I have to be honest and say, whilst I’m not a Republican (I love the Queen and Prince Harry), I’m not a great fan of the Prince of Wales. At least, I wasn’t until I took the opportunity to take a tour of his private gardens at the Highgrove estate in Tetbury, Gloucestershire.
I happened upon the idea when I saw the housewives’ favourite, Alan Titchmarsh, waxing lyrical about the gardens on television one day in April. I’m not a great horticulturist myself but I’m inherently nosy and love to have a gander at other folks efforts, and so I suggested a day out with my mother who was delighted to accompany me, along with my great pal Pip and her mother. The gardens are open on selected dates between April and October each year, and after extensive consultation with the two grand dames, both of whom have jam packed social calendars (unlike their daughters), the first available date we could all make was 30 August. And so I duly booked us four tickets and we prayed for good weather.
The estate is situated in the heart of the Cotswolds which is a picture postcard perfect part of the world, especially on a glorious sunshine filled day which we were fortunate enough to be blessed with.
We were met at the gate by a friendly policeman who checked our names were on the list (if it’s not on the list you can’t come in, so don’t bother turning up on spec as you’ll be told to leave), and he directed us to the car park where our tickets and photo i.d. were inspected and we were soon parked up in a disabled space conveniently located right by the entrance. I consulted with a lady called Janet who was in charge of operations, for advice on whether my wheelchair or Luggie mobility scooter would be the most appropriate mode of transport for the tour and was delighted when she assured me the Luggie would be fine.
Our tour party assembled in the foyer where we were introduced to our guide Ginny and reminded of a few rules and regulations, mainly involving not using mobile phones or cameras on the premises, at which point my car alarm decided to burst forth in a successful bid to impart maximum embarrassment before we set off on our tour. There’s nothing like the blast of a few hundred decibels of an alarm in the serene surroundings of a Royal estate where people talk in hushed, reverential tones, which you have no idea how to switch off, to draw attention to oneself – as if buzzing around on a mobility scooter isn’t enough of an attention seeker. Welcome to my world!
Obviously I did the right thing and abdicated responsibility to Pip, who managed, after a bit of fumbling around, to silence the beast and our happy band set off.
The program starts with a short welcome video of HRH explaining a little about the history of the garden, what his vision was when he acquired Highgrove and his ethos of sustaining the environment, before you head off on a guided walk which lasts around two hours.
The estate covers an area of around 14 hectares and is made up of a series of individual gardens which are all interlinked, and all have their own distinct character. Ginny regaled us with various anecdotes in each one, for example how HRH had spotted a pair of ornate carved gates on the roadside in India and when he enquired whether they were for sale, the vendor, having ascertained who was asking, suddenly escalated the price. A deal was obviously struck and said gates now adorn the entrance to the Cottage Garden which is apparently inspired by the Prince’s travels around Tibet, and also contains a very charming oak summer house designed by the man himself and built from oak grown in the estate.
It was in this garden that an unfortunate slip of a gardener’s shears resulted in a topiary eagle’s head being re-fashioned into a tail and vice-versa. Apparently the gardener is still employed.
We headed on through the Sundial Garden which was full of colourful blooms, including cosmos and lobelia amongst many others. The boundaries were formed by high, neatly trimmed hedges in which were cut niches to house several busts of HRH. Ginny was anxious to make clear that this is not a shrine of narcissism, but a device designed to display some of the gifts he has been presented with on his travels.
I was surprised that the route took us right up to the front door of the house, from which there is a superb view across the rolling countryside to the spire of Tetbury church.
Next was the Wildflower Meadow which is awash with colour in the spring and early summer. We were too late in the season to see that but there are some magnificent old oak trees and I was very interested to see the traditional stooks of the recently cut hay. We were told about the trials of finding the correct breed of sheep to graze the meadow over the winter, which helps to tread the wildflower seed in to the soil. They first tried Hebridians which were simply too wild, they broke through the electric fence and disappeared into the countryside. Next were Welsh sheep who chose to climb the trees and eat the bark and so caused more harm to the environment than good. Finally they settled upon Shropshire sheep who have done a fine job and there is now a thriving population of several varieties of wild orchids amongst numerous other species of wildflower.
One of my favourite parts was the Kitchen Garden, not that I’m driven by my stomach of course! This is not your bog standard vegetable allotment. It is a walled courtyard with beds laid out in the shape of the Union flag, with a lily pond and fountain in the centre surrounded by herbs. The four corner beds have a huge variety of heritage fruit and vegetables growing not just in straight rows but in random triangles, strips and squares and over supports such as an archway avenue of runner beans. It’s all grown organically and what isn’t used by the household is donated to a local hospice. A charming feature was the willow bridge on the edge of the pond to allow amphibians safe passage.
The Stumpery is another enchanting section. Enclosed behind a Cotswold stone wall which incorporates numerous pieces of salvaged stone masonry (another one of the Prince’s interests), is a haven for all manner of wildlife and I suspect Hobbits dwell here too.
As the name suggests, this is a garden comprising of strategically placed tree stumps which have been smothered in ferns, hostas and other shade loving species, creating an ideal habitat for hedgehogs, insects, birds and a myriad of other fauna.
Our tour finished in the Carpet Garden which was HRH’s Chelsea Flower Show entry in 2001, it won a Silver Gilt medal. It is an Islamic garden based on the design of an Arab carpet and is in total contrast to the rest of the gardens, being full of brightly coloured ceramic tiles and is much more structured with hard landscaping, although equally beautiful.
What really struck me as we wandered around the grounds was, not only how beautifully it is maintained by a small team of (I think) twelve gardeners headed up by Debs Goodenough, but how informal it is. It’s extremely tastefully designed, and although it is evident that a great deal of money has been spent here, it is not at all ostentatious.
Highgrove is very much a private family home, not a Royal palace, and that is reflected in the gardens. This is a home which is used and enjoyed by the family, the Prince has planned and shaped it himself with this in mind and it was evident from various anecdotes Ginny told us that he regards it as somewhat of a personal sanctuary. He has masterminded this personal passion project since acquiring Highgrove in 1980 and it is clearly a labour of love.
In the introductory video he was keen to stress he wanted us to enjoy the experience and that any proceeds would go to his charitable foundation, which has unarguably done some fantastic work.
I was also super impressed with the overall accessibility, it is very wheelchair friendly. Everything is on a level. There are a variety of surfaces with some gravel (not sink up to your axles variety though, pretty firm, crushed stone), some Cotswold stone flag stones and some grass. Even the wildflower meadow has a type of mesh walkway sunk in to the grass to allow for easy walking and wheeling. There are a couple of steps in the Carpet Garden which means you can not access the water feature in the lower level in a wheelchair, but you can see it perfectly well from the upper terrace. Aside from that, everything was totally accessible.
If you don’t have your own wheelchair, Highgrove have several available to borrow for your tour, and they are equipped with chunky tyres suitable for traversing the garden terrain. I advise reserving one at the time of booking to ensure availability. You will have to provide your own “driver” though as that’s not part of the service and I think, due to the variety of different surfaces and I would estimate a couple of miles to cover, anyone other than the super fit would find self propelling pretty difficult. I was surprised that the Luggie handled it easily, although it might be a different story in wet weather.
I enjoyed the trip very much, it far exceeded my expectations and I feel privileged to have been allowed a glimpse of a very special place. At £25 per person (and a free companion ticket for disabled visitors), I thought it was good value for money. The tour itself was very slick and well managed, and Ginny was very knowledgable.
As I said, I wasn’t a particular fan of Prince Charles prior to my visit. Having visited his garden, however, I view him slightly differently. He is clearly a man of vision, determined to stay true to organic methodology and he will undoubtedly leave Highgrove an infinitely more beautiful place than when he arrived. If I had worked so hard to create it (yes, I know money is no obstacle and he’s got a battalion of staff to trim his bushes for him, but it’s still his home), I would be loath to share it with Joe Public. I have to admit, I have a growing admiration for him and I’m grateful to him for allowing me in to his world.
See www.highgrovegardens.com for more information.
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