I'm overwhelmed. Who knew there were so many passionate, garden lovers out there? Over the last few days The Library has been inundated with emails accepting or enquiring about details of our inaugural Garden Tour. Initially, I thought we might be lucky to fill a 20-seater bus? It now appears we might have to run 2 tours. Perhaps more, if the response continues. I fear we'll be spread-eagled in the herb beds of the Physic Garden (above) by the end!
(Oh, and someone asked about the "dress code". How gorgeous. Tip: Don't bring the Chanel. You'll lose it – or have it ripped off you in the craziness that is the Chelsea Flower Show.)
You may have noticed that the name of the has changed? (Although still a working title.) This is because we wondered whether the 'frock' part was sexist? There may, after all, be a gentleman or two on the tour and unless these gentlemen like to dress up in Priscilla numbers and sing to Mamma Mia, then we really ought to make it welcoming for both sexes. (Of course, these gentlemen may love a frock, and if they do, we'll embrace them for it.)
A lovely friend, Miss Millie, who writes a famous blog about life, interiors, gardening, architecture and family at The Laurel Hedge (even the name is fitting) is keen to help lead the tour. She's a seasoned world traveller with a great sense of humour and an eye for interesting places. She's lovely. You'll like her. (You probably know of her.) Together, we'll show you the glorious secrets of London and England in summer. And if you've never been to London before, don't worry. I'll look after you.
Price. That's what you're wondering, isn't it? Well, I hate over-paying for things and so some of the quotes I've received from travel agents I've contacted have made me cough. ($12,000 for 10 days?) I'm still costing it (it has to be affordable for me too), but I should warn you: The Grand Botanica Tour is not an Orient Express-with-Louis-Vuitton-luggage kind of tour. It's going to be a Frugal Tour. It's a tour for people who haven't been able to afford the $12,000-a-week tours. That's doesn't mean we're sleeping cheap. Or eating on the steps of the V&A. Oh no. Trust me. I know the most beautiful little places that go under the global radar. (Oh, and don't take the Vuitton luggage either; people pinch it from airport carousels. We don't want you to be bereft.)
Here's another glimpse of the itinerary. Do email me your personal email / details if you're interested, to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I'll put you on The Royal List (as we're calling it). Highgrove, Sissinghurst, Hidcote, and a dozen other magical places. Bring the camera. You'll love it.
The Romantic GardenMany gardens want to be Sissinghurst when they grow up. But sadly, few of us have a spare crumbling 16th-century brick wall hanging about. Sissinghurst has been the inspiration for thousands of gardens in the world. The White Garden. The Walled Garden. The Writer's Tower. It's all here. Sadly, the creators, writer Vita Sackville-West and her husband, the author and diplomat Harold Nicholson aren't. But their spirit still is. Just stand inside her turreted writer's room and see if you don't feel a small chill. Tip: Read a few books about it before you go. (Portrait of a Marriage; Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History.) It will help you understand the significance of this place in gardening culture and indeed literature and the English countryside.
The Charming GardenThis enchanting garden belongs to a famous Australian, a woman who marketed the Sydney Opera House for years before she retired to her garden. Her extraordinary home near Sydney was the focus of countless gardening programs. (I think even our Monty went there?) Now she's moved to England. Where she's created another horticultural masterpiece. Look. Even the chickens get their own chinoiserie henhouse.
The Victorian Palm HouseIf you haven't been to Kew, come on this tour. We'll be trundling down to Richmond and Kew. (And yes, the Petersham Nurseries too.) Kew's Victorian Palm House is one of the wonders of gardening architecture. It's so beautiful, they do fashion shoots in it. There's lots of other marvellous gardenalia in this grand royal garden, including an exquisite little palace, so we won't rush you. You may be here for an hour or two.
The 18th Century Orangerie and Secret Walled Garden, LondonI used to love going here on a sunny Sunday if my husband was working. I'd grab some lunch from the nearby M&S and wander here to sit in the sun. I'd take friends to the gracious Orangerie too, which was designed as a royal greenhouse for Queen Anne to potter around in and is rather grand. It's one of the loveliest afternoon teas in London. My choice is normally Earl Grey Blue Flowers. The royal roses are pretty here, too.
The Secret Rooftop GardenA short walk from the Orangerie is another secret garden, a rooftop one that looks out over the beautiful terraces of Kensington. It has three themed sections: the Tudor Courtyard, English Woodland, and Alhambra-inspired Spanish Garden. Four flamingos used to roam the premises. Can you imagine? Four flamingos in the middle of London? I suspect they've taken them someone safer. The Lost Flamingos' Home, maybe. (Note: We can walk to all these lovely urban oases.)
The Garden and Interior Design MuseumThis is a marvellous museum. One of London's best. And it's free. FREE! (Told you it will be a Frugal Tour.) It displays the evolution of British interior design from the beginning of the 17th Century with a series of period rooms charting the Victorian, Edwardian and Georgian periods. But the really cute part is the garden, which also charts Elizabethan, Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian planting schemes. It may inspire you to create your own Downton Abbey/Edwardian garden when you get home.
The Private Gardens of LondonHere's the real treat. During the week(s) we're there, many Londoners open their private gardens to the public for the Open Garden Squares Weekend. One £9 ticket buys access to more than 200 gardens, 120 of which are private. The list includes the garden in the film Notting Hill, several of the private gardens normally reserved for the residents who live on the squares around them, and some rather large estates too. There are so many, you'll have to choose in advance what you see. But don't worry. We'll give you a full list. (Image of the Draper's Company garden. Photography by Drew Bennelick)
The Gardener's GardenWe'll also do one of London's most serene gardens, a tucked-away place that's right next door to the Chelsea Flower Show. I'm not been here, despite walking past it hundreds of time during the years I lived in the neighbourhood. So it will be a treat for me too. It's a highly regarded garden. Founded in 1673 as the Apothecaries' Garden, with the purpose of training apprentices in identifying plants, it's London's oldest botanic garden, and a real gardener's garden. A serious garden. Along the with new Garden of Edible and Useful Plants, there are more than 5,000 different edible, useful, medicinal and historical plants, all in beds with signs displaying their use. I like the psychiatry plants. I suspect we'll need a few of these before the week of concentrated horticulture is out!
More details will follow in the next few weeks. There will likely be 2 tours.
• One from May 22-30, which takes in the 100th anniversary of Chelsea Flower Show and the Sloane in Bloom gardens that accompany it, plus a line-up of wonderful country gardens in the Cotswolds and Kent.
• And one from June 1-9, which takes in the Open Garden Weekend in London and an array of more wonderful country gardens in the Cotswolds and Kent.
Each tour will be limited to a certain number of people. Just so we don't lose anyone in the peony beds.
We'll try to see some gardens that are outside of the Cotswolds and Kent too, such as Chatsworth House and Highclere Castle, the setting for Downton Abbey. But bookings will be limited, as some of these gardens are only open on certain days of the year. (Highclere Castle will be on the second tour.) We may not even be able to secure a spot as tickets are so difficult to come by. But we will try. Promise!
So do email your interest. We'd love to see you. Cousin Matthew would too.