Running Around The Walled Garden at Knightshayes

It isn’t often that I have to have a stern word with myself about putting the brakes on while visiting a garden. But the joy I got from entering the walled garden at Knightshayes, the National Trust (NT) property in Devon, meant that I found myself forcing myself to s-l-o-w d-o-w-n otherwise I would have missed much of the beauty. At one point I was virtually jogging just to get to the next, exciting bit.

I had driven down to the West Country at sparrow-fart to avoid the traffic on the first Saturday of the UK school holidays; picking up the youngest of the Bees from Uni felt like the end of an era and I needed a garden visit to kill some time. I was in the cafe at Knightshayes (more of which later) by 10.15am, thinking how jolly clever I was to have missed the inevitable July-jams on the M5. On my approach to the property, I found myself in an alarmingly long queue which I thought was rather odd, it being early, and with most normal people heading towards the coast; thankfully I held my nerve and this turned out to be hundreds of folk going to the Mid-Devon Show which was in the grounds of Knightshayes but some distance from the actual house and garden.

Candy-floss, long-horned cattle and a ferris wheel beckoned but I know what I like and I like what I know.

Weirdly, I also thought  in visiting Knightshayes I was following the recommendation of a good friend, T, but when I sent her a pic saying, “so where am I?” and the answer came back, “haven’t a clue”, it transpired she had in fact recommended Tyntesfield.

And if you are thinking, with this level of confusion and disarray it is any wonder I manage to do achieve anything at all, I couldn’t agree more.

The National Trust has its detractors, but I am a fan: friendly staff, nice things in the shops, good food and coffee and they (with our help) look after some of this country’s gems. The garden shop at Knightshayes was without a doubt the best I have ever seen, and it was a small miracle I came away with nothing – only the thought of plants being squashed by four years of Uni detritus, guitars and Ikea bags full of bedding put me off. The NT shop was chock full of goodies though (which I didn’t pass on – I didn’t know I required steel straws until I got to the till where, incidentally, the lovely lady serving was offering free fudge) and the cafe was excellent for both coffee and lunch (gluten free quiche: the nicest I have tasted). Friendly staff, a coffee out-post next to the house itself, and an interesting story to tell, topped off by the best NT walled garden I have ever seen. And did I mention the second-hand book shop? What more could you ask for on a sunny day in July in Devon?

The pièce de résistance was, without a doubt, the magnificent walled garden. First though, a little about why Knightshayes is there in the first place:

Back in 1816 a group of Luddite protesters wrecked John Heathcoat’s lace-making factory in Loughborough, so incensed were they at the introduction of his ‘pillow and bobbin” lace-making machines. They demolished 55 lace frames with axes and hammers and set fire to the lace; within half an hour, the factory was lost and 200 men out of work. He refused compensation from the county to keep his business in the Midlands, and moved instead to Tiverton in Devon. Many of his workers followed him down to the West Country on foot, so trustful their employer would rise again and continue his success. In a speech at a public dinner in 1843, John recollected how he “came almost like a ship-wrecked mariner cast away upon your shores”. The people of Tiverton welcomed this successful businessman, which he repaid by building houses, schools and churches for the community, still distinguishable today by their grey-painted doors.

It was one of his ancestors who, in 1868 bought the Knightshayes estate which looks down on Tiverton and on his factory. The house standing then was demolished and, at the very peak of the Victorian country house building, Knightshayes as we see it today was built and extended as a solid expression of the family’s status and values. To this end, William Burges was employed as lead architect; most of the outside of Knightshayes is to his plans, but the family drew the line at his eccentric and bold (fantastical) interior plans (a Juliet balcony in the living room anyone?) and so the slightly less flamboyant interior designer John Dibblee Crace was brought in.


I wasn’t even planning to look inside the Gothic Revival house, but the story of the last owner of the property (Sir John, the 3rd Baronet who died in 1972 and left Knightshayes to the National Trust) building a 9-hole golf course for his wife (the acclaimed golfer Joyce Wethered) on their (substantial) ‘front lawn’, plus a painter-decorator accidentally unearthing an original ceiling which the NT didn’t know was there, got me interested enough to have a wander, and I am glad I did.







BUT, the main reason for visiting from my point of view, is the garden which the National Trust describe as

….an outstanding garden, whose plants represent one of the most varied and valuable botanical collections in our care.

Within the wider estate, there is a Formal and Woodland garden, a Douglas Fir Walk, herbaceous borders by the terrace in front of the house, a dry (paved) garden, a lovely pond in the Pool Garden and an Arboretum.






But it is the Kitchen Garden, fully restored by the NT in 2001 which really caught my eye, and where I needed to stop myself from running around it like a small kid, high on coca cola and too much ice-cream.

It is a triumph! Covering an area of just over four acres, (four acres!) on a south-facing slope, it was probably designed by Burges (in 1870) and it was a clear statement of the family’s wealth in both production and display. Many of the plants are very helpfully named (which adds several stars to any garden visit in my book), and I believe there is a staff these days of six full-time gardeners and three trainees who work across the entire garden and parkland. On top of that there are perhaps as many as 50 volunteers and my goodness, what a great job they all do. The day I went I only saw one gardener and there were times when, due to the vastness of the place plus the lure of the ferris wheel, I could have been on my own.

Knighthayes entrance to walled garden


Knightshayes walled garden


Knightshayes sunflowers


Knightshayes rhubarb forcers


I was very taken by  what I call the ‘business-end’ of the garden, where much of the unglamorous work gets done and where I found these rhubarb forcers, lined up like Chinese warriors, members of the Terracotta Army who have gone on their holidays to Devon.


I highly recommend a visit if you are in the Tiverton neck of the woods: a beautiful area of England, and boasting what could well be my favourite ever NT garden.



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Annie Bee xxx

A Spring Walk in Highgrove ~ February 2018

Bee HQ seems to sit squarely in what feels like the epicentre of a huge number of great gardens and houses one can visit. We are  surrounded by beautiful, notable gardens as well as a lot of NGS gardens open to the public which might otherwise not be seen.

So nipping over into Gloucestershire to take a guided tour of Highgrove’s garden seemed too good an opportunity to miss, so I booked two tickets for a Guided Spring Walk. I will add right now that Mr Bee who was due to accompany me (a staunch Republican, and my sometime Undergardener) decided to stay at home and weed the borders. I am kidding of course: chance would be a fine thing. He bailed on me, but I set off knowing I would be able to spend far more in the garden shop without him.


Highgrove house and garden

The 90 minute drive west was delightful, taking in the changing nature of the Cotswold stone colours as I headed towards Tetbury. I even drove past the Waitrose where local customers threw bread rolls at Camilla P-B, back in the day when she had been outed as The Other Woman. I would have spent longer in Tetbury as it looked charming, but I was following strict instructions from Highgrove regarding the  timing of my arrival, and finding Highgrove itself was easier said than done, due to the complete lack of signage (for security reasons I assume).

Sadly the only rule for visitors is you are not allowed to take a mobile or a camera into the property. So this is all from memory, my note-taking and sketches, although there is a very nice book about the gardens if you feel the need to read up. It felt very peculiar not to be able to take photos, but the huge sign on arrival,


left one in no doubt that this was a largely digital-free zone. To be wandering around, using one’s eye and memory (and notebook) felt like a challenge in this day and age.

The security wasn’t as tight as I had imagined, which makes me think HRH probably wasn’t in residence. The pot-holes which are currently blighting the UK winter roads continued up the drive, and there was rather a relaxed and unassuming feel to the entire operation they run there. It is fairly low-key and disarmingly informal. It struck me that for the Prince, Highgrove is the equivalent of us mere mortals having a weekend caravan, a she-shed, or (at most) a holiday cottage for the odd weekend get-away. The house itself (my guess  is it has maybe 10-12 bedrooms) is not as big as you might imagine; mind you, when your normal residencies are a series of castles and palaces, arriving there must feel a bit like going camping for Mr & Mrs Mountbatten-Windsor.

Having said that, there are 12 gardeners  in total, and the property extends to a huge acreage, much of it farmland. And whilst billed as “old-fashioned”, HRH has always been way ahead of the game on ecological/sustainability matters (more of which, including the reed-bed sewage system! you can read about here) , and if he does still talk to his plants (one of the Bees, when asked what he knew about Prince Charles said, “he talks to plants and has flappy ears”), the garden is a very good advert for doing just that. It is 100% organic and looks very good on it. My guess is we saw a fraction of the whole garden on the tour, but we certainly got a good feel for it, and were allowed surprisingly near the house. We were too polite to peer in the windows however tempted we were: how British!

So what did I take note of? Despite it being smaller than I thought (and I have read the book), it is by normal standards pretty big, so everything is done on a large-scale. No single bags of compost or mulch for His Royal Highness from Tetbury B&Q. So for example, while you or I might think planting 80 snowdrop bulbs in one go an industrial project worthy of note in the local paper, just last year alone 40,000 were planted at Highgrove, and heavens, they looked magnificent, mingling in with the cyclamen.

Mid-February is perhaps not the most popular time to visit, but (as you might remember) I have a deep fascination with structure, and winter is the best time to appreciate it. The other bonus was that it was certainly “peak snowdrop” ~ they couldn’t have been prettier. In a week or two, the daffs will be out, but too much yellow in a garden, even in the spring, makes me nervous. What was not in evidence in late winter was the famous wild-flower meadow, which I would absolutely love to see in full swing. Apparently the Guild of Scythe Cutters come and in and give it its most important cut. I can’t say they would probably be available to come and do my wild-flower meadow cutting (such as it is).

I noticed that much of the hedging, particularly in the less formal areas of the garden (further away from the house) is mixed, so there is a lovely tapestry of native species, intermingling  ~  it’s very pretty, and importantly, good for wildlife. Another idea I liked very much is the way several ‘windows’ have been cut out of the formal yew hedges, allowing visual vistas to open up. Also, one small stretch of hedging was laid out in a ‘crinkle-cranke’ manner, thereby allowing some attractive planting in the curves.

Daphnes: it seems there is no such thing as too many and the scent was good, despite it being a bitterly cold day. Some are evergreen which gets a very big tick from me. The national collection of Hostas are at Highgrove; again, nothing to see in Feb, but I imagine they are lovely, running throughout the various ‘garden rooms’.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle is taken very seriously in the garden. Little homemade fences, willow hoops to keep the riff-raff to the paths, logs used to edge drives, were things you and I  could also do. Using historically, architecturally important stonework which has been lying about for centuries to make a beautiful wall might well be beyond us, as might be the other myriad of structures such as the thatched tree-house, which wasn’t that much smaller than my first house I bought in Kent in 1986…. Presumably as well, there is plenty of material lying around for jobs like staking – no green plastic plant supports for our future King.

Using foraged pine-cones to mulch around a shrub in a pot looks charming. Interestingly, there is an amazing collection of  terracotta urns, some of them HUGE, and I was surprised they were left out over winter; our guide explained that they are filled with wood-chips, which acts as an insulator apparently. A good tip.

I was very interested to know whether there have been issues with Box Blight. We have it at Bee HQ, and my master-plan to ignore it, hope for the best, treat with fungicide (which may be helping, but it is unlikely), and occasionally raise a prayer to the Goddess of Gardening (Dionysus?) does appear to work. At Highgrove they have taken a somewhat more targeted approach: they have ripped out the box parterre completely and have replanted with Euonymus japonicus ‘Green Rocket’, which has slightly larger, darker green leaves than box but looks very good to me. Interestingly the Box further afield, and used as part of the mixed hedging, looked perfectly healthy.

What else went down in my notes? The use of what I call Crinkly Ivy (possibly Hedera helix ‘Ivalace’); slinging down a handful of alpine grit on the soil to mark where perennials will come up (in this case, Delphiniums); and finally, as I am thinking very seriously about keeping bees, Highgrove’s decision to keep Welsh Black Bees (which hail from Anglesey), which are apparently rather more hardy and resilient than other species – I will have to do some research into that. HRH’s chooks looked flippin’ delighted to be living at Highgrove, and their coop was as upmarket as you would expect from the next in line to the throne.

And what of my shopping trip? The little shop had a few lovely things, and I stocked up on plenty of delights I don’t need but which caught my eye, including an attractive little double-flowered Primula, which will look nice when it blooms. The cafe was excellent and the gluten free fare was delicious.

All in all, another very successful Annie Bee Gardening Adventure, and a few lovely ideas and memories to take home.

NB: all profits from Highgrove go to Prince Charles’s charitable foundation; even the most rampant Republicans should be happy to hear that.

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Annie Bee xx

Hidcote Manor Garden: Something For Everyone

There are a few significant gardens in the UK which are on any keen gardener’s ‘must-see’ list; Hidcote in Gloucestershire is one of them. Today it is owned by the National Trust and, unlike most NT gardens which seem to open in March or at Easter, Hidcote opens in mid-February, giving visitors the opportunity to discover its winter bones. From our new Bee HQ, Google Maps took me winding through 3 counties and many narrow lanes, and despite being in the very back of beyond, I finally found it after a couple of wrong turns here and there. Just in time to get a take away coffee and start my mooch about, note-book in hand. Being February, it wasn’t too busy, despite it also being half-term. It was peaceful and tranquil. The hover-flies massing on the Mahonias were about as loud and hectic as it got.

Hidcote Manor Garden Gloucestershitre


Evergreen ‘bones’ to any garden are fascinating I think. This is a garden which was built on the idea of different ‘rooms’, by the famous American plant-hunter and gentleman gardener, Lawrence Johnstone (1871 – 1958). Other gardens are set up in a similar fashion (notably Sissinghurst in Kent) and it is now a technique often employed in modern gardens.  The bones at Hidcote are mainly box hedging, plenty of yew, pleached hornbeam, pergolas and topiary. Gates, pillars, vistas and gazebos abound and there are beautiful views of the Malvern countryside too. I have a particular interest in vertical structures and am always on the look-out for exciting ideas for my own garden. It is often easier to see these in the depths of winter than when they are smothered in luxuriant flowers later in the year.


Beech Allee at Hidcote

It was very noticeable just how many actual gardeners (as opposed to visitors) were at Hidcote today. Presumably a mixture of volunteers (the National Trust has thousands of volunteers who help maintain their properties and gardens) and paid staff. None of them seemed at all put out by my many questions (primarily about box blight and pruning times for some shrubs). Indeed the advice was thorough, expert, interesting and willingly given.

Lawrence Johnstone's Tool Shed, Hidcote

Hidcote Facts & Figures

If you have never been, I thoroughly recommend a visit. A cafe, National Trust shop and a plant sale area all add to the delight.


Annie Bee x

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A Gem Of A Garden Amidst An Aerodrome

With the sound of light aircraft buzzing nearby, I spent this morning walking leisurely through the charming Swiss Garden, originally part of Old Warden Park, and now in the lee of Shuttleworth Aerodrome in Bedfordshire. When I went to pay my £8 entrance fee in the Visitors Centre, the lady at the till was talking to a pilot (I assume not airborne) about which way to approach the runway. Now that is what I call multi-tasking ~ selling postcards and doing a spot of traffic control.

The Swiss Cottage

For the vast majority of the time, I was on my own wandering through this 200-year-old, Regency pleasure garden, tucked away in Central Bedfordshire, near the market town of Biggleswade. By the time I left, there were a handful of other visitors, but until then it was just me, a couple of resident peacocks and 2 knowledgeable and helpful gardeners. The sun was shining and it was a beautiful English autumn day. You can’t ask for more.

Swiss Garden Shuttleworth Bedfordshire

England is laden with famous, gorgeous gardens, and you could spend a lifetime visiting them all.  The Swiss Garden is not particularly well-known but is definitely worth visiting. It is part of the Shuttleworth Collection, a Trust, committed mainly to the preservation of transport artefacts — primarily bicycles, motor cars, and aeroplanes; essentially, the primary appeal seems to be the aviation museum, but this alpine landscape, chock full of follies is a hidden gem.

Briefly, the history is this: Created in the early 1800s by Robert, the third Lord Ongley, the garden lay within the 2000-acre Old Warden Estate, and took eight years to complete. In the 1870s, the new owner,  industrialist Joseph Shuttleworth, added a few Victorian flourishes of his own while retaining the original layout. The Shuttleworth Trust describe it thus:

~ Today, it is an outstanding example of the Regency fashion for creating landscapes in a picturesque alpine style

In 2014 it underwent an 18-month restoration process funded to the tune of £2.8 million by the Heritage Lottery Fund. I understand it is still on the Heritage at Risk Register but it is not obvious to the layman why that is still the case. It looks in very good nick to me.

There are 13 or so structures, from the Swiss Cottage itself (above) to an Indian Kiosk, bridges, a grotto, and a Chapel  ~ all amongst simple, but effective planting and some fabulous trees.

Victorian Urn at Swiss Garden

Swiss Garden at Suttleworth

Old Tree roots at Swiss Garden

Swiss Garden grotto

If you live nearby and haven’t been to visit, I can highly recommend it. If you love gardens and airplanes, you will be in heaven! There are some more of my photos of the garden on Pinterest.

Swiss Garden at Shuttleworth, Old Warden, Bedfordshire

Have a good weekend

Annie Bee x

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