Get there before the roses bloom

By Mary Keen, Daily Mail

Last updated at 10:22 24 May 2004

Although summer officially arrives with next week's Chelsea Flower Show, most English gardens are still waiting for their Great Moment.

The trouble is that towards the end of June, most of the places that open to the public will be as full of flowers as Chelsea - and almost as crowded. So now is the time to see them at their promising best.

Spend a weekend in the Cotswolds, where lanes run deep between blossoming hawthorn and verges are decorated with cow parsley.

Even the most visited places will be more peaceful before the tourists from abroad arrive to see roses at their peak.

This is the time to look at the shapes and spaces of gardens. The ones with structure look good all year.

Start on a Saturday at Malmesbury, where Abbey House Gardens are an intriguing mix of old and new. Under the walls of the former Benedictine monastery, monks once gardened.

But now the Jacobean house, built on the ruins of the 13th-century Abbot's House, is lived in by the Pollards, a far from monkish pair.

Ian was an architect until he discovered gardening, which he likes to do in the nude with his glamorous wife Barbara - though not when the garden is open.

Wacky they may be, but the garden the Pollards have made in the past ten years is a very serious affair.

You can tell that an architect has had a hand in the design as soon as you arrive. Through an iron gate, there is a long vista over the Celtic cross knot garden to a fountain playing beyond.

'It's stunning,' a recent visitor said. 'How will I ever fit it all into an eighth of an acre?'

The garden is also huge fun. Exuberant planting fills the beds and there are structural ideas for everyone to take home, most of which Ian constructed himself.

Arches of cold-rolled steel are used to create an impression of the cloisters where monks might have walked.

Herb beds have oak boards with medieval dowel pins to secure them, and a huge laburnum tunnel is trained over the frame of a polytunnel without the plastic.

Everywhere you look, there is a fresh surprise, because the gardens are full of modern sculpture pieces.

Plant nuts will be thrilled to find that everything is labelled in discreet silver handwriting on black, and children will love the adventurousness of the place.

One ten-year-old visitor calls it 'Wonderland' and wants to spend her birthday there.

The Pollards have children themselves, and while grown-ups can have refreshments, their offspring are allowed to play with small dumpers.

Anyone with an appetite for sightseeing, rather than lunch, could grab a sandwich in Malmesbury and aim to be at Shipton Moyne at 2pm to see Hodges Barn, which Amanda Hornby has agreed to open for Daily Mail readers on Saturday, May 29, and Saturday, June 5, from 2pm until 6pm.

This is a pretty, large garden set among beautiful buildings and good topiary. The planting is gentle and traditional.

You should find white blossoming deutzias, plenty of honeysuckle, and a few early roses in borders where green angelica and pale, sweet rocket grow.

Amanda Hornby, like the Pollards, is another DIY gardener; she works among her flowers every day.

For a leisurely lunch, take the Tetbury road from Malmesbury, past the mauve windsocks of the Dyson factory and then turn off for Cirencester, via Long Newnton, and stop at the Trouble House Inn where the food is delicious.

Rodmarton is just down the road. It is another architect's garden, but in a much more traditional style than Abbey House.

The house and the garden were designed by Ernest Barnsley in about 1910 for the Biddulph family, who still live there.

It is a series of rooms defined by hedges and topiary, and Simon Biddulph (who is another hands- on manager) has done wonders with the planting.

Snowdrops and herbaceous borders are what he likes best, but the stone sinks full of alpines are a spring feature, and there is a proper old-fashioned kitchen garden.

There are two ways to get to see the famous garden at Barnsley House made by the late Rosemary Verey, who was held in the highest esteem by gardeners everywhere.

The first is to stay the night at the very pricey hotel, where most of the regulars seem to be A-list celebrities.

Or you could stay somewhere simpler and just go for lunch at £17.50, with a tour of the garden, too.

The laburnum tunnel is lower than the one at Abbey House, but it has appeared in countless books and articles. That, the potager and the knot garden are what made Mrs Verey famous.

After lunch on Sunday, a drive through ravishing country with buttercups and blossom everywhere gets you to Snowshill.

Children who need coercing - 'not another garden' - can be subdued by stopping at picturesque Bourton on the Water to see the penguins and the model village.

Snowshill belongs to the National Trust and has a good restaurant looking out over a dazzling landscape.

Charles Wade was an eccentric collector who kept his loot in the beautiful manor. He was also an architect and craftsman who was, in 1920, ahead of his time.

'A garden,' he said, 'is a series of outdoor rooms. The plan is much more important than the flowers in it. Walls, steps and alleyways give a permanent setting, so that it is pleasant and orderly in both summer and winter.'

Within the 'rooms' there are flowers, all organically grown, and the scale of the planting is small but brilliant. The narrow borders with scarlet poppies and blue campanulas are cottagey perfection.

It is one of my favourite gardens anywhere because, unlike most gardens in National Trust ownership, Snowshill is on a domestic scale.

The way the garden is used to frame views of the hills that surround it is breathtaking. Sheep graze in the orchard under apple trees dropping blossom on their backs, and the landscape is the Cotswolds of picture postcards.

Hurry along, before the tourists arrive with the roses.

Travelfacts • Abbey House Gardens, Malmesbury,Wilts, 01666 822212, 11am-6pm daily, entrance £5.

• Hodges Barn, Shipton Moyne, Glos, 01666 880202 open for readers on Saturdays, May 29 and June 5, 2pm-6pm, £4.

• Rodmarton Manor, Rodmarton, Glos, 01285 841253, Weds, Sats, bank holiday Mons, 2pm-5pm, £4.

• Barnsley House, Barnsley, Glos, 01285 740421, open to those staying or lunching.

• Snowshill Manor, Broadway, Glos, 01386 852410, Weds, Suns and bank hol Mons 11am-5.30pm, £3.60.

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