Hail the glory of an English country garden

Gardens are coming alive again, and now is the chance to visit the best in private hands. Michael Leapman is your guide
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The Independent Travel

The Easter weekend traditionally marks the start of the garden visiting season. This year, the combination of a cold February and an unusually early date for the holiday means that the gardens have not long emerged from their winter hibernation. The recent warm spell has improved matters, but all the same, do not expect many flowering cherries, azaleas, bluebells or tulips (except the small early varieties). Instead, enjoy daffodils, hyacinths, primroses, witch hazel, camellias and even a few late crocuses.

The Easter weekend traditionally marks the start of the garden visiting season. This year, the combination of a cold February and an unusually early date for the holiday means that the gardens have not long emerged from their winter hibernation. The recent warm spell has improved matters, but all the same, do not expect many flowering cherries, azaleas, bluebells or tulips (except the small early varieties). Instead, enjoy daffodils, hyacinths, primroses, witch hazel, camellias and even a few late crocuses.

Under the National Gardens Scheme (NGS), some 3,500 private owners in England and Wales open their gardens to the public for one or more days every year, choosing dates when they think their gardens will be looking their best. The proceeds go to nursing, medical and gardening charities: £1.8m was raised last year. The gardens are listed in The Yellow Book, sold by most booksellers and garden centres at £7.99.

Here are some of the best gardens open today, tomorrow, or both. Most are also open on other weekends later in the year.

The North

Copt Howe, Chapel Stile, Great Langdale, Cumbria

This two-acre hillside garden, commanding fine views of Langdale Pikes, is a joy in spring. The owner, Professor Robert Haszeldine, is a keen collector of plants, shrubs and trees from mountainous areas of the Far East and Austral-asia, including camellias and other early flowering species. There are also extensive plantings of spring bulbs, Alpines and hellebores. Copt Howe is a haven for wildlife, being in one of the few areas of Britain where red squirrels have managed to survive the onslaught of their grey American cousins. Return visitors will find that the garden has been extended this year.

Open noon to 5pm today and tomorrow and on several weekends until July. Admission £3. Call 01539 437685. How to get there: From Ambleside, go west on A593 and turn right at Skelwith Bridge on to B5343.

The Midlands

Evenley Wood Garden, Brackley, Northamptonshire

This 60-acre woodland garden is for those who enjoy a bracing walk through trees and shrubs. Unusually for this part of England, it has a strip of acid soil where camellias, magnolias and azaleas thrive, and owner Tim Whiteley is confident that some of his 160 magnolias will have started to flower this weekend, despite the cold location some 500 feet above sea level. Camellias will still be in bloom and there will be a colourful display of spring bulbs, including daffodils, scillas, and delicate fritillaries.

Open 2pm-6pm today and tomorrow and on the two holiday weekends in May. Admission £3 per adult and £1 per child under 12. Teas in aid of church funds. Call 01280 703329. How to get there: From Brackley, go three-quarters of a mile south on A43 and left at roundabout to Evenley. Leave village towards Mixbury and take first turning on left, Mill Lane. For a map and further information, go to www.evenleywoodgarden.co.uk.

The Cotswolds

Beverston Castle, near Tetbury, Gloucestershire

This romantic garden lies in the shadow of a ruined castle dating from the 12th century. A paved terrace leads from the 18th-century house to a sloping lawn framed by generous plantings of daffodils. A fortnight ago, when I telephoned the feisty 78-year-old owner, Mrs Jane Rook, she was pessimistic about how advanced the garden would be by today: "We might have nothing to show them except some good cake." The milder weather since then will have brought on the camellias and maybe her pretty, self-seeded pulsatillas, known as the Pasque Flower, from the French for Easter. There is a traditional walled kitchen garden and a greenhouse containing a collection of orchids tended by her gardener, Robin Stevens, a renowned expert on the species. And if the garden really is as backward as she feared, visitors can enjoy an exhibition of botanical paintings and drawings by local artists in the stable block.

Open 2pm-5pm today and tomorrow and on 3 and 4 July. Admission £3. Teas available on Sunday only. Call 01666 502219. How to get there: On A4135 two miles west of Tetbury.

The West

Higher Knowle, Lustleigh, Devon

A steep driveway through oaks and firs leads to an early 20th-century stone cottage, designed by a pupil of Lutyens, surrounded by a woodland garden carefully tended by David and Rosemary Quicke for nearly 40 years. The Royal Horticultural Society's magazine, The Garden, described it last year as "a superbly deft example of gardening with the lightest of touches". The camellias should be sensational by now as will be some of the tall early magnolias, while, at ground level, there are colourful clumps of primroses among the oaks and the natural granite boulders dotted through the wood. All this is played against a backdrop of magnificent views over Dartmoor.

Open: 2-6pm today and tomorrow, plus every Sunday and Bank Holiday Monday until 30 May. Admission £2.50. Call 01647 277275. How to get there: From Bovey Tracey, north-west on A382. After two-and-a-half miles turn left for Lustleigh, then after a quarter of a mile left and then right. In another quarter of a mile you will reach the drive on the left.

East Anglia

Netherhall Manor, Tanners Lane, Soham, Cambridgeshire

The spring flowers are the stars of this walled garden with a distinctly Victorian atmosphere. The owner, Timothy Clark, believes he is one of the few stalwarts who devotes his garden entirely to long-established favourites such as spectacular crown imperials and old-fashioned primroses and hyacinths, including a unique double-flowering variety. Some of his rare double-yellow snowdrops may also still be in flower. In his youth, he exchanged plants with the legendary Marjery Fish and he follows the principles she established in her much-admired Somerset garden. The Good Gardens Guide (Frances Lincoln, £12.99) comments: "For those fond of old-fashioned plants a veritable joy ... a most diverting garden."

Open 2pm-5pm today, and on 1 May, 7 and 14 August. Admission £2. Teas in aid of books for local schools. Call 01353 720269. How to get there: On A142 between Newmarket and Ely. Coming from Newmarket, Tanners Lane is the second turning on the right.

The South

The Deanery, The Close, Winchester

There will be no let-up for the Dean, Michael Till, and his wife, Tessa, at one of their busiest times of the year, for they have agreed to open their historic three-acre garden today and tomorrow. Henry VII and Charles II are two monarchs who have enjoyed the spectacular views of the cathedral and the nearby college from here, and the trout stream separating the dean's and the bishop's gardens is where Izaak Walton, the 17th-century author of The Compleat Angler, did some of his fishing. Ancient trees include two London planes, planted around 1780. Mrs Till says this is the first time she has opened the garden so early. A fortnight ago, she was worried that even the daffodils might not be in flower, but the change in weather has ensured that they will make a striking blaze of yellow.

Open 2.30pm-5.30pm today in aid of the cathedral choristerships; tomorrow and 30 May for the NGS. Admission £2.50. Call 01962 853738. How to get there: The Deanery is in the centre of Winchester, just south of the cathedral.

Wales

Llwyn-y-wen Farm, Hafodyrynys Road, Crumlin, Gwent

This two-acre hillside garden features a trout pond fed by its own spring. The bog garden that surrounds it is packed with plants that thrive in damp and shade but many other shrubs and flowers that enjoy different conditions are planted in tubs and troughs. Wildlife abounds here. The owner, Helen Lewy, also provides accommodation and in 2003 the garden won a Caerphilly in Bloom award.

Open 2pm-5pm today and on several more Sundays in spring and summer. Admission £3. Teas available. How to get there: From Junction 28 of the M4, take the A467 past Risca and Newbridge to Crumlin. There turn right on the A472 towards Pontypool for a quarter of a mile. The farm entrance is on the right.

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