A Warm Welcome To The Painted Ladies

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This year I have planted a lot of verbena bonariensis. I love this plant with its tall stalks supporting clusters of tiny purple flowers. Verbena grows quickly in almost any location and any soil, which is perfect for charlatan gardeners like me whose skills fall far short of their enthusiasm. Tiny plants which I placed in April are now about 6ft tall. The delicate appearance of the thin stems belies their strength; I am mesmerised by their waving and bending with the strongest of winds, bouncing back upright and unperturbed.

My main reason for including verbena is its attractiveness to pollinators at a time when we have to do our bit to help out wildlife, even in the humblest and smallest of gardens like my own. I’d noticed that the verbena didn’t seem to be as popular with the bees as some of the other plants such as the cat mint and lavender; butterfly visitors were also few and far between….until this week.

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Looking out of the kitchen window on Tuesday morning I was delighted to see three butterflies flitting gracefully from one purple floret to another, lingering long enough to feast. I quietly stepped out to take a closer look and was able to identify the visitors as painted ladies. They certainly did look like works of art, scallop-edged scarlet wings embellished with bold black and white markings. I marvelled at the trio for 10 minutes, contemplating the magical metamorphosis of unremarkable caterpillars into such beautiful creatures as these.

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Since Tuesday there have been more and more painted ladies gracing my garden, favouring the various verbena. At one point I counted eight on the same plant. I had wondered about their sudden arrival on the scene as if from nowhere; had they hatched somewhere nearby? It was wonderful to sit and watch their charming, oblivious exhibition.

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Deciding to find out more about my lovely colourful visitors, I came across some online news items about a mass migration of painted ladies to the UK this summer. So that explains it! 🙂. Painted Ladies are not rare or endangered, and they migrate here from Europe every summer, but this year promises to see huge numbers crossing the English Channel. I was utterly amazed to read about the epic journey which starts in North Africa and sees these tiny fragile-looking creatures achieve such an incredible feat. I don’t know how long they will stay, but I look forward to these ladies enjoying my verbena for as long as it lasts.

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A day in the life of the garden

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It’s the start of a new July day. It gives me great pleasure each morning to walk around my tiny garden whilst my coffee is brewing. I love to look for any new flowers which might have opened up to greet the sunrise and I feel a childlike excitement when yesterday’s bud has become today’s bloom. I tread the little stepping stone path through the carpet of cat mint, banana mint, scabia, lavender, verbena, salvia and buddleia in shades of purple, blue and white. It’s almost silent except for distant sounds of traffic. The bees are already busy harvesting nectar for the hive. They are not the only fans of the cat mint.

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It’s very warm already today so I bring my coffee back outside. I love this time of day. I don’t like noise so I operate a secret ‘time share’, relishing the moments when others are not out in nearby gardens. At other times ear phones are a godsend. 🙂

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I have some chores to attend to but return mid-morning, coated in factor 50 sun cream and with a new book to begin. I’m pleasantly surprised to find that although the school holidays have started, it’s still quiet. Maybe families have gone out for the day. A dog barks somewhere. Somebody is mowing a lawn in the next street. I recline my chair and open the first page but am distracted by a butterfly settling on the banana mint. I watch it until it flitters away.

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In the heat I inevitably start to nod off. I can see the heat shimmering in waves as my eyes close. I don’t resist. The heady sweetness of the caryopteris and the intensely vibrant geraniums appearing through the tall stalks of verbena add to the almost hallucinogenic other-worldly feeling.

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The harsh chattering of a magpie in the tree wakes me suddenly. I don’t know how long I’ve slept. Wondering what has sparked the commotion, I check if my cat that climbs has caused the alarm call. Fortunately, the tree is cat free. I admire my yellow Chinese lanterns hanging in the lower branches, storing up sunlight for their after-dark display.

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It’s time to go back indoors for a sandwich and to top up the sun protection. I drink a couple of glasses of water and remind myself to water the garden later.

Back outside, I decide to dead-head some spent flowers to make room for new growth. I have left the red roses to cascade onto the ground, creating habitation for insects.

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Small pots of wildflowers change day by day. Next year I will grow more. I love the surprise of not knowing what will emerge from the soil.

Last year I discovered Nigella or ‘Love in a Mist’. I was enchanted by the intricate structure and ability to grow anywhere, even from between paving stones where seeds must have been dispersed by the wind. I scattered a couple of packets around May time and the results are delightful once again. They have sprung up in sunny and shady spots alike, and need nothing apart from a sprinkle of water – my kind of flowers!

It’s mid-afternoon. I’m not getting on with the new novel. Life’s too short so I abandon it after five chapters. There is more activity now; a paddling pool is being inflated according to the excited shrieks I hear from two little sisters a few houses down from mine. A hedge trimmer whirs into action, brutally cutting through the tranquility. Two of my cats, also lovers of peace and quiet, return from whence they have been and offer a quick greeting before heading indoors to a favourite chair or bed.

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I follow them. I’ve been lucky and have enjoyed more time to myself than I had expected. In an hour or two there will be barbecues, music and the sounds of play all around. They are joyful summer sounds, and I don’t begrudge them for a moment, but I prefer the quiet. I hear an ice cream van play the theme tune to ‘Match of the Day’ as I go indoors.

I’ve been out for the evening but it’s still balmy when I return. It’s also quiet again in the garden, the only human sound the low indecipherable buzz of a TV coming from an open window. I’ve been told some wonderful news and feel like a glass of something is in order. In the darkness, the garden is a magical place. Lights twinkle. I pick out the shapes of moths darting through the air. Sometimes there are bats, but not tonight. There are always cats though 😁.

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Buzzing After The Rain

Yesterday was the longest day of the year. Recently it has felt most unlike summer here in the UK where we’ve experienced one of the wettest Junes on record. In some parts of the country rivers have burst their banks, turning surrounding areas into flood plains. More water has fallen on some days than usually falls in the whole month. Where I live, thankfully we have not had to endure the worst of the weather, but it has still been cold and wet a lot of the time. Happily, temperatures are rising again now. Yesterday – appropriately on the summer solstice – the sun shone all day. Today looks promising too.

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After a warm dry May, the first rainfall was a blessing, at least for parched gardens. The rain soon outstayed its welcome, but at least the blooms, quenched and invigorated, seemed grateful.

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I cleaned up, resprayed repurposed this old fire pit which I’d hardly used and had become a rusty mess

My garden is tiny but it gives me a lot of pleasure throughout the year. Summer, perhaps unsurprisingly, is my favourite time. I love foliage and, if I could only have one or the other, would choose lush evergreens over brightly coloured flora any day. Happily there is room for both.

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Whilst some plants won’t flower until July there are still brilliant displays of blue and purple amongst the green. I decided this year to work with nature and keep things very simple. Apart from a few pots of gloriously bold geraniums which I love and will always find a spot for every year, any new additions to the garden would be first and foremost chosen as a food source for pollinators.

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In one corner I had previously had a lot of containers. I decided to move most of them as some had long since stopped thriving or even growing at all, and some of the pots looked ugly. I very reluctantly discarded the worst of them and have kept others for reusing. Unfortunately, a solution has not yet been found for industrial  recycling of black plastic plant pots – at least in my part of world – which is very frustrating.

Early in the year I had attempted to train some early-flowering clematis up the fence but sadly, as with all other clematis I’ve planted in the past, it failed. I dug them up and put them back into pots and they still seem to be OK , so with a bit of luck they may flower again next spring. I’ve moved some herbs from their pots into the ground and they seem to be happy enough there. Scabiosa and salvia are enjoying the sun spot along with a variety of cat mint, Walkers Low, which is a real pull for the bees. I’ve left the French lavender in pots as that’s how it seems to grow best in my garden. The bees can’t get enough!

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I plan to place some annuals in the gaps, also pollinator- friendly varieties. I’ll review these each year as the perennials spread and gain height and the gaps hopefully become fewer. Hopefully, in a couple of years’ time, the little stepping stones will lead through an abundance of green and shades of blue and purple.

One of my favourite shrubs is the Caryopteris Heavenly Blue which I planted about three years ago. It is another bee magnet and exudes a heady sweet aroma which I love. I would like to plant more of this but because it spreads up to 1.5 metres I don’t think I have room in a sunny enough spot.

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I’ve sewn a few wildflower seeds in small pots and they have come on well. I can’t wait for the Nigella to bloom in a few weeks’ time. Another favourite aromatic container is the rosemary and thyme against the back fence. The little purple flowers are beautiful and another food source for insects.

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My arthritis has really flared up this year, exacerbated by a knee injury a couple of months ago, and although I love  my little plot the more physically demanding aspects of maintaining it can be very challenging for me. Rethinking my garden, reviewing what grows well and what doesn’t, going with nature’s flow and including more of what thrives easily and with minimal effort on my part is my new philosophy. I’ll be keeping it very simple, providing a banquet for nature if I can, and a place for me and the cats to relax now the rain has stopped. 😁

Keukenhof: A Dutch Floral Fiesta

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Two or three years ago my mum revealed that as a young woman she’d longed to visit Dutch tulip fields. She’s 77 now and although that long ago dream had never come true, she had still thought of it from time to time. Mum had never previously mentioned this ambition as she had thought it too difficult to realise. That’s not completely without foundation; tulips bloom for just a couple of months, mid-March to mid-May, so any visit would have to take place within a fairly tight window. Practically, I’m the only one of her children who could accompany mum on such an expedition, and I can only take holidays at certain times. This year the opportunity finally arose for us to visit the Netherlands during my Easter break.

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The Netherlands is famously the world’s largest exporter of flowers, and nowhere can the glory of Dutch flora be better experienced than at Keukenhof Gardens. Keukenhof is situated in Lisse in the bulb growing region of Holland to the south-west of Amsterdam. The 80 acre park was opened in 1950 as a site for growers from all over the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe to exhibit their hybrids and help the Dutch export industry. 

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The land had formerly been a medieval hunting ground, and was used in part to provide herbs, fruit and vegetables for the kitchen of the land-owning Countess of Heinaut’s castle, hence the name Keukenhof, or ‘kitchen garden’. After the Countess’ death, the land was possessed by several very wealthy owners. Constantly expanding since the current park’s establishment,  it has become one of the largest flower gardens in Europe and attracts millions of visitors from all over the world.

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Keukenhof opens its gates to visitors for only seven or eight weeks each year, so it can be very busy. It was wonderful to see so many awe-struck flower enthusiasts soaking up the April sun and the spectacular vistas. ‘Oohs’ and ‘Aahs’, I discovered, sound the same in all of the many languages I heard as we wound our way around the botanical wonderland.

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Traditional woodland areas still displayed late flowering snowdrops and daffodils, some presented in very artistic arrangements.

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Carpets of tulips and hyacinths rolled out in glorious displays of colour and texture.

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Each year Keukenhof has a theme, and in 2019 it is Flower-Power; a ’60s retro celebration of peace and love. Various exhibitions and installations appeared throughout the park; I particulary enjoyed the inspirarational peace garden.

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Gorgeous seating area
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You can just about make out the pieces of rose quartz positioned on the rooftop to represent love.

Many lakes and water features grace the park. Some provide quieter places to sit – as far as is possible at a popular site on this scale.

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Stepping stone path across the Wilhelmina Lake
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One of several pools and fountains

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Keukenhof Gardens is roughly the size of 80 football (soccer) pitches, so a full day is needed if you want to see all of it. Of course, this necessitates stops for food and rest, all of which is catered for. There are two larger restaurant areas but these do become very busy at the obvious times. Other charming cafes offer delicious coffee and famous Dutch apple pie.

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Everywhere is accessible for prams and wheelchairs, and there are lots of places to sit and take a break whilst enjoying the carnival of flowers.

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This is just a flavour of my visit to Keukenhof; a small selection of the delights for the senses. I have returned with a selection of bulbs for my own garden which – fingers crossed – will be a reminder when they flower of a special kitchen garden that I was able to share with my mum and make a dream come true.

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I wish an enjoyable weekend to all, hopefully one that will include some beautiful flowers and sunshine.

is one of the world’s largest flower gardens. Covering an area of 80 acres it is a celebration of Dutch flora on a magnificent scale. The of the modern   is one of the world’s largest flower gardens. Covering an area of 80 acres it is a celebration of Dutch flora on a magnificent scale. The  of the modern 

Narcissus

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On a recent visit to Liverpool’s  Walker Art Gallery my eye was drawn to John William Waterhouse’s painting of Echo and Narcissus. The painting shows the mountain nymph, Echo, gazing longingly at Narcissus as he gazes even more longingly at his own reflection in the water. Echo’s love is unrequited by the object of her affections and, feeling rejected and invisible, she fades away until all that remains is her voice. Desperately thirsty, but unwilling to disturb his image on the water’s surface, Narcissus eventually dies from dehydration (though in another version of the myth he drowns). A clump of Narcissi, pale yellow heads leaning forward to peer into the water, springs up on the spot.

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Despite the recent return of early morning ground frost to some of our gardens, spring is established. Things are happening in my little patch.

One of the earliest blooms each year is the dwarf rhododendron which I have kept in the same pot since I rescued it from a skip about five years ago. I was told that it wouldn’t grow much bigger even if planted in the ground so I decided not to disturb it. It flowers only once, and only for a short time, but I look forward every March to that exquisite show that tells me spring has arrived in earnest.

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The early flowering clematis which I planted quite recently seems to have taken root. Although it looks so delicate and fragile right now I hope it will provide a stunning backdrop as it climbs the fence and heralds the arrival of spring at the end of March for many years to come.

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The little old spiraea which every summer I suspect has had its last day in the sun never ceases to amaze and delight me with its spring revival.

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Even those plants which won’t flower until June or July are showing new green shoots on last year’s woody stems.    The potted herbs are flourishing, quickly returning in colour and scent.

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At the beginning of December I planted some daffodil bulbs which I’d bought in the autumn and forgotten about . I thought it was probably too late but hope, as they say, springs eternal. Well, spring they did! Some of them, anyway.

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I’ve noticed that many of those swathes of early daffodils which graced roadside verges and parks have now faded, like the lovely Echo, leaving only lowered browning heads  or leaves which will also die back over the next month or so, though below the ground the bulbs will sleep until their time comes again. I’m happy that my late blooming golden narcissi, a few still unfurling, will still be around a while longer yet to make me smile when I look outside every morning. Like their mythical namesake they have every reason to stand proud and show their faces to the sun.

Winter Garden

 

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Winter has arrived. It’s still mild for December, and this afternoon offered some intervals of sunshine betwixt the cloud and drizzle. I decided to get into my little garden to have a tidy up and plant the last few daffodil bulbs.

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It may be too late for these, but fingers crossed. All will be revealed – or not – in early spring.

I wasn’t alone, as Paddy and Cleo decided they would join me.

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Almost everything is dying back or lying dormant, falling in with the primal rhythms of nature. The last of the roses fade. The buds that remain will not open now.

 

Autumn was warm and long, and October brought us ladybirds in abundance. A few are still around.

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The vivid colours of autumn leaves: russets, reds and golds are resplendent.

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The garden is a peaceful place in winter as all slows down. It’s a time to meditate on what has been and what may come in the year ahead.

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To some, the seasons are the same. Stoically, they observe the passing of time in silence. They’ve seen many comings and goings.

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There is still plenty life and vibrancy in the garden. Delicate winter jasmine blooms as the temperatures drop.

 

 

Leaves on the path don’t spoil some folks’ journeys. Even at snail’s pace they’ll get there in the end.

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All that glitters may not be gold but a touch of winter sparkle is always welcome.

 

The evergreens carry on regardless.

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The hours of daylight are decreasing as we head towards the shortest day. Setting off to work as the sun rises and returning home in darkness, it can sometimes feel like winter days pass me by. The weekends still offer the chance to see the beauty to be found at this time of year, literally on my own doorstep.

 

 

Haigh Woodland Park, Wigan

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The school holidays are in full swing and I too am off work so was able to enjoy a day with my six-year-old niece. I let Mia choose what she wanted to do; her surprising decision was to “play golf at Haigh Hall”. I had expected Southport or Blackpool and was secretly relieved to avoid the seaside crowds.

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I have fond childhood memories of Haigh Hall, sitting with my family on a picnic blanket within the walled rose garden, or splashing in the pool.  I hadn’t been for years and had heard that there had been a lot of changes.

There has been a manor at Haigh for centuries with the earliest recorded residents being the Le Norreys in 1193. The most famous residents of Haigh Hall were the Bradshaigh family who lived there from the 13th to the late 18th century. One of the Bradshaigh family, Lady Mabel (or Mab, to her friends) is said to haunt the Hall. Legend has it that during the crusades, her husband, Sir William, went missing for between 7 and 10 years, and thinking him dead she eventually remarried. Sir William made an inconvenient return (there are several variants on exactly what he’d been doing during that period, and whether he could have returned sooner if he had wanted) and to punish his faithless wife for marrying another, the story goes that he made her walk barefoot once a week several miles to a mediaeval cross as penance; quite harsh, I think, considering he’d gone AWOL for several years.

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The landmark officially became known as Mab’s Cross and what’s left of it remains standing in front of a primary school which has been named after it. Although the tale of Lady Mabel’s sufferings would appear to based in fact, some elements of the story are disputed.

The present Haigh Hall – a grade II listed building – was constructed in the early 19th century by the 7th Earl of Balcarres, James Lindsey, on the site of a previous brick building. Lindsey, who had married the heir to the Bradshaigh estate, was involved in its design and oversaw its construction from Lancashire sandstone. The Lindseys continued to develop the early mining industry founded by the Bradshaighs in the 16th century, and during the Industrial Revolution made their fortune from coal and cannel mining. The family founded the Wigan Iron and Coal Company, the largest of its kind in Lancashire, and some mining took place on Haigh estate.

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The Lindsey family sold the property to Wigan Council in 1947. Although I went there quite often as a child, I only remember going inside a couple of times; I don’t recall there being much to see. Haigh Hall was not developed as an historical attraction in the same way that many similar manor houses were and was mainly used for civic and corporate events and later for wedding receptions. It is now run as an hotel and wedding venue. I didn’t go inside but comparing the Hall’s current external appearance with the last time I saw it, I would say it is greatly improved.

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Adventure Golf is adjacent to the proper golf course and for a children’s activity, the course, though great fun, is quite challenging and includes water obstacles. It is much more sophisticated than the pitch-n-put I remember, and I was surprised at how seriously some of the pushy parents seemed to take it, clearly eager to turn their intimidated offspring into future champions.

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After lunch in the courtyard area where 19th century stables have been converted into a deli, cafe, an ice cream parlour and a coffee shop, we walked around the lily pond which didn’t seemed to have changed a bit.

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There’s a lot to keep the kids amused for an hour or two, including a big playground with areas to suit all age groups, a few fairground rides and a high-rise agility circuit for daredevils of any age.

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The original pitch-n-put was still there too, run by Rotary Club volunteers to raise money for local charities – we’ll try that one next time. In one of the gardens, a group of little ones and their parents watched a musical interpretation of Alice in wonderland.

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I was happy to find that at least one of the walled gardens was still filled with flowers and that bees were thriving in the borders.

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Sadly, the fragrant rose garden which had been my childhood favourite was no longer there but had been replaced by a kitchen garden. Unfortunately, the gates of that garden are locked at 3 O’Clock and we had just missed out on a chance to look around though I did get a peek through a gate.

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From there, paths led into the shade and a network of tempting woodland walks throughout the expansive grounds but those will have to wait for a return visit.

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