I am a big believer in the seasons. Winter is cold, snowy, and necessary to kill pests and allow my garden some dormancy. It is also a wonderful time to concoct ambitious and wholly unrealistic plans for the garden, so I accept winter, as I do the other oft-capricious Kentucky seasons. The villainous attitude of winter in the Bluegrass this year, however, has not only cruelly impacted my boxwood, it is starting to eat away at my limited reservoir of patience. Yesterday, I delighted in the bright yellow faces of the crocus by my front sidewalk, only to listen to the weather forecast warning of many more inches of snow, and feel my spirits plummet. Thankfully, I also believe in the imagination, so as rain coats Central Kentucky and we speculate about how the next winter storm will impact the region, I turn my thoughts to summer and the splendors of the landscape at Woolbeding Gardens in England.
Described by some as the best-kept secret in West Sussex, I arrived at Woolbeding early in my adventure known formally as Attingham Summer School 2014 (other monikers for the three weeks won’t be repeated in this venue). Kept busy by lectures and the amazing (if slightly overpowering at times) interiors of country houses, my first impulse on that warm July day was to throw my shoes off, roll in the grass, and dance in the flower borders. I did none of these things, if not to draw attention to Kentucky stereotypes, but because I was much too distracted by the perfect blending of an English summer sky, symmetrical hedges and a profusion of flowers.
In the clamor of post-World War II societal and economic changes, numerous large estates were gifted the National Trust. Woolbeding came into the Trust in 1958 – but without any funding. Because of that, the house and gardens were tenanted out and only taken back by the Trust in the last decade. Sir Simon Stansburg and his partner, Stewart Grimshaw, acquired the lease in 1973, and oversaw the restoration and reinterpretation of the 18th century gardens.
The land, however, is not just a staid recreation of walled gardens and borders. Sir Simon worked with leading designers, including Lanning Roper (shout out to the American) and Julian and Isabel Bannerman (the pair have worked on many projects for Prince Charles). Follies (an essential part of any English garden!) and modern sculpture mark the spot of iconic trees, lost to the vagaries of nature.
The old walled garden became a series of rooms, and water – an essential element in the landscape – highlights not only the sinuous undulation of the lawn, but also features like the Gothic summerhouse and small statuary nestled into multi-layered planting schemes. I saw Woolbeding in July, but I know it must be spectacular at all seasons.
Woolbeding opened to the public for the first time in 40 years in 2011. It will re-open for the 2015 season on April 9, and all tours must be pre-booked. My April will hopefully find jonquils and forsythia blooming under a gentle Kentucky sky, and spring reigning triumphant over us all – until then, I will power through the madness of the winter that won’t end with thoughts of dahlias, tranquil croquet lawns, and sweet-smelling herb gardens.