Secret Gardens… and hidden horticulture hotspots

A new movie adaptation of beloved children’s book, The Secret Garden, has hit cinema and TV screens.

A firm family favourite, this fourth movie version of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s story comes to cinemas as well as Sky Cinema and NOW TV. Raising the profile of garden gems, especially those offering visitors a ‘hidden surprise’, it offers the perfect opportunity for people to head-out and discover their own favourite green oasis.

So, here are a few ‘secret gardens’ to explore… plus some more well-known horticultural hotspots, but with some hidden stories to tell.

‘Potter’ around a secret walled garden

Emma Bridgewater, the classic modern pottery brand, is handmade and hand painted in its factory in Stoke-on-Trent, the home of British pottery and known worldwide as ‘The Potteries’. As well as being able to visit the Emma Bridgewater factory and see the traditional skills and craftsmanship that goes into every piece of pottery, there’s a chance to visit a secret garden too. A piece of derelict land at the factory site has been turned into an urban garden – which is now well-stocked with flowers, herbs and vegetables. A colourful oasis in the heart of the city, the beautifully boutique secret garden is hidden behind the gift shop and cared for by the Emma Bridgewater factory’s gardener and florist.

Explore the garden of the 18th century David Attenborough

For many, Gilbert White may be a hidden character of history, but this year saw a commemoration of the 300th birthday of this pioneering parson naturalist who inspired naturalists from Charles Darwin to David Attenborough. Often called “the world’s first ecologist”, he revolutionised the way the world looked at nature, and his story is mostly told within the walls of his Hampshire family home and its 18th century garden. Today visitors to Gilbert White’s House and Gardens, in the village of Selborne, can discover more about his life and times and explore the garden, which still features the original Haha, Sundial and Fruit Wall as well as the Great Oak planted in 1730. A keen gardener from his youth, it was this interest in gardening that led him to begin his first written work, of recording methodically what he sowed and reaped, the weather, temperature and other details. Much of today’s garden has been recreated using the notes he kept in his ‘Garden Kalendar’.

Journey around a world of colour

Wander Staffordshire’s amazing Biddulph Grange Garden and the world is your oyster… in a horticultural sense. Take a round-the-world trip in this masterpiece of Victorian garden design, which takes visitors on a global journey from Italy to the pyramids of Egypt, a Victorian vision of China and a re-creation of a Himalayan glen. A quirky, playful paradise, the garden was created by horticulturist James Bateman for his collection of plants from around the world, and autumn is perhaps when the gardens are at their most striking.

A Tudor trick garden offers a surprise or two…

Head to one of England’s greatest Elizabethan houses and discover a Tudor-inspired trick garden ‘hidden’ behind a hedge. Burghley, on the edge of the stone town of Stamford, Lincolnshire, not only boasts sweeping parkland largely designed by Capability Brown, but also two formal gardens, including the aptly named Garden of Surprises. Hidden behind a traditional hedge, fun and history combine in this historical ‘trick’ garden, which is based on an original design created by the 1st Lord Burghley back in the 16th century. In normal times jets of water shoot out of the ground; fountains bubble and a gentle rill winds its way, disappearing into Neptune’s shell grotto. There’s also a moss house, mirrored maze, a sun dial, and finally an exit through a curtain of water. Offering a different experience, discover contemporary sculpture in an historic setting in the Sculpture Garden, a mix of open space and trees with shrubs creating natural archways and ‘rooms’ containing discreetly hidden sculptures. Gardens open March – 1 November.

A garden love story for all seasons 

Once a gravel quarry, the intimate, informal and inspiring Dorothy Clive Garden reveals a moving love story. It was created in 1940 by Colonel Harry Clive to provide his ailing wife – Dorothy – with a ‘series of interesting walks’ as she battled with Parkinson’s disease. Unfortunately, Dorothy died in 1942 but Colonel Clive continued work throughout the 1940s and 1950s, especially in The Quarry Garden which covers around two acres. In 1958 management of the then ‘fledgling’ garden was entrusted to a newly established, small-scale, independent charity, which still manages what is now a much larger and considerably enhanced 12-acre garden. Between Newcastle-under-Lyme and Market Drayton, on the Shropshire, Staffordshire and Cheshire border, it enjoys views over all three counties, and is both formal and informal, hosting a network of paths that invite the visitor to explore and discover the intimacy and tranquillity of the garden. Open until 31 October.

A centenary celebration surprise

Last year Hampshire’s Exbury Gardens marked its centenary with the unveiling of a new ‘secret’ garden. Created by Lionel de Rothschild in 1919, a passionate collector of plants and a keen supporter and sponsor of the early 20th century plant hunters, Exbury has grown to become a stunning garden paradise in the New Forest filled with rare plants, shrubs and trees. After two years of work behind the scenes, summer 2019 saw visitors get their first glimpse of the Centenary Garden designed by Lionel’s great grand-daughter and RHS gold medal award-winning designer, Marie-Louise Agius. Contemporary in style, it contains subtle nods to the family history and has been planted with a particular focus on late summer. Open until November.

Fairies, hidden wildlife… and an intriguing 50p piece

It may not be the most secret of gardens, after all it is one of the most visited paid for garden attractions in the country, but there are still plenty of hidden gems to discover within the 725-acre Trentham Estate, on the edge of Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire. Trentham enjoys big skies and open vistas, with a dramatic “floor to ceiling” range of autumnal colours reflected in the lake, creating a photographer’s dream. It may be well-known, but tucked away within the gardens and parkland are sculpture trails, including a Fairy Trail of magical wire sculptures dotted around the gardens and lakeside, which this year saw three new fairies flying in to take up residence. Spot the wildlife sculptures, including magnificent bronze deer running through the woodland, or discover an intriguing fifty pence piece artwork – a sculptural gift from the Bank of England, to thank Trentham for housing the London Clearing Banks in The Grand Hall, during the second World War from 1939 to 1945.

Explore a glimpse of America’s ‘Fall’… in Derby

You may find bigger parks in Britain with colourful displays, but few boast the history and legacy of Derby’s Arboretum – the country’s first public park, and one of the inspirations for New York’s famous Central Park. You’ll find more stateside favourites here too, thanks to American tree varieties the Red Oak, with large pointed leaves – displaying red and russet autumn colours – which distinguish it from native oaks, and Red Maple, with crimson and gold autumnal foliage. Other autumn displays include the attractive yellow and gold leaves of the Silver Pendent Lime, the yellow of Caucasian Lime – with the Arboretum boasting some of the tallest of these trees in the UK – and a Copper Beech, planted in 1889, with its coppery leaves. Created as a haven for textile workers in the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, Derby Arboretum Park – celebrating its 180th anniversary in 2020 – was laid out by John Claudius Loudon at the request of local cotton mill owner Joseph Strutt and given to the city of Derby in 1840 to provide an area for ‘exercise and recreation in the fresh air’. As the first specially designed urban park in Britain, it was created as a botanical tree garden for instruction as well as leisure.

A lost garden marks 20th anniversary

Lincolnshire’s very own “lost gardens” are set to celebrate 20 years of restoration in 2021. From total dereliction to a nationally important garden, the revival of the 450-year-old Easton Walled Gardens is a story of determination and survival. Owned by the Cholmeley family for over 400 years, by the 1900s the original Tudor styled gardens had become so admired that Country Life photographed them. They even drew praise from future US President Franklin D Roosevelt – who stayed at Easton Hall as a family friend, and for part of his honeymoon – who described the gardens as ‘a dream of Nirvana… almost too good to be true’. After the badly damaged Hall was demolished in 1951, the gardens were abandoned to nature for 50 years, until in 2001 Ursula Cholmeley started to restore them to their former historical importance, but with contemporary twists. Inspired by the natural world and centuries of history, the gardens are now well known for their snowdrops, sweet peas, borders and flower filled meadows. Re-opens 12 February 2021.

Most garden attractions require pre-booking, and many have seasonal opening, so please check websites before travelling for the latest updates and any restrictions.


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    Biddulph Grange Gardens,  Staffordshire

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    Emma Bridgwater Secret Garden, Stoke on Trent

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    Trentham Gardens wildlife sculptures

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    Trentham Gardens, Staffordshire

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    Burghley House Garden of Surprises