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Thursday, 10 July 2014

Gardens of North Devon

This tour will be my third year with a local gardening club, who I have got to know quite well and they refer to me as 'quirky' so they have obviously got the gist of me! I generally have a good time with them, although we always have a packed itinerary over 4 days, but we are always in very nice hotels. The gardens they tend to visit are ones which are generally not open to the public and are usually at someone's house in the middle of nowhere and so the driving has never been particularly easy to get to them. This years tour is to North Devon, staying at the Brend Hotel Group, The Barnstaple Hotel in Barnstaple. I've stayed at many Brend Hotels and the service is always exceptional as well as being able to rely on good food and a comfortable bedroom. However, since I saw the itinerary for this years tour back in December and having looked at where these gardens are, if I am honest, I have not been looking forward to this years tour, purely because of some of the places I am expected to get a 13m coach to. Unclassified roads are bad to take a coach at the best of times but in Devon...... You're having a laugh!!

Day 1

I was at work at 6:30am to pack and check my coach before half the group arrived at the depot ready for a 7:45am departure. When Diane, (group organiser) and Rob, (her partner) arrived, I got a big hug and I was just as pleased to see them. We left the yard and collected the rest of the group from Ashchurch Railway Station.  There are only 6 people travelling this year who I haven't met and everyone said they had been pleased to learn that I was driving them again this year, so that was nice.

We headed South on the M5 and had a brief comfort stop at motorway services. Diane had laid down the law, no time to get coffee or go to the shops, splash and dash! After only 7mins we were back on the road and heading for our first visit of the day not far from Honiton. This was an easy garden for me to get to, just off the main road. The lady who owned the garden was on the road waiting for us. She welcomed us and showed us through to her garden.

Little Ash Bungalow is a private 1 1/2 acre garden developed since 2000 to provide year round interest and a wildlife haven. A stream runs past the bottom of the garden and feeds a shady, damp area planted with a collection of shade loving plants. This is an NGS garden and the owner was a finalist in the 2009 BBC Gardener of the Year Competition. Although the garden was lovely, my hay fever was playing me up so all I was really interested in was the free tea and cake. And the cake was delicious!

After an hour and a half we were back on the road and making our way to our next visit, RHS Gardens Rosemoor at Torrington. I have been here many times before so because it was such a beautiful day, I found a quiet spot by the lake, where I sat in the sunshine, writing my blog! I have written about Rosemoor in a previous blog.

After a couple of hours basking in the sun, I moved up to the tea room to claim my free tea and cake! At 5:30pm we made our way to our hotel.

When we arrived, the manager was waiting outside for us and came on board the coach to welcome us to the hotel and inform us of meal arrangements. He also mentioned that we were free to use the gym and the indoor and outdoor pools but, and in his words I quote, "no skinny dipping allowed! I know what you lot are like!" Not really what I would have expected in the welcome speech at a 4* hotel! The porterage was dealt with very quickly and by the time I had parked and locked the coach I only had an hour before dinner, so my swim would have to wait for tomorrow.

The food and the service at dinner, as expected, was very good but I think the Imperial Hotel does it better. The group did try to get in the Imperial but they couldn't get the single rooms so this was their second choice of hotel but nevertheless, everyone is very happy. I am in a double room with a balcony overlooking the outdoor pool, far better than I was allocated last week and better than I've ever had at the Imperial.

After dinner I sat down with Diane briefly so she could double check routes with me. I'd have thought, this being the third year I have done this group, she would have realised that I do my homework and know where I'm going! She does pack a tight schedule though and tends to fret a little so I suppose I will let her off! So I went back to my room and sat on the balcony reading for a while before an early night. I had forgotten that this group likes to start early!

Day 2

So today is one I am not looking forward to due to the locations of all 3 of our visits. The first garden today is again a NGS garden in the pretty coastal village of Croyde. I know I can get there and I know I need to come out the same way but I don't see where I am expected to turn and park and just to make things more difficult, today is the day of the open air market in the village!

We left the hotel slightly late just after 9am due to Mike, (it's always Mike!) being late. Rob and I went to find him and when we did, I hurried back to the coach to give Rob the opportunity to have a few stern words, which he did. 

So we were on the road. It is a nice drive out to Croyde with stunning views of the coastline and across  Saunton Sands. We arrived in Croyde, the owner of the garden was waiting at the end of his lane where I dropped the group before going to find the village 'car park' which I had been booked into. I don't know what I'd been so worried about! It was easy and all down to Diane's good planning. I suppose I need to trust her a little more as well as her needing to trust me!

Langtrees is another private garden. The 1 acre garden has an eclectic selection of plants with some interesting trees and shrubs. Many Southern Hemisphere plants are grown successfully due to the mild coastal climate. It was probably all wasted on my untrained eye but I did appreciate sitting in the nice surroundings, enjoying yet another beautifully sunny day. I also enjoyed the free tea and cake!

Our next visit today was also our lunch stop at Marwood Hill Gardens. This is another garden I have been to before but not at this time of year and certainly not in such good weather. This 20 acre garden was started by Dr Jimmy Smart VMH and since his death in 2002 has been maintained by Head Gardener Malcolm Pharoah and his team. The garden remains privately owned and all proceeds from the admission charges, plant sales and tea room go towards the running and maintenance of the garden.

I had 5 miles of unclassified roads to drive to get to this garden and luckily, I met very little traffic. There were a lot of tractors working in the fields so I think I was lucky to not meet any. 

I had my priorities right and the first thing I did after parking up was to head to the tea room for free tea and cake! I had to be early because my group would fill the place later. Then I found somewhere to sit out and relax. This was my choice of view.

The ducks were having a marvellous time chasing each other and diving in the water, making a lot of noise and the fish obviously thought I had come to feed them. Do they not know I'm just looking for some peace and quiet?!

We had to take the same 5 miles of country lanes when we left and then we were heading for our final visit of the day at Morthoe which is on the cliff-top heading out of Woolacombe and has uninterrupted views to Morte Point on the North Devon Coast. This was a garden that couldn't be accessed by coach. The group were dropped at the end of the Esplanade in Woolacombe and had to walk up the hill from there. The garden owner did a couple of runs in his car for those who couldn't manage the climb. 

I left them to it and had to go back to the beach to park up so I missed out on the free tea and cake! Instead, I took the opportunity to have a quick kip!

We left Woolacombe at 5 o'clock and made the short journey back to the hotel. By 5:30 I was taking a dip in the outdoor pool and by 6:30 I was enjoying a glass of wine in the garden. We had another lovely meal this evening before I disappeared to my room and had a very restful night. And I would be needing it. Tomorrow will take a lot of concentration because tomorrow is the day of driving to stupidly narrow places!

Day 3

We had an early start this morning because we had quite a distance to travel on roads that aren't the best to get to our first two of today's visits. We left at 8:30, I think they had forgotten that this is a holiday! Everybody was on the coach, even Mike and we left 5 mins early. They must all be frightened of being late!

It was a nice, although slow drive to our first garden of the day at Buckland Monachorum, just outside of Yelverton on the edge of Dartmoor National Park. The last mile to the garden was ridiculously narrow. There wasn't even room to pass a pedestrian!

I stopped in the gateway to let everyone off before I got my head around how I was going to turn this machine around and get her parked up and go and have a look at the garden.

Keith Wiley, who has appeared many times on BBC Gardeners World, was Head Gardener at The Garden House just a mile down the road, for 25 years until he decided to cut loose and build his own piece of paradise at Wildside. The garden has been sculpted from a flat Devon field over the last 10 years to create a natural landscape inspired by visits around the world. His planting seeks to work in harmony with nature allowing plants to thrive much as they would do in the wild.

When I walked in the garden my first impression was that it was a scruffy mess! But when I walked through and I could see the garden from different aspects, it was absolutely stunning. Keith was giving a guided tour but I took myself around and found a quiet spot to sit. We didn't get tea and cake here, something I have grown to expect!

Lots of plants were bought again here and we are starting to get low on locker space. I hope I can squeeze all the luggage into one locker in the morning!

We moved on to our next visit which was The Garden House, just up the road. I was a little luckier on the narrow lane this time as I didn't meet anything coming the opposite way.

The group had a pre booked lunch here and I was given a meal voucher to choose what I'd like before there was a short introductory talk by one of the gardeners.

The Garden House garden still bears the imprint of Keith Wiley's 25 year stay but subsequent Head Gardeners have also made their mark. Run by the Fortescue Garden Trust, a charity set up to ensure the survival of the garden, the 8 acre site contains many different garden styles. Personally, I don't consider this to be a patch on the previous garden, even though this garden has given me free tea and cake! It was getting really hot in the sun so I found a nice shaded seat in the 'Magic Circle'.

We left Buckland Monorchorum and travelled back to North Devon for our final visit of the day in the tiny hamlet of Yarnscombe. This was the place I had been most concerned about coming to and Diane admitted that she was also worried about the access here but the garden owners had assured her that they regularly have full size coaches to visit, warned us to only take one specific route and had said there was plenty of room to turn and park. We came off the main road and had 5 miles to go to get to the garden. It looked ok at first. Then the hedges got taller and were coming in on me. My mirrors were just brushing the hedges on each side. We got to the village and there was one corner, just before reaching my turning area, which I only just made it round. We came round the corner and the garden owner was stood on the side of the road, directing me into the village hall car park. Well! Never in a million years has a full size coach ever got in there! I dropped the group and they went on to the garden. Rob stayed to help me. The garden owner was a very irritating little man who laughed nervously at everything that was said. He laughed when I said I wouldn't fit round and through the gate into the car park and he said that's where the coaches always go and that it must be that I can't drive it! Then he admitted that my coach was larger than anything else they've had there. And laughed again. I would have loved to smack him in the gob! 

So Rob and I went for a walk down the lane to see if there was anywhere I could turn and park. There was a small junction just up ahead which seemed my only chance and with the help of Rob, I had done a 47 point turn and got parked on what wasn't much more than a farm track. Then we went for tea and cake.

I did have a quick look around the garden but I didn't actually see what I was looking at. I was so wound up that the garden owners would have a coach the size of mine down here without knowing if it would fit or not. It later became apparent that they had never had any coach of any size into this village.

I went back to fetch the coach and again, Rob came to help. I was still uncertain as to wether or not I could turn left out of the lane where I was parked but I had to try, that was the only direction I could go to get back out of the village. After several attempts we had to give up on the left turn, the coach was just too big to fit round, no matter how many shunts it took. So I had to turn right. I knew there was a crossroads a mile down the road and that was now my last chance to turn around and get out of here before I would be ringing the police for them to come and close the road behind me, for me to reverse the 5 miles back to the main road. Rob and I walked down to the crossroads first to see what the chances were. The road was even narrower but the crossroads were looking hopeful. We walked back to the coach and gave it a go. Had the lane been only 2 inches narrower, I wouldn't have fit but after what seemed like hours we had made the one mile to the crossroads. We hadn't seen any traffic at all in this village but Sod's law, cars came from every direction when we got to the crossroads. Rob spoke to each driver and it was like a puzzle with one having to reverse for me to nose up to him while the two from the other directions went up the hill and I could reverse around the corner with only one shunt before allowing the final car through and telling him that we would be following up so he could tell any traffic coming down. So I finally collected the group, who had been kicked out of the garden to wait on the roadside, nearly 40mins late. The garden owner was there and was still laughing and I just couldn't hold my tongue any longer. I let rip and I wouldn't be surprised if he put in a complaint about the way I spoke to him. I can't think how they ever thought a coach would get there, let alone turn! DON'T EVER TAKE A COACH TO THE CROFT GARDEN AT YARNSCOMBE!

I couldn't settle all evening, I was so het up about the whole thing. Diane was upset and felt responsible for putting me in that situation but she had been given the reassurance that it is a regular thing. I don't blame her. I had a large glass of wine before dinner and had a very restless night. However, the group now think I am even more wonderful! I just want to go home. 😞

Day 4

Hoorah! I'm going home today! But not before 4 more garden visits! I'm still not settled and I'd had very little sleep, trying to think if there was something I could have done differently. Should I have stopped when the road started to narrow and refused to go any further? I couldn't do that, I was committed on the road. Even in hind sight, I don't think I could have done anything better. 

I was feeling quite flat when we arrived at our first garden. This was an extra visit that had been fitted in and I don't know the name of the garden but it was another private one. I had stayed on the coach when everyone went in and I was sat enjoying my coffee when two ladies came back for their cameras and said that I really should go and have a look because it was very quirky and a lot of fun. So I went and had a look. It was the best medicine for me this morning and I had a laugh at lots of things. When you first walk into the garden there is a big plastic drum by the gate with a sign on it saying 'ok for 2 eyes but not good for 4' and when I looked inside, there were just lots of pairs of glasses at the bottom! There were lots of statues which squirted water and were activated by movement sensors and a witch who had flown into a telegraph pole.

The owner had the most gorgeous dog called Noodles who was a black lab cross and I spent some time playing fetch with her while everyone else was buying more plants. It was brilliant and I was feeling a different person.

Our next visit was to Tapeley Park Garden. We had been due to have a tour of the house here but that had to be cancelled due to a ceiling falling down a few days before, hence the extra visit. There were still plenty of gardens and grounds to explore and a lovely little tea room where I had free tea and cake!

Tapeley is owned by the Christies family from Glyndebourne, Sussex, and is now run by Hector Christie, a farmer and passionate activist. The Victorian kitchen gardens provide year round, chemical free fruit and vegetables for the tea room, house and local community. There are Classic Victorian Italian terraces and a permaculture garden demonstrating a sustainable policy working with nature to produce healthy plants.

Our next visit wax Castle Hill Gardens, Filleigh, which was a very beautiful spot where we took lunch in the West Wing of the home of the Earl and Countess of Arran. The landscape surrounding the house is laid out in the 'Versailles' style and here is a walled kitchen garden, shrub garden, Millennium Garden and an extensive woodland garden. I didn't look around any of them. Instead, I stayed in the west wing for a second helping of strawberries and clotted cream!

Our final garden today was Stamford Shrubs and Holbrook Garden, Sampford Peverell. A two acre garden which has been created in a heavy clay Devon field alongside a small nursery specialising in shrubs and hardy herbaceous perennials, especially Helenium. The whole enterprise is run organically without pesticides or peat. But the best bit was the free tea and flapjacks! The little space we had left in the lockers had been eyed up and was soon filled before we hit the road for home.

We had an easy journey home with an even quicker 'splash and dash' than we had managed on Monday. Rob and Diane we thanked and presented with a gift before I was thanked and presented with a gift. I hope it's not a plant! 

On the whole I have enjoyed my tour with this group again and they have asked me to take them on their trip next year to Hampshire. The roads in Hampshire are far better than the roads in Devon so it should be a doddle! Once again, I have come home with some very happy people! 😊