Reading was dull and overcast as we began our journey, following the wonderful Diamond Jubilee Service from St Pauls. We thought it realistic to reach the beautiful Hestercombe Gardens (near Taunton) by mid-afternoon, but the closer we drove to the West Country, the darker the clouds, and the heavier the rain!
With great disappointment, we decided to make straight to our holiday accommodation just north of Barnstaple at Shirwell, but as we drove along the A361 the clouds began to lift and I noticed on the map we’d soon be approaching ‘Castle Hill Gardens’.
We both gasped as we glimpsed our first view of this glorious Palladian House through the trees, and I gained an immediate impression of a magnificent and beautiful example of ‘architecture and landscape in perfect scale and harmony’. The House had been built on this south/south-west facing slope in 1730, and is now the home of The Earl and Countess of Arran. It is surrounded by a huge parkland landscape, full of gigantic, majestic trees and conifers, plus superb all-year-round shrub interest, an old walled vegetable garden, and more recently, the Millennium Garden designed by Xa Tollemache of Helmingham Hall, Suffolk, who had won a Gold Medal in 1997 at the Chelsea Flower Show.
Ours was the only car in the Car Park, and we had the whole estate completely to ourselves! I believe there is something magical about having a ‘public’ garden to oneself, and exploring it just after rain when there is a ‘hue’ and a freshness of atmosphere. To say we were ‘bowled over’ is a grand understatement! For the next ninety minutes we wandered along the paths, encountering surprise upon surprise at every turn, be it sculpture, temple, bridge, view, vista or plant interest. And then there was the steep climb up to see the olde ‘Sham’ castle itself high above the House, which even today gave superb views over the surrounding countryside.
The rhododendrons were just starting to ‘go over’, but they still had a marvel about them, and all the trees seemed to stand so tall in the peace and stillness of the late afternoon. The scale of the place took my breath away, and yet the relatively small and impressive Millennium Garden with its emphasis on perennial planting, seemed to fit like a glove into its setting. With its long edgings of lavender, it will be at its colourful best in a few weeks time, but even now the alliums, astrantias, polemoniums and lupins provided glorious colour.
We could have stayed longer, but ‘Closing Time’ drew near, and lest another human being appear to disturb our peace and hasten us on our way, we re-traced our steps down to The Lodge and back to the car, but our splendid day was not quite over …
I noticed some newly planted rhododendrons near the driveway, and was sure that the bright red one was a certain old variety …
Sure it was. And its name? Rhododendron ‘Britannia’.
What an appropriate closing image, after a magnificent weekend where our thoughts and prayers have been rightly devoted to our amazing Monarch; a Christian Queen who for sixty years has served our nation with devotion and whose days have been guided by faith.
A moving and memorable day, starting with the Cathedral of St Pauls and ending with the Castle at Filleigh.
I’m sure we’ll be back soon.
Can’t wait …