On Friday morning we said goodbye to the 17 travelers who joined us for our 2019 Cornwall Experience trip in southwest England. Our group spent seven nights in the coastal village of Mousehole, two nights in the magical Isles of Scilly, and a last night back on the mainland in Truro.
In Cornwall we discovered thousands of years of history, from prehistoric standing stones to abandoned tin mines. We visited picturesque villages once ravaged by pirates and busy seaside towns with white sand beaches. We explored the peaceful Isles of Scilly by boat and on foot. And we enjoyed innovative food prepared using fresh local produce from the sea and the land.
Gardens of Cornwall
But some of our most memorable discoveries in Cornwall involved close encounters with flowers, shrubs and trees in several of Cornwall’s spectacular gardens. As a result of its oceanic setting and the influence of the Gulf Stream, Cornwall has the mildest and sunniest climate in the United Kingdom. This unique climate enables many subtropical and exotic plants to thrive in Cornwall and for plants to bloom much earlier than other areas of England.
These conditions make Cornwall a garden paradise. The county includes about 30 listed and notable gardens, and our group visited six of them: Trengwainton, St. Michael’s Mount, the Eden Project, Lanhydrock House, the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden, and Tresco Abbey Gardens.
We visit gardens on Experience trips in other countries, but in England I consider gardens truly part of the culture. Maybe it’s because the climate and regular rainfall enable British gardens to flourish so abundantly. Maybe it’s the British interest in walking, often with a dog. Maybe it’s the calmness and peacefulness of a garden, much like the effects of a British cup of tea. Whatever “it” is, I appreciate how the British appreciate their gardens and the many beautiful gardens they have created.
Gardens of the Cotswolds
Gardens are also an important part of our other Experience destination in England: the Cotswolds.
Just one-and-a-half hours northwest of London, the Cotswolds are known for rolling hills, gentle streams, grazing sheep, well-preserved villages constructed of honey-colored limestone… and spectacular gardens. It’s a very rural area, with rich soil and regular rainfall, a great climate for farming and also for gardening, though a very different sort of garden than we find in Cornwall.
Charley and I will return to England in July to host two groups in the village of Chipping Campden in the beautiful Cotswolds: a Return to the Cotswolds group and a Cotswolds Experience group. In 2020, in addition to our Cotswolds Experience week, we’re also offering a special Cotswold Gardens Experience.
There are also over 30 notable gardens in the Cotswolds. All our Cotswolds groups visit a vareity of gardens, often as part of a visit to a historic house or castle. This year our Cotswold Expeirence group will visit Hidcote Manor garden, Kiftsgate Court garden, Blenheim Palace, Sudeley Castle, Snowshill Manor and Garden, and the Cotswold Lavender farm. (See my blog posts A Cotswolds Experience: Kiftsgate Court Gardens and A Cotswolds Experience: The Cotswold Lavender farm near Snowshill to learn more.)
Our special Return to the Cotswolds group (most back for their second trip in the Cotswolds with us) will visit Batsford Arboretum, Bourton House garden, Snowshill Manor and Garden, Kelmscott Manor, Broughton Castle, Broughton Grange, and Chastelton House, and will also make a return visit to the lavender farm. Next year’s Cotswold Gardens group will visit at least ten gardens.
In addition to the public gardens, there are many personal gardens in the Cotswolds. Every homeowner seems to enjoy tending a patch of garden. The quaint stone villages are accented by flowers: tiny front gardens, hanging baskets, window boxes, potted plants, and hollyhocks that thrive in just a tiny bit of soil. Our village of Chipping Campden holds an Open Garden charity weekend every year, with as many as 30 private gardens open to the public.
Experiencing a Garden
There are many types of gardens: formal gardens; landscape gardens; flower gardens; kitchen gardens filled with herbs, vegetables and fruit trees; arboretums that primarily feature trees; botanical gardens that educate visitors; wildflower gardens; cut-flower gardens… and more! There are gardens in the sun, in the shade, in the woods, on hillsides, and around water.
You definitely don’t have to be a gardener to enjoy and appreciate a garden. You can enjoy a garden without ever learning a single name of a flower or tree. There is a garden for every one of us and so many different and personal ways to experience a garden.
- Experience the story of the garden. Every garden represents someone’s dream. Learn about the founders and what inspired them, where they gathered the plants, how the garden has changed over time and over the generations. For example, Kiftsgate in the Cotswolds has been developed by three generations of women. Our friend Patti Dalton says she “marvels at the decades and sometimes centuries of passion, devotion and hard work that are evident in the creation of these gardens.”
- Experience nature and being outdoors… the wide variety of colors, sizes, textures, and scents, changing with the seasons. Enjoy the sunshine, the fresh air, the breeze, the clouds, even a light rain.For Patti, gardens are a classroom to study and stay close to nature. You might notice birds, insects, and small animals. Peacocks roam at Sudeley Castle. At Tresco Abbey garden last week, I saw red squirrels and a very colorful pheasant.
- Experience the peacefulness and time for reflection. Find a quiet bench, clear your mind, relax. Research has shown that gardens are psychologically calming and are ‘good for the soul.” Our friend John Riblett told me he avoided visits to gardens as a young man, but today he finds visits to gardens “relaxing for my mental health and learning.” His wife Patti says, “I always leave a garden joyfully inspired.”
- Experience the physical exercise. You can visit a garden just to go on a walk in a beautiful place. Many gardens include parkland with miles of paved or natural trails. At Blenheim Palace in the Cotswolds, I usually walk five miles every time we visit. Some large gardens (for example, Lanhydrock in Cornwall) offer bikes for rental.
- Experience the designers’ creativity. Gardens are an art form and represent creative expression. Appreciate the gardener’s design, how they integrated the garden with existing structures, their use of color and textures, their development of perspective.
- Experience your own creativity. You may enjoy sketching or painting in a garden or taking photos in a garden. It’s difficult for me to truly enjoy a garden without my camera, because the camera forces me to observe the garden more carefully, as I watch for small details and also for the grand views.
- Experience inspiration for your own garden. Many more serious gardeners look for ideas for their own garden, identifying plants that appeal to them, that may be compatible with their own garden conditions, and combination of plants that are especially appealing. You can record ideas with your camera or in a notebook. And although our travelers can’t take plants home, most gardens also have “plant sales” where you can identify the plants you most enjoyed, as well as a shop that includes garden-related books and products.
- Experience the homes, castles and museums that host the garden. Many gardens in the UK are situated around historic buildings… the garden is just one part of a bigger complex. You can often visit a castle or palace, an historic home, or a museum on the same grounds. At Tresco Abbey garden in Cornwall, Charley’s favorite place is the Valhalla museum, containing some 30 ship figureheads, as well as name boards and other decorative ships’ carvings from the days of sail. He likes to imagine the stories of the men on board those ships.
- Experience works of art. Many gardens integrate sculptures, fountains and other art pieces into the garden design, adding variety and interest. The Barbara Hepworth garden in St. Ives, Cornwall combines her unique sculptures with carefully-selected plants. Kiftsgate Court garden in the Cotswolds was developed by three generations of women and includes several unique sculptures related to women.
- Experience the changing seasons and the passage of time. If you’re able to visit a particular garden on a regular basis, you can appreciate the impact of the different seasons, as well as how the garden changes over the years. We’re excited about hosting groups in Cornwall next year in both the spring and the fall, as the gardens will be different.
- Experience a garden with a friend or loved one. John and Patti enjoy the experience of visiting gardens together. As John says, “I thoroughly enjoy the discussions with my wife as we visit and tour each new garden.”
Our Cotswolds and Cornwall trips include many other experiences unique to each area, but in England, the gardens are always an important feature. In 2020 we’re excited to be offering a special version of our Cotswolds week with an additional focus on gardens. Join us on one of these trips and find your own meaningful garden experience:
- The Cornwall Experience (April 21 – May 1, 2020 – waiting list only)
- The Cotswold Gardens Experience (July 4 – 11, 2020)
- The Cotswolds Experience (July 11 – 18, 2020)
- The Cornwall Experience (September 5 – 15, 2020)
We’d love to have you join us to experience the Cotswolds or Cornwall and their glorious gardens!
Kathy and Charley Wood founded European Experiences in 2006 European Experiences, offering week-long “slow tours” in some of the most beautiful areas of Europe. They have personally hosted 124 Experience groups. Their trips include The Luberon Experience in Provence, France, named one of the top 50 tours in the world by National Geographic Traveler magazine.
Kathy hosts Experience weeks in the Luberon, the Chianti region of Tuscany, Puglia, Alsace, the Dordogne, and the Cotswolds. Charley is now mostly retired but continues to co-host two longer tours with Kathy: The European Christmas Experience (12 days) and The Cornwall Experience in southwest England (10 days).
Kathy has been traveling in Europe for 30 years and loves sharing her special places in Europe with other travelers. The Woods have a second home in their beloved village of Bonnieux in the Luberon. Read more about Kathy and Charley here.
Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.