Jill SinclairReview: Abbotsbury Sub-Tropical Gardens

“Garden of the Year” is a strange award, and one that for me has led to disappointment and even bafflement. So I am delighted to present a guest post, originally from my blog landscapelover, about Abbotsbury Sub-Tropical Gardens, which were chosen as the Historic Houses Association/Christie’s Garden of the Year in 2012. The reviewer is Jacqui Compton….

Google Maps Abbotsbury Sub-Tropical Gardens in Dorset

Google Maps Abbotsbury Sub-Tropical Gardens in Dorset

“Abbotsbury is enviously situated on the south coast of England, about 750 meters from Chesil Beach, on the famed Jurassic Coast, which makes for a lovely drive before or after the garden visit.

Its website reports that Abbotsbury was established in 1765 by the first Countess of Ilchester as a kitchen garden for her nearby castle, and later developed, by her globetrotting, plant-hunting descendants. It also advises not to miss the stunning views of the Jurassic coast from the view point at the top of the Magnolia Walk. Unfortunately, we did!

The gardens are divided into separate areas – no huge vistas here – with walks (well-signposted) for both able and disabled visitors. There were many wheelchair users enjoying the trails; something I’ve never seen before. Other gardens could learn from this. And dogs, on leads, are welcome.

On arrival, after having paid the hefty entrance fee, you enter the Walled Garden.

The Walled Garden at Abbotsbury

The Walled Garden at Abbotsbury

Nothing spectacular, but take a right turn to the West Lawn, and look back:

Abbotsbury garden

Abbotsbury garden

The scale of the planting took my breath away. Everywhere I looked, I just smiled.

abbotsbury-04I just loved the blue grass, the purple flowers on the top of their stalks, the very smallest flash of orange. What are they? I’m not a plantswoman, and that’s my biggest complaint with Abbotsbury. Very few plants are labelled, and those that are I found to be very recognisable.

The hydrangea walk at Abbotsbury

The hydrangea walk at Abbotsbury

I’m very fond of hydrangeas; not to everyone’s taste I know, but they were at their absolute best. You couldn’t walk down without stopping and admiring.

The Coronation Walk leads down to water features, and those red painted pseudo-Japanese bridges, seen everywhere that I’m just a little tired of. But see that glimpse of amazing colour:

abbotsbury-07What was it? The most amazing pinky / purple astilbe. Every visitor just stopped here and looked. The photo does not do justice to its vibrancy.

A glimpse of amazing colour - maybe Astilbe x arendsii ‘Hyacinth’?

Maybe Astilbe x arendsii ‘Hyacinth’?

A storm in 1990 brought down many trees, and some have been left to naturalize and provide habits for wildlife. This one is oddly juxtaposed with a row of tree ferns.

abbotsbury-09

The grasses border at Abbotsbury

abbotsbury-08Towards the end of the trail I felt that the planting got a bit confused, and the vistas were not so pleasing. However, two of my companions preferred the mixture of colours and the more open aspect.

abbotsbury-10Was it worth the entrance fee? Yes.

Would I go back? Yes. Every gardener will learn something here, the scale, the shot of colour in a subdued scheme, how to plant grasses and ferns to amazing effect. Walk through, take your time. A morning or afternoon well spent.

How far is it worth travelling to visit? We did about three hundred miles in a weekend, from our home in South Wales to Stourhead (a garden founded just two decades earlier than Abbotsbury but utterly different in size, scale and style), an overnight stay nearby, Abbotsbury and then a drive along the Jurassic coast before our return. It was worth it.

Is it deserving of the Garden of the Year award? I’d be interested in the views of GardenDrum readers.

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Jill Sinclair

About Jill Sinclair

Jill is a British landscape historian, based these days in New Delhi. She studied landscape design and history at Harvard, completed a Masters in garden design at the Inchbald School in London, and lived and worked for a number of years in Paris. Her first book was published by the MIT Press on a historic landscape in Massachusetts, and she now researches, writes about and lectures on designed landscapes across three continents. Follow her blog at Landscape Lover

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