A Guide to Britain's Secret Gardens

Enjoy glorious English gardens and the stories behind them
Enjoy glorious English gardens and the stories behind them | © Paul Heinrich / Alamy Stock Photo
Kimberley Grant

Freelance Writer and Photographer

From sprawling rural locations to inner-city sanctuaries, Britain’s glorious gardens have a rich cultural heritage and are packed with horticultural inspiration. We unearth some of the country’s lesser-known gardens offering the chance to reconnect with nature, enjoy beautiful blooms and learn the fascinating stories of the people who made them flourish.

Whether it’s wandering along a cool stone path between colourful humming plants, relaxing by a medieval carp-filled moat or exploring hidden fern-filled tunnels beneath a Welsh mansion, there are plenty of unique places to discover.

1. Cowden Japanese Garden, Dollar

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View of the new Japanese Garden at Cowden in Dollar, Clackmannanshire, Scotland, UK
© Iain Masterton / Alamy Stock Photo

From a shared obsession with golf, to the finer points of whisky-making, the Japanese have long been fascinated by Scotland. Perhaps less celebrated is the reciprocal nature of the relationship, beautifully illustrated by Cowden Japanese Garden in Clackmannanshire. Its unlikely existence owes everything to a trip to East Asia taken in the early 1900s by Scottish traveller and explorer Ella Christie. Fascinated by the formal gardens in Japan, Christie returned to her home at Cowden Castle inspired to build a Japanese Garden. She commissioned designer Taki Handa to create the seven-acre (0.4ha) site, making it the first and only garden of its nature to be designed by a woman. Today, the peaceful landscape is home to colourful acers, Scots pines, torii gates, snow lanterns and small bridges that zigzag across the pond and trickling burn.

2. The Plantation Garden, Norwich

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© Paul Heinrich / Alamy Stock Photo

Hidden behind a Roman Catholic Cathedral in an abandoned chalk mine, the Plantation Garden is a lush, mildly idiosyncratic sanctuary a short walk away from the Norwich city centre. The listed gardens present moments of gentle drama: a towering Gothic fountain jousts with the grand Italianate terrace overlooking the garden, while the beautifully planted flowerbeds and flat lawns are perfect for picnicking.

3. Dewstow Gardens and Grottoes, Caldicot

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© David Reed / Alamy Stock Photo

The brainchild of Victorian railway kingpin and shire horse enthusiast Henry Roger Keane Oakley, this lost labyrinth of gardens in South Wales was buried shortly after WWII and only rediscovered in 2000. The site has since been restored to its former splendour, and you can now explore its fern-covered tunnels, underground pools, waterfalls and top-lit chambers. Back outside, there are more decorative beds, rock gardens and ponds to sit and relax by.

4. St Dunstans-in-the-East, London

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Hidden garden in the ruins of St Dunstan in the East medieval church in the City of London, England, UK
© Benjamin John / Alamy Stock Photo
Hidden on a secluded street in the City, below glittering monuments to global finance, the medieval church St Dunstans-in-the-East was largely destroyed during the Blitz. In the 1970s, the ruins were transformed into an enchanting public garden, filled with climbing plants and palm trees. During the week, its benches are taken by local businessmen and women on their lunch break; nonetheless, it remains one of the city centre’s most peaceful pockets of green.

5. Dorothy Clive Garden, Shropshire

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© John Keates / Alamy Stock Photo

Created in the 1940s by Colonel Harry Clive, who transformed an old gravel quarry into a beautiful woodland garden for his Parkinson’s disease-stricken wife Dorothy, the eponymous sanctuary is a herbaceous expression of enduring love and companionship. Now a charitable trust, place of rest and horticultural education centre, the hillside gardens include rose walks, an alpine scree with pool, waterfall, edible woodland and a quintessentially English tearoom and terrace lawn.

6. Benmore Botanic Garden, Argyll

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© David Collins / Alamy Stock Photo

This magnificent mountainside garden is set near the head of a loch in Scotland’s scenic Cowal peninsula. Thanks to its impressive collection of trees and plants, some of which have been growing for over 150 years, a visit to Benmore is a horticultural tour around the world. After a walk along the avenue of towering redwoods at the garden’s entrance, you can explore a miniature Chilean rainforest, Japanese valley, Bhutanese glade or the beautiful Victorian fernery tucked beneath one of the hillsides.

7. Hindringham Hall Gardens, Norfolk

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Like something out of a fairytale, Hindringham’s charming tudor manor is surrounded by three acres (1.2ha) of gardens, a medieval carp- and eel-filled moat and ponds dating back to 1150. The garden’s original role was to provide fruit, vegetables and herbs for the house and still has its working walled kitchen garden today. Make some time to walk along the meandering paths of the wild and stream gardens, or the leafy Victorian nut walk before stopping for tea at the café by the moat.

8. Inverewe Garden, Poolewe

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© Graeme Wallace / Alamy Stock Photo
This lush heritage garden is perched on the edge of a rocky peninsula amid rugged, coastal scenery in north-west Scotland. In the 1860s, landowner Osgood Mackenzie transformed barren land into a fragrant, subtropical oasis home to a variety of exotic plants including rare Wollemi pines and Himalayan blue poppies. Pathways lead around the walled garden, lily ponds and woodland to a lovely coastal viewpoint.

9. Oudolf Field at Hauser and Wirth, Somerset

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© Josie Elias / Alamy Stock Photo

Hidden behind the Hauser & Wirth gallery buildings in Somerset lies a romantic perennial meadow created by world-renowned Dutch landscape designer Piet Oudolf. Drifts of tall, delicate grasses and plants with striking seed heads create a sustainable garden that looks beautiful in all four seasons, even in the depths of winter. At the end of the field, the pebble-like Radić Pavilion blends in perfectly with Oudolf’s soft, natural landscape.

10. Eltham Palace Gardens, London

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Gardens at Eltham Palace, London, England
© Coaster / Alamy Stock Photo
An unlikely mix of medieval grandeur and streamlined Art Deco design, this magnificent palace in south-east London also boasts 19 acres (7.7ha) of award-winning gardens. The traditional Arts & Craft style features a sunken rose garden, pools, rock garden and a number of intriguing medieval features – a moat crossing London’s oldest working bridge and a series of borders surrounding the old fortress.

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