route hugs the spectacular Pembrokeshire coast between St David's and Milford Haven. It takes in Solva, with its pastel-shaded cottages and woollen mill; the cliffs and sands of Druidston Haven; St Brides, with its 19th-century castle; and Marloes, which has a beach regarded as one of the finest in the country. Other services, jointly run by the Pembrokeshire County Council and the national park, are the Poppit Rocket, Strumble Shuttle, Celtic Coaster and Coastal Coaster, all of which offer their own delights.

8. Clevedon Pier, Somerset

Britain's only intact Grade I listed pier. It was built in 1869, partly with the track from one of Isambard Kingdom Brunel's less sensible railway schemes. When it failed to be completed, the iron was shipped over the Severn Estuary to Clevedon. These materials, and the astonishing 46ft rise and fall of the local tide, meant the pier had to be built taller and thinner than others. The result is the most graceful seaside structure in Britain. Threatened with demolition more than once, a band of enthusiasts, and Lottery money, have saved it for the nation.

9. Watchet, Somerset

Not beautiful, but a quaint and fascinating small, working port. It has narrow streets, good bric-a-brac shops, a harbour, and is served by the wonderful West Somerset Railway. To the immediate east is the little-known Hellwell Bay, reached by steep steps, which is a beachcombers' and geologists' delight, and from which steam trains can be seen tooting along the cliffs. To the west is a slipway to one of the best beaches in Britain for collecting sea glass, and, a little further on, are beaches strewn with quartz-filled rocks. (For sandy beaches head south to Blue Anchor and Dunster beach).

10. Wembury, Devon

Probably the best site in the UK for rock-pooling (best undertaken an hour before low tide to an hour after it). Four miles of seashore, including reefs, not far from Plymouth, its waters hold some rare species. They include the bloody-eyed swimming crab, the blenny (a strange fish that can live out of water), plus creatures such as pipe fish, sea scorpion, starfish, Cornish sucker fish and anemones. Just offshore is the Mewstone, a conical island which was once a prison and is now a bird sanctuary.

11. Pednevounder Beach, Cornwall

Sheltered cove near Treen, on the south coast, where you park, and then take a somewhat treacherous track whose final descent on to the beach is a testing one for small children. Once there, the water is crystal blue, the sand is white with broken shells, and the beach is backed by granite cliffs carpeted by purple Cornish heather and ferns. Almost completely submerged at high tide, the beach has a wide shallow area at low tide, and the water is often warm. Good views of rocks, happy bird-watching and sometimes dolphins and seals. Nudists, who favour this beach, complete the local wildlife.

12. Brownsea Island, Dorset

This is a wildlife and arcadian delight, a small egg-shaped island reached via a ferry. Most visitors go for the tea-rooms, (where red squirrels can be seen lurking for tid-bits), but head instead for the nature reserve, from whose hides can be seen waders, cormorants drying their wings, little egrets, the residents of Britain's second-biggest heronry, and spoonbill. Its best-kept secrets are in the interior, where there are pine woods, steep wooded slopes, pools alive with dragonflies, and a greater chance of seeing the redsquirrels.

13. St Nectan's Glen, Cornwall

A deep hidden valley in Arthurian country that includes a spectacular waterfall 60ft tall that plunges through the wooded rocks. The waters are said to have magical healing properties, and a team from the Paranormal Research Organisation reported: "St Nectan's Glen may well have several sentient spirits present in its wondrous confines... The earth energy is very strong there due to the ley lines crossing the house and the waterfall. No wonder it is such a spiritual venue." If you're a sceptic, there is still the picturesque valley, which continues down to the secluded Bossiney Cove.

14. Pagham Harbour, West Sussex

Six hundred acres of tidal mudflats and saltings, plus set-aside farmland, gorse thickets, reedbeds, hedgerows, shingle banks, and sluggish rifes (the local name for little rivers). These habitats make this one of the best, least-known, wildlife havens in southern England. In the harbour there are shelducks, little egrets, herons, curlews, turnstones, lapwings, redshanks etc, and a great variety of ducks and waders such as black-tailed godwits in the pools. Best place to start is the very limited parking at the end of Church Lane, from which a footpath leads past the old salthouse and across the sea wall. Friendly twitchers will tell you what you're looking at.

15. Minnis Bay, Kent

This is a real treasure, especially as night falls. Underneath the seaweed that at present noisesomely covers it (and will surely dissipate as time goes by) is a sandy beach. But it is included for its sunsets, probably the best in Britain. There's a reason for them: London's pollution, through which the fading sun refracts into a paint-box of colours. Will turn even the ham-fisted into award-winning photographers.

16. Horsey Beach, Norfolk

A wide, sandy, and often deserted beach 12 miles from the kiss-me-quick clatter of Great Yarmouth. There is a resident grey seal population, best seen in winter. The sand dunes-backed beach is a good one-mile walk from the village, which probably accounts for the lack of crowds. Horsey Mere, west of the village, is 120 acres of delights, and marsh harriers and cranes can be seen (or, more likely, heard, in the case of the latter). At Horsey Staithe, there is a windmill which used to act as a drainage pump for the mere, and has now been restored by the National Trust.

17. Bempton Cliffs, East Yorkshire

Towering (and rather crumbling, easily eroded) chalk cliffs which the pounding sea has turned into out-of-the-way bays and inlets dotted with caves (much used by smugglers in the past). The cliffs are now England's premier seabird watching spot. The RSPB runs a reserve here, with safe viewing platforms, where you can see up to 200,000 birds at the height of the breeding season. The cliffs are also a great place to see spring and autumn migrations, and to see seals and porpoises.

18. Spurn Head, Yorkshire

One of the weirdest bits of land in Britain – a curving spit, barely 50 yards across in places, which runs out three and a half miles across the mouth of the Humber. Built by sand washed down from beaches and silt delivered by the river, it has a wonderful flora (including sea holly and sea rocket) and an even better fauna. This is one of the great places to see migrating birds. On a good morning, apparently, some 15,000 can fly past. Species seen in the last month include: common and velvet scoters, Manx shearwater, gannet, sanderling, knot, sandwich, common and arctic terns, crossbills, whimbrel and shore lark.

19. Low Newton-by-the-Sea, Northumberland

An 18th-century fishing village now owned by the National Trust. It is an open-ended square of cream-coloured cottages with a village green, which then opens out on to the sea. The 100-year-old church was, you'd never guess, delivered in kit form. The Ship Inn serves great food, and has a micro-brewery offering such real ales as Dolly Day Dream, and Ship Hot Ale. The area is famous for bird-watching, and its stunning views of the brooding, 14th-century Dunstanburgh Castle. Landside, behind the village, is Newton Pool, excellent for wildlife.

20. Isle of May, Scotland

Small island, owned and managed by Scottish Natural Heritage, at the entrance to the Firth of Forth, whose rocky crags and cliffs are home to vast numbers of seabirds. Site of Scotland's first lighthouse, in 1635, it is reached by a 45-minute boat trip from Anstruther, which gives visitors two to three hours on the island. Some 7,000 people come here each year, rather fewer than the 250,000 birds that make it their home part of the year. It has the UK's largest breeding colony of puffins, plus guillemots, sandwich and arctic terns, razorbills, gulls and gannets. Seals, and, irregularly, whales can be seen all year round.

Where do you go to escape the crowds?

Many readers will have their own ideas of the best little-known places in Britain: those favourite picnic spots, coves, villages, views and days out that few others seem to know about. At the risk of finding them over-run with Independent on Sunday readers, we would like to hear of these, so we can, at the end of our 'Secret Britain' series, share them with everyone. Send your suggestions to us via the link at the end of this article.

Useful organisations:

National Trust ( nationaltrust.org.uk); Scottish Natural Heritage (snh.org.uk); National Piers Society ( piers.co.uk/piers.htm); VisitBritain ( visitbritain.co.uk); Royal Society for the Protection of Birds ( rspb.org.uk).

Secret Britian: Woodland

Britain's woods suffered horribly between 1870 and 1970, but conservation is repairing the damage. Our present four billion trees are more than we have had for 150 years. If these woods whet your appetite, go to the links at the bottom of this article to find more.

1. Raven's Rock, Sutherland

Mixed wood, with silver fir, spruce, Scots pine, and beech, plus the thrilling Allt Mor (big burn, or stream) running through a gorge. A series of suspended boardwalks have been built over the gorge and surrounding woods. The area is notable for its mosses and ferns, which give a lush look to the woods on even the hottest days. Otter and pine marten are resident, although rarely seen. Growing on the floor is the blaeberry, better known as the bilberry or whortleberry south of the border. The Forestry Commission says: "This is a magical place, one of Scotland's best-kept secrets." And ravens may still live here.

2. Giggle Alley, Cumbria

A small wood, but one with a big surprise. At the heart of it is a long-lost Japanese garden, which the Forestry Commission, and especially a man called Chris Jones, are restoring. The garden was built in 1914, and had convoluted stone pathways, pools, Japanese bridges, a wisteria-covered pergola, wooden teahouse, and was planted with maples, rhododendron, and bamboo. After the property was sold in 1949, the garden was neglected and the bamboo and rhododendron, plus brambles, ran riot. Much work has been done in the last eight years, and this buried treasure can now be enjoyed.

3. Glasdir Copper Trail, Snowdonia

Woods on, over and around an old copper mine. The Forestry Commission says: "Despite nature having had nearly 100 years to reclaim the site, many of the important industrial features such as the old drum house and the foundation tiers of the processing works can still be seen." There are good views from the top (reached by following an old tramway), and buzzards can be seen circling. In the woods are the phantom-like goshawk and a good range of butterflies, such as purple hairstreak, small pearl-bordered fritillary, ringlet and brimstone. There have also been unconfirmed sightings of pine marten.

4. Credenhill Park Wood, Hereford

Ancient woodland within the Hereford Hills. Now cared for by the Woodland Trust, but its purchase owed much to local efforts. At its core is an Iron Age hill fort, the slopes of which are covered with mature conifer woods. In the north-western corner of the area is ancient semi-natural woodland. This area includes such indicators of historic woods as small-leaved lime and the curious herb paris, whose flower looks like a long-legged spider standing in the middle of four or five splayed leaves. There are also three species of deer – roe, fallow and the dog-like muntjac.

5. Blaize Bailey, Gloucester

High Forest of Dean woodland, from whose top there are remarkable vistas over the Severn Valley. From the viewpoint on clear days, you can see not only Gloucester Cathedral, but also local villages, Slimbridge, and you can also spy on GCHQ, the government's listening post. There is always a good chance of seeing deer (roe are established here and muntjac, the small, non-native species, are advancing towards the area). Parking is at Soudley Ponds, which are good for wildlife with little grebes and mandarin duck often present. From here you climb the ridge into the woods.

6. Bishop's Knoll, Bristol

A small site tucked away in the Avon Gorge, it has had an eventful history, being a medieval deer park, then the grounds of a large house called The Knoll, which was demolished in 1970. This had extensive terraced gardens and grounds in Victorian times. The Woodland Trust, which acquired the woods a little over 20 years ago, says: "Lots of unexpected garden features remain, now overgrown but still visible as you walk around, including old pergolas, gardeners' huts, and some unusual tree species." There is also Britain's oldest sessile oak, now with a six-metre girth, plus meadows and a pond.

7. East Harptree Woodland, Somerset

A small conifer woodland with many historical associations on the northern slopes of the Mendips, five miles from the cathedral city of Wells. Its most striking feature is Smitham Chimney, a Cornish-style stack that is a reminder of the mining that used to pock-mark this area, as lead, manganese and quartz were extracted. In front of the chimney is a pond, whose surface, on sunny days, can be alive with dragonflies. There are also views over the Chew Valley and a lake. The Forestry Commission says: "This hidden jewel is a well-kept secret, presently known only to local dog-walkers."

8. Heywood, Devon

This is part of Eggesford Forest, near Chulmleigh, the first to be planted by the Forestry Commission in 1919. One of the features of the wood is the giant conifers, the most remarkable of which is a huge Douglas fir, which was planted back in 1840. Other unusual specimens include the Chile pine, and a Western red cedar. A one and a half hour circular walk through the firs also takes you past the earthwork remains of a Norman motte and bailey castle, from the top of whose mound there are far-reaching views. The woods are also good for cycling.

9. Ethy, Cornwall

The Forestry Commission says: "This is an enchanting woodland whose crooked oaks adorn part of the estuary of the River Fowey. It is well worth a visit to see heron, little egret, shelduck, and curlew, along with other wading birds on the estuary. Turn your attention to the wood itself and you may be lucky enough to spot roe deer or badger, or birds such as the greater spotted woodpecker, bullfinch and goldcrest." There is no car park, but a footpath from the village of Lerryn, or a shorter one (but with three stiles) from the hamlet of St Winnow.

10. Hillhouse Wood, West Bergholt, Essex

Ancient woodland which had a woodman/hurdler in residence within the living memory of some of the older locals. Along the wood's streams grows what the Woodland Trust calls "veteran stands of hazel", and the banks of the most northerly of the wood's three waters have wild flowers such as the yellow pimpernel, brooklime, and opposite-leaved golden saxifrage. Suckering elm and wych elm have brought the rare white-letter hairstreak butterfly to the woods, but are often beset with Dutch Elm Disease. Deer abound, although they do a great deal of damage. There are also two ponds.

11. Hackfall, North Yorkshire

An ancient wooded parkland and garden, set in a natural gorge. It has, says the Woodland Trust, a labyrinth of paths that lead to "surprises such as grottos, follies, cascades and water features." Once a tourist attraction, it was painted by Turner and the subject of a tea-service for Catherine II of Russia, it fell into decay at the start of the 20th century. The rare plants here include the bird's-nest orchid and green-flowered helleborine. If you like the sound of burbling water, this is the place for you. photo: rachel wildman

12. Castle Neroche, Somerset

Woods and viewpoints around the site of an Iron Age hill fort on the edge of the Blackdown Hills. A short walk brings breathtaking views over the Vale of Taunton towards the Quantocks and Exmoor. In the woods below, there are pipistrelle bats, dormice, butterflies like the marsh fritillary and wood white, and plants such as the devil's-bit scabious, and round-leaved sundew. You can also see the invasive Himalayan balsam, whose seeds can be heard exploding into the air, ready to lay down another generation.

13. Brede High Woods, East Sussex

Ancient woodlands within the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Among them are extensive areas of hornbeam and sweet chestnut coppice, pine and larch, wet woodland, open heath, sphagnum beds, small ponds, springs and streams. Birds include nightingales, hobby, woodcock, turtle dove and spotted fly-catcher; there are green hellebore and wild service trees; and this is the only UK site for the flea beetle. There are also wild boar. The Woodland Trust says the site has "lots of subtle woodland archaeology – woodbanks, sunken lanes, iron-ore extraction pits, and saw pits."

14. Pullingshill Wood and Marlow Common, Buckinghamshire

A classic Chilterns high beechwood, which is protected because of its rare ground flora. This includes such plants as broadleaved helleborine, lesser wintergreen, and wood barley. Pullingshill is ancient semi-natural woodland, while Marlow Common has only had tree cover for the past 100 years or so. Alder, beech and oak now grow there. The fallen deadwood is home to many insect species, and there are also the remnants of trenches dug by World War One soldiers preparing to go to France. This Woodland Trust site is much used by horse riders and mountain bikers.

15. Quarry Wood, Berkshire

This wood is thought to be where Kenneth Grahame was inspired to write 'The Wind in the Willows'. Today, willows are not the most obvious species in this 500-year-old woodland. Oaks, beech, ash, wych elm, wild cherry and sycamore are the dominant trees. There are also plantations of larch and Corsican pine, and Western red cedar. Fungi are plentiful, and there are orchids to be seen, the depredations of horse-riders who stray off the designated routes permitting. This Woodland Trust site is part of the Bisham Woods complex, which also includes Park Wood and Gouldings Wood, where there are several ponds.

16. Bedford Purlieus, Bedford

This, once part of the Royal Forest of Rockingham, is one of the most wildlife-rich woodlands in Britain. Its special geology gives a mixture of lime-loving and acid plants, and it is famous for its butterfly population. White-letter and brown hairstreak, white admiral, and silver-washed fritillary have all been seen here. On one autumn visit, more than 70 species of fungi were found here, and there have been no fewer than 465 plants found in the woods, fly orchid, twayblade and herb paris being among the rareties. No wonder this Forestry Commission property is a National Nature Reserve.

17. Hazelborough Wood, Northamptonshire

Ancient woodland whose oaks, ash, field maple and beech are now being given breathing space by the Forestry Commission's removal of conifers. This is an area of tranquillity near the vroom-vroom of Silverstone race track. There are three types of deer here – roe, fallow, and muntjac, a very healthy badger population, dormice, harvest mice, and pipistrelle, noctule, and long-eared bats. Tawny and barn owls can often be heard at dusk, and little owls seen hunting or perched during the day. There are also three species of newt, and, on sunny days, there are plenty of butterflies.

18. Prior's Coppice, Rutland

Thought to be one of the last surviving pieces of the ancient wildwood that smothered Leicester and Rutland, this is an ash, maple and wych elm wood with broad rides. No fewer than 230 flowering plant and fern species have been found within this Wildlife Trust reserve. They include the broad-leaved helleborine and ragged robin. Butterflies include the purple and white-letter hairstreak, brimstone and orange tip. There are stoat, muntjac and badger present, and 42 species of bird have bred here. The site has much deadwood left to rot where it falls, and so a good population of insects and fungi.

19. Holystone Wood, Northumberland

This is an ancient semi-natural broad-leaved woodland which grew up around a nunnery. Oaks of good age are a special feature, and the Forestry Commission is removing conifers to give them, and woodland plants, a chance to thrive. It is a wonderful place to walk and enjoy autumn colours. A broad, shallow river tumbles over rocks through the wood, and it is one of the last places in eastern England where the red squirrel still hangs on. A four-mile trail through the woods leads to Holystone Common, which, like the woods, is a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

20. Ledmore and Migdale, Highland, Scotland

This, on the Dornoch Firth, is the Woodland Trust's largest wood, and contains three Sites of Special Scientific Interest – the Ledmore oakwood, Migdale pinewood, and Spinningdale woodland bog. With such a variety of habitats, which include moorland, wet and dry acidic heath, and marshy grasslands, the wildlife is very special. Capercaillie, black grouse, and Scottish crossbill are among the birds. Once part of Andrew Carnegie's Skibo estate, the site has an archaeology that the trust says includes: "chambered cairns, post-medieval townships and field systems, and other isolated features such as a water mill".

How to discover your own secret Britain

It's amazing just how few of us know – really know – the dozen or so miles around our homes. We're familiar with the obvious, popular spots, but probably not all those tucked-away, little-visited woods, lakes, streams, picnic spots, old houses, ponds, village greens, disused quarries, heritage or gardens. Here, then, are an old hand's tips on how to find them:

* Get a good map, spread it on a table, and spend an evening poring over it. You will be astonished at what is under your nose.

* Visit the website of your local county wildlife trust, or the Woodland Trust (better still, join them), and see what lurks down that turning you've never taken.

* Call in on your local tourist information centre. Staff are invariably a fund of local knowledge that has somehow eluded you – however long you have lived in the area.

* Take a train out to the nearest bit of greenery, and just start walking. You will then find things over stiles and down tracks that you have always whizzed past in the car.

Useful organisations:

Forestry Commission ( forestry.gov.uk); Woodland Trust ( woodland-trust.org.uk); Wildlife Trusts ( wildlifetrusts.org, find your local trust in the pull-down menu on the reserves page); Scottish Natural Heritage ( snh.org.uk).

Secret Britian: Gardens

There are probably more than 5,500 gardens open to the public. Many in the National Garden Scheme are too small or localised to be included here. What follows is a taste of what can be found.

1. Sizergh Castle, Cumbria

The paths crossing the 1,600-acre estate give superb views of Morecambe Bay and the Lakeland hills, but the real joy is the gardens. Laid out in the 18th century, there are 14 acres that include herbaceous borders, a wildflower garden, part of the national collection of ferns, lake, water garden, rose garden, pools and fruit orchards. Perhaps its most striking feature is the rock garden, the largest limestone one on a National Trust property. There are also trails through ancient woods and across meadows alive with butterflies.

2. Benvarden Garden and Grounds, Co Antrim

Within 300-year-old brick walls nearly 12ft high lie two acres of flowers, fruit, herbs, and vegetables. Through the centre is a walkway bordered by herbaceous planting and "roofed" with pergola arches over which old roses ramble. There is a beautiful box and lavender parterre, a weeping silver pear, a rose area, and, in the lower part, a superb kitchen garden. Here are vegetables all in a row, hot houses, melon house, vinery, and, throughout, fruit trees trained against the warm walls. And, outside the walls, is a wild garden and Victorian iron bridge over the river.

3. Benmore Botanic Gardens, Argyll

This is now a magnificent out-station of the glorious Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, but it was the creation of two generations of the Younger beer family. The younger Younger gave the garden to the public in 1925. Its 120 acres contain 300 species of rhododendrons (some of which are in flower until August), an avenue of giant redwoods, late-flowering trees and shrubs, pond, a Bhutanese glade, Chilean rainforest glade, a spectacular collection of dwarf conifers, and the Victorian fernery, built by James Duncan, a Greenock sugar refiner, after he bought the house in 1870.

4. Biddulph Grange, Staffordshire

A Victorian masterpiece, 15 acres of delights created by James Bateman, a plant enthusiast, neglected, nearly destroyed, but now restored by the National Trust. Below a rather forbidding house is a range of garden "rooms" that depict places around the world: a Chinese temple garden (plus its own Great Wall of China), Italian terraces, Egyptian court, Scottish glen, and more. There is also a pinetum, Wellingtonia walk, rock gardens, fernery, topiary, the bizarre upside-down tree, and a Dahlia Walk with 500 varieties.

5. Eggleston Hall, Durham

Four and a half acres set in Teesdale, not the most friendly horticultural country. But what is achieved here is magical, and has an ethereal quality lusher climes could not produce. Its owners describe it as a "Pandora's box of surprises: winding paths, a stream, organic vegetables, walls, and fell views". There are also fruit trees, iridescent blue geraniums, a shrubbery with some late-flowering specialities, and a superb ancient contorted hazel that twists and turns in all directions. The numbered paths lead you to the old churchyard, and, beyond, along the water to a vegetable patch and the 200-year-old stone troughs.

6. Bro Meigan Gardens, Pembrokeshire

The first private garden in Wales to be accorded the accolade of "partner garden" by the Royal Horticultural Society. Overlooking the Preseli Hills are nearly seven acres offering unusual features such as a wooded dingle and natural springs. There are more formal parts, with enchanting herbaceous borders, and also a Gothic garden, Dragon's Nest, cottage garden, orchard, wildflower meadow, turf maze and bee hives. Plenty of colour whatever the season, and often described as a special delight for photographers and bird-watchers. The shy water rail, and peregrine and red kite are often seen.

7. Old Thatch, Buckinghamshire

This was the house – a long, thatched one by the Thames at Bourne End – and garden of Enid Blyton, where she wrote many of her stories and gardening books. Found in a derelict state in 1990, it has been restored and rejuvenated by Jacky Hawthorne. There's a cottage garden, rose walk, water garden, lavender terrace, and formal garden – all in about two acres. It's the kind of garden many of us would like to have – English, restrained, and seriously classy without being prissy. The use of grasses and foliage is a wonder. And there's a pub next door.

8. Upwey Wishing Well, Dorset

This is small, but it is perfect, and very well hidden. Up a Dorset lane, besides Upwey's church with its wall paintings, is the wishing well, gardens, and tea rooms. The waters here were allegedly taken by George III, when staying at Weymouth to try and recover his missing senses. They are no longer deemed safe to drink, but are surrounded by a delightful gardens built around a pond, and through which run rivulets, streams and little falls of water. It is one of the most photographable places in Dorset, the colourful plants reflecting in the waters, and, as a background, an old mill.

9. West Dean Gardens, West Sussex

Acres and acres of varying delights, everything from formal borders, woodland walks beside a stream that twists and turns and bubbles over little falls, and a view across pasture to wooded hills beyond. In places it is a painting come to life. The three stars are the walled fruit garden with its wall-trained trees and arch of pear trees; the Edwardian pergola, 100 metres long, ending in a gazebo whose floor is made of knapped flint and horses' molars; and the Victorian glasshouses and frames. In troughs in the corner of this live many newts, a wonderful surprise for any passing child – of whatever age.

10. Ventnor Botanic Gardens, Isle of Wight

Chosen not only because of what it has to offer by day, but for what it holds at night. The gardens are built on the site of an old chest hospital and are said to be the most haunted in Britain. Every Monday at 8pm there is a ghost walk, offering a chance to see – and hear – former patients, nurses, and even a ghostly tennis match. By day, the gardens glow with exotic plants which can grow in the area's sub-tropical climate. There are 22 acres of unusual species, with colour especially good in late summer. On a warm day you may also see the wall lizards basking in the sun.

Useful organisations:

National Garden Scheme ( ngs.org.uk); National Trust ( nationaltrust.org.uk); Scottish Natural Heritage ( snh.org.uk); Gardens Guide ( gardens-guide.com); Parks and Gardens UK ( parksandgardens.ac.uk).

Compiled and researched by Sophie Clayton-Payne, with thanks to the National Trust, VisitBritain, The Wildlife Trusts, Woodland Trust, Forestry Commission, English Heritage, Scottish Natural Heritage, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, National Piers Society, Paul Jones of the Press Association, and many others.

Next week: Where to find indigenous wildlife in its natural habitat, hidden heritage sites and breathtaking scenic drives

To have your say on this or any other issue visit www.independent.co.uk/IoSblogs

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