“ Wisley is Britain's best loved garden with 97ha (240 acres) offering a fascinating blend of the beautiful with practical and innovative design and cultivation techniques. Woking, Surrey GU23 6QB. Tel: (01483) 224234. „
The RHS and Wisley
When Wisley was bought for the charity in 1903 by a wealthy businessman Sir Thomas Hanbury it comprised a lovely house with a relatively modest 60 acres. What was then a small London based charity were probably only too glad to relocate here from their small existing premises in central London. Further land acquisitions and a name change later and the flagship garden of the RHS is now nearer 240 acres. I know very little of it's early days, other than Hanbury was an avid horticulturist who may be better known in green circles for his botanical gardens at Mortola on the Italian Riviera. That is far smaller than Wisley but having been his last home and his passion for over twenty years it sounds very much like somewhere I would also love to visit.
The house at Wisley...
... looks stunning from the little you can see as you walk around, but is closed to the public. This is used by staff as offices and training facilities so don't try to get in. As you head down towards the café (where else would you go first?) on your left is the smallest - by Wisley standards - stretch of water here. If you're so inclined you can wander down to the far end for the best photo opportunity of the house complete with the water, manicured lawns and borders in front. If you like the elegance and formality of stately homes then this is a vista for you.
~ The gardens ~
Are of course the reason why thousands visit every year. As you walk through the entrance kiosks you'll see some pamphlets here explaining exactly what is looking it's best and Wisley recommends you see, so whether you visit often or if it's a once off, you shouldn't miss the best the gardens have to offer at that time. I couldn't possibly cover everything there is to see, so I'll point out what I think are all year round winners.
3rd place goes to:
The orchid displays.
If you want to see titchy yet colourful ones no bigger than your little finger then the orchid greenhouse is the place to go. Here's where you're mostly likely to find yourself surrounded by people trying to take the perfect photo with very expensive cameras. Just outside is the rockery with a larger display. Beautiful though they undoubtedly are, there's something about their fussy nature that leaves me cold.
In 2nd place:
The rock garden
Here though if you don't mind clambering up lots of steps, are views down onto the little stream, where people invariably stop on the bridges to admire the large fish and sometimes feed them. Not being a fish-ionado I hesitate to call them huge goldfish but that's what you can expect. The top of the rock garden is one of the nicer places to stop and catch your breath if you can find a free bench. One niggle I have is that the planting here is quite sparse, even in the height of summer. I've noticed Wisley aren't overly worried by having weeds popping up, and in the rock garden all the bare earth seems to encourage the rogues.
Very Highly Commended:
Sometimes the best things are over the hill especially if the hill in question is the design feature of Piet Oudolph. No I hadn't heard of him either before we heard talk of his new borders at Wisley some years back. A funky Dutch gardener who bucked his nation's trend for clipped hedges by going all wavy. He's famous for using plenty of grasses to create prairie style features, and his borders at Wisley are no different. They lead from the main path in front of the Bicentenary Glasshouse up to the trials fields. At first glance the borders look rough hewn and at odds with the rest of the grounds, but the design and colour schemes are as highly planned as any other parts of Wisley. At the top is a little viewpoint built on a mount. Very attractive to children, but for anyone else willing to walk around its corkscrew path to the top you'll be rewarded with splendid views back towards the glasshouse and down towards the trial gardens.
Having visited frequently especially when the borders were newly planted we often skip this now mainly because the planting seems to have varied very little over the years. I can understand why though. Oudolph has worked on gardens in Chicago, New York and the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in Hyde Park, so if you go to the trouble of giving the man space to work in, why then change his designs?
Serious horticulturists and gardeners can then wander down to the trials fields. One of the aims of the RHS is to show to the public the best kinds of plants to grow. Simple, you might think but for every variety of plant which might make it to local garden centres, there are probably hundreds more which get kicked to the kerb along the way. Whenever I've looked, there have been only a handful of plants being trialled here, but for each plant there must be literally hundreds of varieties being trialled. Thrilling if that's your thing, but personally I'm happy to be given a smaller choice of plants which have already passed muster.
Joint First Place goes to:
The Bicentennial Glasshouse
Not only is it very well positioned with a lake to one side, but it does look majestic on the walk up. Forty foot high and the length of 10 football pitches, this is probably where the RHS really shines. There are three different zones once you step inside: the dry temperate, wet temperate and tropical. All told there must be thousands of exotic and all too rare specimens in here.
Every year in March Wisley hold a butterfly exhibition here which we've caught by chance this year and last. Admittedly the Glasshouse isn't somewhere I visit every time I'm here but several times a year we venture inside even if there aren't any special displays on. The time it takes my glasses to acclimatise to the humidity inside is its only drawback for me. Those with small children have to leave buggies outside and although anyone with a walking impairment would still find it enjoyable, its worth noting that some of the best displays are seen from the elevated walkways having walked up the stairs.
The Flower Show
Like the Chelsea one only on a much more intimate scale. If you were to plan a visit to coincide with this annual event, you'd find around 40 exhibitors mostly specialist nurseries and garden suppliers on the lawns in front of the Conservatory Cafe. Did you also know that there is a national association of flower arrangement societies (NAFAS)? Well there is, and the Surrey division always lay on a spectacular display here. This year's show is due to take place on 6 to 9 September. I've never been able to leave without buying something, and the exhibitors always take their time to answer any questions. Take cash though as the exhibitors won't have the credit/debit card terminal things.
Inspiration versus perspiration
What outing would be complete without sustenance? Wisley has several different eateries and the only one I haven't dined at is the most formal one, The Conservatory Dining Rooms which has waiter service. Usually we have a bite to eat at the larger Conservatory Café next door. The food is nice if a little routine with soup du jour and jacket potatoes featuring heavily but to their credit they try to source as much of their food locally as they can. On Wisley's busier days it gets quite manic in there, with the hassle of walking about a bit to find a free - and clean - table.
A standard money making venture designed to part visitors from their money you may think, but for those with the forethought to bring their own food there's a lovely large lawn just in front of the café which is a suntrap in summer and makes for a really nice picnic area.
Before leaving Wisley we always visit the adjoining Garden Centre. A chance to buy much of what we've already admired in Gardens, and the range here is really fantastic. All arranged alphabetically and easy to locate it's hard to walk away without something catching my eye that I really don't have the space for. The only drawback is that the prices - certainly for the more standard plants - seem inflated, but then grown by the fair hands of the RHS they should be first rate specimens. It's only fair to say that the RHS staff are not only very responsive but seem hardworking too. Even at times when those who I've spoken to in the Garden Centre looked very busy, they're quick to point me in the right direction.
The gift shop too is a must for me. Sometimes if you visit in the new year there are bargains to be had in their sale, but mostly their stock comprises the usual souvenirs and tea towels alongside some rather expensive glassware and a large book section. Unsurprisingly there is currently a whole range of Jubilee and Olympic memorabilia on sale.
~ Recommended? ~
Many people visit Wisley are not RHS members and don't intend to join. Coach parties seem to arrive from all over the UK as well as continental Europe. If anyone with the remotest of interest in plants or even just lots of pretty colours well arranged gets the opportunity to visit, I would say take it.
Having a heavy clay soil, much of what is at Wisley would struggle in my garden so for me personally to visit somewhere with such differing planting arrangements - and on such a large scale - is always enjoyable.
With the exception of a few grassy hills and the rock garden area most of the land is fairly even so overall Wisley shouldn't pose too much of a problem to those needing wheelchair or pushchair access.
I'm inclined to think most young children would find visiting Wisley tedious as they would any similar attraction. I must be wrong though because every time I've visited there's been an eclectic mix of parents with toddlers in strollers accompanied by either (I'm assuming) the grandparents, or groups of friends which seem to find this a good meeting place. To be fair to the RHS, they do make an effort to keep younger visitors amused too, although most of the attractions go over my head. Also aside from the various lakes here I think Wisley is also pretty much as safe an environment as you'll get for smaller children.
The gardens are open every day except Christmas Day (their opening times are on the RHS website). Between April and September are probably the best times of year to visit though, given that most of the planting is at its best. It's a shame I can't add any photos to this review, but they probably can't really do Wisley justice anyway. Yes I would recommend it.
Free admittance for RHS members who may also bring a guest in for free as well. Otherwise:
Adult: £11.55 (including Gift Aid)/£10.50 (excluding Gift Aid)
Child 5-16: £4.95 (including Gift Aid)/£4.50 (excluding Gift Aid)
Children 4 years & under: free
Family of 2 adults & 2 children: £29.70 (including Gift Aid)/£27.00 (excluding Gift Aid);
Additional discount Child £4.50 (including Gift Aid)/£4.05 (excluding Gift Aid)
Groups (10+ adults): £9.50 per person (note: must be booked and paid at least seven days in advance).
Where it is:
RHS Garden Wisley
~ Getting there ~
RHS Wisley lies between Cobham and Ripley in Surrey and is off the A3 south of Junction 10 of the M25. The brown tourist flower signs on the A3 and M25 to RHS Garden are easy to follow. The large car park now also has several charging points for electric vehicles, though I've never seen any in use.
Despite being so near the M25 and A3 it isn't impossible to get here by public transport. and the RHS website has more details. Visitors who do come by either bus or train and produce their bus/train ticket on the day of their visit will gain entry for the reduced price of £7.90.
I recently visited the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) gardens at Wisley. This is the flagship garden of the RHS, so I had high expectations. It was slightly accidental that we visited - it was the last day of my parents visit, and we didn't want to go too far or do too much. My mum subtly mentioned an interest in these gardens, so off I trotted to the campsite information place to see if they had a leaflet. They did, but there was only one and it was pinned to the wall...so I nabbed it...
The gardens are easy to get to. The map provided on the leaflet wasn't great, but we headed towards the town of Wisley and soon found signposts. It is located a few miles outside the M25, off the A3 to Guildford. If you're heading there from London, you do actually have to double back but this is very clearly signposted so nothing to worry about. I'm not sure how easy it would be to get to the gardens by public transport, they are outside the town so may not be served by buses.
Having parked up and unloaded my mum's wheelchair (she decided to use it so we could see more in the time we had available), we went to pay. Adult entry is £8.50 each, which is quite pricey, however one "carer" (translation: pusher) gets in free with each wheelchair user. We were given a map of the gardens, which helpfully showed a suitable wheelchair route.
Into the gardens we went. The first area on entering is a pretty terraced garden with a large lily pond. There are some stairs around this area, but there is also a downward sloping path we followed with took us past the pond. The gardens are split into different areas, such as the Rock Garden, Alpine Meadow, Wild Garden, Arboretum, Pinetum, Border Plants and so on. There are loads of them, and we didn't visit them all. So I will tell you about the ones we did visit.
First of all, we passed the Alpine garden. It's quite a small area, and wasn't marked on the map - it was just tucked in beside the Rock Garden and the Wild Garden. I like Alpine plants, simply because they are tough little things which can survive anything. At this point we noticed that the signs telling you the names of the plants weren't clear. My mum saw something she liked, I read her the sign which was apparently for that plant, but she knew the name I read and said it wasn't right. It was the only sign in a bed containing several plant species. I suppose it must be hard to check all the signs and make they are all in the right place, but I have to say I did expect better of the RHS flagship garden!
We carried on past the Rock Garden and the Wild Garden, both of which were very pretty. Alongside the path were a number of fish ponds, with cute bridges over them leading up into the rock garden. We didn't go into this as it was not wheelchair accessible, and although my mum will happily get out for a stroll, it was very steep and rock. Even from the path we had a good view though, and there are a number of benches where you can sit and admire the rockery.
Beyond the rockery there was a nice view of the glasshouses and the reservoir in front. We continued down towards them. Before entering the glasshouses, we went to the toilets, which were reasonably clean although clearly well used so there were paper towels overflowing the bin. No major complaints though, I've seen a lot worse at tourist attractions.
Along the side of the glasshouses there is some very interesting grass. Not a sentence I ever expected to say!! Unfortunately, we were let down by the signs again and don't know what it was. There were several beds of it, and it was quite long. It was a bit windy, and the way this grass moved in the breeze was almost liquid-like, we were quite taken by it.
The glasshouses are split into sections - Temperate Moist, Temperate Dry, Tropical Rainforest and the Root Zone. Each area has plants suitable for that climate, and plenty of information boards about them. The centrepiece of the glasshouse is a waterfall, with artificial rocks around it. The glasshouses have two levels, so you can walk in the treetops, but you can just stick to the ground level. The Root Zone was fascinating, it's in what is meant to be a cave and has lots of screens showing films of roots growing and other under soil activity. There are a lot of interesting resources for children to learn from, and my mum, a biologist, was very impressed with this area. The glasshouses aren't large, and I think we only spent about 20 minutes in them.
We exited the glasshouses on the other side, and walked around the reservoir. There is a fledgling Prairie Garden there, which seems to be not long planted. There were some nice plants but it will be better once it has matured a little. We walked up a grassy slope which led to the Fruit Mound, a raised viewpoint beside the fruit fields and the Arboretum. I think that one day it will be covered in fruit, but it also looked newly planted. I went up to the top, hoping for some good views, but all I got was a louder roar from the M25 and a view of the treetops and some fields in the distance.
We then went back down the slope, and carried on towards the Pinetum, through an area which was very nice but I can't remember what it was called! It was grassy, with lots of lovely mature trees, some statues and benches. There was also a large duck pond, which had several small man-made "beaches" around it. This is the best way to describe them - they were made of stone and were hard, but they were the colour of sand and sloped into the water. At each of these there were some benches, and it was a pleasant place to have a seat - once we found one in the shade, it was warm by this point!
We continued on our way, but on reaching the path into the Pinetum, we decided not to go in there as there is no way out so we'd have to return the way we came. And being from Scotland, we've seen plenty of coniferous forests! So we continued back to the entrance which took us past the garden library which we didn't enter.
There are a number of cafes around the gardens, and we stopped for a spot of lunch at one beside the glasshouses. It was quite large and cafeteria like, with an outdoor area with parasols, and it was all clean. Given the wind we decided to sit indoors. We bought two sandwiches, two cakes, and three hot drinks (tea and coffee), and it came to just over £18. Nice cafes are expensive these days, but that just seems ridiculous to me! I had a mozzarella, olive and pesto sandwich, which was ok but not worth the £3.95 it cost.
On the way out of the gardens we visited the shop - because that's what you do when leaving a place like this! It is very large, and nice enough, but we didn't buy anything. There is a large selection of china and toiletries with a flowery theme, and more interesting for any gardeners, a large garden bookshop.
All in all, this was a pleasant afternoon. I thought the entrance cost was a little high, but then there is an awful lot of maintenance required on a garden of this size - and it was all very well looked after. I would recommend a visit, but given the price it is maybe only for those who will really get something out of their visit, if you have a strong interest in horticulture or gardens.
I work extremely long hours in the School term time as I am a music teacher in a boarding school and I still have a performing career. On top of all that I also am quite active with politics. Things get easier in school holidays and I try to keep Sunday clear all year wherever possible. In these precious windows of time I like to have quality time with my children and sometimes some solitary quality time with myself. It is vital, I believe, to look after yourself and have some space in this stress filled treadmill of a world in which most of us live. Sometimes it is a luxury to veg out at home, but as a general rule we like to go out and about to relax. There are several wonderful places where you can go, either free or for a small charge. With that in mind I thought I might, over a period of time, share our experiences of a few"day out" places. There follows a short preamble, before we get to the main topic of this op, which explains where I am coming from on days out! It is, mercifully, brief!! A few years ago we took out family membership of the National Trust, English Heritage and more recently The Royal Horticultural Society. This gives us a huge choice of options of activities, which suit the more middle aged amongst us but have enough to interest and enthral the younger members of the family. I know most of them would probably prefer Alton Towers, but I do honestly think we have a duty to educate our children broadly, and this includes how to spend leisure time in many different ways and to learn about our traditions, heritage and country ways. In this playstation/pc oriented world our children shut themselves away in front of a screen of one sort or another! As a parent I felt it was fine for mine to do this as long as: 1.They got lots of fresh air and exercise. 2.They were able to hold an articulate conversation (think of Kevin and Perry aka Enfield and Burke) do you want youngsters like that?! Me neit
her! I have one though, despite my best endeavours, but the other three weren't! 3. They were able to mix with people of all ages and have developed social skills. 4.That they spent time as part of the family group and did things together sometimes. Occasionally they must go to places that might not be of their own choice, without moaning, and attempt to learn something. When they were younger I made them keep a journal of trips out where they had to write a paragraph or two about what they had enjoyed and learned. It was interesting that often that the trips that were deemed to be the least favourable before leaving home often were the best from the kids point of view by the time they wrote their journal! It has also given three of them a lifelong love of writing and three write on this site! (We do sometimes go to Theme Parks, in case you think I have deprived my family!!!!) There we have it. So here we are off to Wisley Gardens at last! Be fair, you never go anywhere for a day out without having a bit of a journey first! I have known Wisley Gardens all my life, as I come from Surrey and about 15 minutes by car away from Wisley. I went several times as a young girl and once again in my early twenties. We then moved to Hampshire and I did not visit Wisley again until last summer (2001). I joined the RHS last year, which costs me about £29 a year for me, and a guest and then I do not have to pay admission! Great! On certain Sundays of the year you can take three free guests. Wisley Gardens is the flagship garden of the Royal Horticultural Society and is situated near Woking, Surrey just off the A3. It is very well signposted with those brown tourist signs so it is nice and easy to find! It is a wonderful place to visit with far more to see than you could imagine. It isn't just about tramping round a few flowers! The gardens cover an area of 240 acres of lush Surrey countryside. It is hard
to believe you are so close to the major trunk road from London to Portsmouth when you stand in the peace and tranquillity of this lovely place. You don't hear the rushing cars go past at all! It is a blissful haven. When you arrive there is plenty of parking with no long hike from the car to the garden. On the periphery are a snack bar and coffee shop and the entrance to the shop. The shop deserves a paragraph to itself, so I will return to it later. Once you have gone into the garden you have to decide what you want to see. If you make a day of it you can do everything if you are feeling energetic! If you have only gone for a couple of hours it is worth planning to look at the bits that you would find particularly interesting. Are you a tree person, flowers- fruit- vegetable growing- or would you rather just amble about enjoying the walk and seeing what crops up! (Sorry about the pun, it was not intentional!) There are lots of aspects to this garden. There is a fantastic rock garden with alpine houses and rock pools. You can feel as though you have been whisked away to Switzerland! I love the rose gardens and it is worth going when the roses are in bloom. Gorgeous and fragrant, too. There are many varieties of rose and you can pick up some lovely ideas for your own garden. I also told it can be very romantic walking through the rose gardens in the evenings! The mixed flower borders can also be really spectacular if you go at the right time of year. Spring and summer give the best displays usually. Now, you will probably think me really sad, but I always slip the digital camera into my handbag when I go to places like this. I take a photo of any plant I fancy having in the garden and I also take a photo of its tag so that I can marry them up at home. We then enlarge it on the computer and see what we think it would look like in our garden. I have some lovely flower pictures stored on my computer! The fruit
cages are worth a look in the summer. There is an amazing amount of soft fruit including berries I had never heard of. There are the obvious strawberries, gooseberries, blueberries, raspberries, loganberries etc. They all sit temptingly, tantalisingly just out of reach behind the wire. I am a sucker for soft fruit! Then there are the orchards. This is what an English garden should be like- neat rows of gnarled branched apple trees! There are also pears and quinces. You don't often see Quinces in Safeway do you?! They look like a cross between an apple and a pear and are usually used for making jelly and jam. In the orchard, which Wisley call the Fruit Field, there are over 670 types of apple. I find that absolutely staggering! There are miniature apple trees and cider apple trees which I found especially interesting plus some apple varieties which go back to the Middle Ages. I find that sort of historical continuity very comforting and utterly fascinating. There is an Arboretum where you can look at different types of tree and Wisley is home to the National Heather Collection. I particularly enjoy the artificial waterway in front of the house with resplendent water lilies. I have this as the desktop on my computer sometimes. It is in the Japanese style and is stunning. The idea behind Wisley is to demonstrate the cutting edge of gardening practices. It houses the RHS library which members can use for help or research and it has model gardens to give you design ideas using new techniques and styles. I found this interesting as we recently acquired some extra land to the rear of our back garden and we can't all agree what to do with it. This gave us some ideas. The Wisley experience doesn't stop there! They often have sculpture in the garden. Earlier this year were two pieces by Henry Moore, on loan from the Henry Moore Foundation. There was also a sculpture trail through the gardens. This was interest
ing as you kept stumbling against pieces of sculpture when you least expected it. One particularly spectacular piece was a colossal owl "flying" through the trees. It really made me jump when I saw it. Perhaps the most memorable was the first piece we saw. To appreciate this story you have to be aware that we did not know about the sculpture trail when we set off, as we had not picked up our "bumph" from the entry desk. Hannah and I came round the corner in a woody bit and in the trees I could see a man squatting, apparently naked! I nudged Hannah and said "Look- there is a bloke doing his business in the bushes, it's really not on!!" We continued walking and as we got nearer we saw it was only a statue. A very realistic statue, I might add! I think the sculpture was being sold, although when I found out the prices I gave up on the idea. They were very expensive indeed. I did notice several of our American and Japanese cousins purchasing them. I wonder how they would get them home? This year Wisley are renovating the Walled Garden West. It is a microclimate created by 10ft high walls to allow a range of exotic plants to be grown. There is a lovely central pond with a slate bridge and it connects to a semi-circular pond outside. There is a lovely restaurant but we tend to picnic and enjoy the lovely surroundings. THE WISLEY PLANT CENTRE: You can buy some of the many plant types on display in the plant centre. They stock more than 10,000 varieties. There are trained staff available to assist with any enquiries and you can get advice for any of your gardening problems. There is a two-year guarantee on hardy stock. THE WISLEY SHOP: We love the shop! It sells all sorts of things from delicious home made cakes, jams and pickles to a brilliant array of gardening books (the world's finest collection) and fine bone china. There is also stationery, kitchenware, glassware and vide
os. Outside the shop is a little stall, which sells fruit and vegetables grown at Wisley. We had some lovely russet apples and a marrow. If you are a keen gardener there are lectures, shows and special event days. The shows are things like The British Irish Show, the summer fruit and vegetable show and the Cyclamen show. There are more, this is just a selection. Here are some of the special events: Pruning of trees and bushes, Organic gardening, Getting started in the Greenhouse, encouraging butterflies into the garden, lawn maintenance, encouraging wildlife in your garden, Container gardening and loads, loads more! When is it open? Every day except Christmas day. Monday- Friday 10am-6pm (4.30 Nov-Feb) Saturday and Sunday 9am-6pm (4.30 Nov-Feb) Last admission is half an hour before closing. NOTE: From November - February on Sundays it is a member?s only day. The entrance fee is £5 for adults and £2 for children 6-16 years. Of course, if you are a member entrance is free. Membership gives you free entry into RHS gardens all over the country. It also gets you first pickings tickets for the Chelsea and Hampton Court Flower Shows. You can get loads of other perks including discounted tickets to BBC Gardeners World and free seeds once a year from Wisley. I really do wholeheartedly recommend this as a day out!