Of course, Hidcote was the main reason we had come to the Cotswolds, but our off-the-cuff visit to Snowshill on the previous day had furnished us with an interesting contrast. Hidcote and Snowshill seemed to be worlds apart, in atmosphere if not in geography: Where Snowshill was compact, homely, light-hearted and delightfully ferny at the edges, Hidcote was grand, ambitious and terribly civilised, its scale and its multitude of rooms making it hard to maintain a unified impression in one’s mind.
But similarities between the two gardens existed. Hidcote was the creation of the Anglophile American Major Lawrence Johnston, who, like Charles Wade of Snowshill, was a war-weary single man of independent fortune. Hidcote, like Snowshill, has its roots in the Arts and Craft movement of the Twenties, and it too embraced the novel style of a series of garden rooms. Like Snowshill, it was donated to the National Trust in collaboration with James Lees-Milne.
We decided to begin our route around the enormous garden (aided by an essential fold-out map) at the formal rectangular pool of lilies, followed by the glasshouses.
The enormous kitchen garden produces all of the vegetables used by the cafés: sprightly rows of kale, pumpkins and courgettes bordered by sage and lavender, and large areas of red clover being grown as green manure.
This homely scene shifted dramatically on turning a corner: we found ourselves beneath an avenue of tall, heavenly beech trees, a Tolkienesque passage under which sounds were hushed and all colours were muted to shades of green.
This sudden shift in character was a recurring motif throughout the garden, and was in itself a defining characteristic of Hidcote. Facing this direction, we were entertained by the tropical and exuberant red border with its dominance of red Musa leaves, then turning to face the opposite way our view was of a soothing, unfussy double row of pleached hornbeams leading to a grand iron gate beyond which lay the notion of a hazy, unspoilt English landscape: two scenes that could hardly have been more different. It was a kind of jolt repeated throughout the garden and which kept us alert, fascinated, and curious to peek through every topiaried arch, keen not to miss a thing.
Major Johnston was fortunate enough to have enough land to try every possible garden experiment he could think of: a white garden; a fuchsia garden; the solemn and very long Long Walk, a rock garden; a garden of comfrey and hydrangeas on damp woodland beside a stream; a wilderness; a rose garden; a poppy garden; a garden containing a large round stone bathing pool; another with a painted loggia and theatre of pelargoniums. And everywhere: topiary, lots of it. And brick paths, tall clipped beech hedges, more topiary, blue painted benches, and judicious vistas framed by archways cut through the tall clipped hedges.
We couldn’t have been more eager recipients of the charms of Hidcote. Even the weather was perfect: a brief and drenching downpour (we sheltered under one of the beech-hedge archways) gave way to brilliant sunshine that backlit the drops on the euphorbias and pale yellow kniphofias of Mrs Winthrop’s garden (named for Johnston’s mother).
A brief glimpse into the manor house concludes the visit to the gardens, while on the way out the plant centre offers cultivars of plants named ‘Hidcote’ (I bought a tiny Lavandula angustifolia ‘Hidcote’) and, to my delight, a special offer on Melcourt growing media, which is the most gorgeous stuff you ever sunk your hands in.
Hidcote Manor Gardens is owned and managed by the National Trust, and details of opening times, admission prices, and how to get there can be found on their website.