The UK is full of beautiful gardens – but not many of them have as much history as these gems.
So if you’re after a day out with a difference, or have a soft spot for exploring UK heritage, here are five of the UK’s most historic horticultural masterpieces:
Founded by monks and used as an Infirmarer’s Garden, growing medicinal herbs and food for the occupants of the Abbey, College Garden – one of three original gardens within Westminster Abbey – is thought to have been in continuous cultivation for over 900 years, making it the oldest in England. It’s unusual, and possibly unique, for an abbey or monastery to still have its infirmarer’s garden attached and kept as a garden.
The garden’s oldest surviving feature is the stone precinct wall at the far end, built in 1376 on the east side. Four decayed statues of saints in the garden were carved by Arnold Quellin and came from a 1686 altarpiece, and its tall plane trees were planted in 1850. A more recent feature, the bronze sculpture of the Crucifixion by Enzo Plazzotta, was presented to the garden in 1993.
Founded in 1621, and described as “a jewel in the crown of the University of Oxford”, this is the oldest botanic garden in Britain, and one of the oldest scientific gardens in the world.
The gardens have two main sections: the Walled Garden and the Lower Garden, both containing plantings that ensure there’s always something interesting growing, whatever the season.
The gardens contain more than 8,000 different plant species on more than four acres on the banks of the River Cherwell, at the corner of Christ Church Meadow which is part of Magdalen College. The Walled Garden houses scientific and heritage collections, including the Taxonomic Beds, Geographic Collections, the Hardy Euphorbia Collection, Medicinal Plants, the 1648 Collection and the Woodland Walk, while the Lower Garden houses the ornamental and thematic collections – including the Herbaceous Border, Rock Garden, Gin Border, the Plants that Changed the World display, the Merton Borders, Autumn Border, Water Garden, Oxfordshire Meadows and the Orchard.
These huge gardens were first established in 1670 and are the oldest botanic gardens in Scotland, and second oldest in the UK after Oxford. The RBGE now has four sites as, during the 20th Century, it acquired three more gardens – the mountainous Benmore in Argyll; Dawyck in the wooded hills of the Scottish Borders, and Logan on the southern peninsula of Dumfries & Galloway.
Between 1905 and 1932, plant hunter George Forrest added more than 10,000 different specimens to the collection at Edinburgh which, together with the specimens in the three extra gardens, represent one of the world’s largest living collections of plants.
According to Guinness World Records, Levens Hall has the world’s oldest topiary garden, containing designs dating back more than 300 years – the initial planting and training was done in the 1690s. There are over 100 topiary trees and bushes here, and the layout of the garden has changed little since they were planted. Most of the topiary are abstract or geometric shapes, but look out for recognisable designs including Chess pieces, the Judges Wig, the Howard Lion, the Great Umbrellas, and a Jug of Morocco Ale, all of which are carefully crafted by a team of gardeners once a year.
Growing up some of the topiary is the scarlet-flowered Scottish Flame Flower, and there are beautiful floral displays beneath them through spring and summer, with over 15,000 home-grown plants including pansies, violas, primulas, daisies and tulips in the spring.
Hestercombe’s garden was originally created around 1750, by the impressively named Coplestone Warre Bampfylde, who had just inherited Hestercombe House, near Taunton. The garden now contains three centuries-worth of designs, with the stunning Edwardian formal garden originally designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and planted by Gertrude Jekyll. It features terraces, a pool and an orangery, and is now Grade 1 listed on the English Heritage Register of Parks & Gardens of Special Historic Interest.