Should gardens be transformative? Some garden thinkers say so. Can one have a transcendental experience in a National Trust garden? I try my luck at the Winter Garden at Anglesey Abbey.
On leaving the visitor centre I am enveloped in thickets of yew, box and laurel and giant redwoods soon make an appearance. I am ready to be drawn into ‘the story’. Do the trees reflect the tastes of the Anglo-American owner, a one Huttleston Broughton, aka the 1st Lord Fairhaven, who bought the abbey in 1926? Was he a lesser-known Laurence Johnstone for the East Midlands?
“No,” says a volunteer. “Just idle rich.” Rich, perhaps, but with good taste. From the 1920s Fairhaven slowly reclaimed the land around what was a small Victorian garden, a field at a time. By 1966, when he gave it to the National Trust, the gardens took up 98 acres. The Winter Garden was planted in the 1990s under the aegis of John Sales, then the Trust’s garden advisor, who over saw the arrival of 3000 trees, 15,000 ground cover plants and 21,000 bulbs.
Walled in by shrubs, with Lonicera nitida and sarcococca planted by the furlong, I feel my received wisdom being undermined. Shiny evergreens form low hedges from which pollards spring out. Winter gardens need pollarding to keep them from looking half-dead. Wands of salix, their trunks hidden, sprout like the mad hair of Struwwelpeter and I even fancy I see his long fingernails in the pollarded branches of small-leaved lime. There are more twiggy layers with the flowering branches of Viburnum x bodnantense and the tangerine screens of Cornus sanguinea ‘Winter Orange’.
These only half-disguise the menacing clumps of the ghostly white Rubus cockburnianus. I am beginning to quite like it here. We are eased towards the twinkling allure of Rosa pteracantha, its winged thorns looking prim against roving cables of wineberry.
All is prickly and bright. I come away with positive thoughts about sharp-leaved mahonia and its unapologetic yellow flowers glinting in the dismal light. A grove of mahonia: that’s my National Trust takeaway. Or should I say, transformation.
Not to be missed
The eerie grove of Himalayan birch. Trunks are scrubbed once a year by the head gardener to enhance their preternatural glow. Jollied up in spring by species tulip ‘Little Beauty’.
Attempts to lose oneself in the pinetum are mitigated by the noise of traffic on the B-road, just over the hedge. Follow the path in the Winter Garden and stay over there.
Other gardens nearby
Cambridge University Botanic Garden, with award-winning new architecture in its midst (Sainsbury Laboratory); Audley End and its Walled Kitchen Garden; Henry Moore Foundation, 70 acres of sculpture not too far away in Hertfordshire.
How to get there
Anglesey Abbey is a 10 minute drive from Cambridge, just off the A14. Easy to find.