Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Rhododendron Weekend 14-15 May 2011

The south-east of the UK has many areas over-run with rhododendron ponticum - a purple species of the Himalayan rhododendron, brought to the UK when the species was first discovered by the English, and which became a popular garden plant. However, they proved to be highly invasive, but in their short flowering period, extremely attractive. This year we made a point of catching them at their best.

Saturday started with perfect weather, and our plan was to walk the National Trust circular Woodland Trail on Leith Hill, which takes in the Leith Hill Tower and the Rhododendron Wood. Apart from a few 'wild rhododendrons', this wood is actually a rhododendron garden planted in the 1860's by Caroline Wedgewood, sister of Charles Darwin and wife of Josiah Wedgewood of Wedgewood potteries. The walk through the flowering rhododendrons was beautiful. Not all rhododendrons flower at the same time, but most of these were at their best.

The Leith Hill Tower was built in 1765, and the views from the top are amazing. The day was perfect for distance views, and we were able to see the sea on the south coast from one side, and the Docklands, St Pauls' and the new Shard of Glass in London, on the north side.

From here we drove through small picturesque hamlets, like Peasbury', along purple rhododendron lined roads to Abinger Hammer for lunch. We would recommend the tearooms there for a ploughman's lunch, and the town itself is delightful. Once a thriving town growing watercress, and with three mills on the river, it is small and quiet today, but watercress is still grown, and we were served a watercress salad with our lunch.

After inspecting the Framer's Market at Ripley, we called in again to see what was flowering at Wisley Gardens. Once again, rhododendron were the flower of the moment. They have an extensive area devoted to rhododendrons, and the colours were wonderful.

After such a feast of colour, we decided to finish the day at Valley Gardens in Windsor Great Park. The approach route along the A30, is also lined with purple rhododendrons, and Windsor Great Park is full of purple – very appropriate as this was always considered a regal colour.

The afternoon was so lovely, we decided to walk part way round the lake to the colonnades from Libya, given to George IV. They were set up here as a garden feature, alongside the largest man-made lake in the UK (when it was constructed in 1753).
This used to be a boating lake for royals in past eras. Today, it is open to the public, and a lovely walking and picnic spot. On the north side of the lake, is a springtime favourite spot of ours – The Punch Bowl. This area is a colour-feast in spring, with first the azaleas (see our visit xx), and today it was the turn of the rhododendrons.

When visiting 'High Rocks' in August 2009, we promised ourselves a return visit when the rhododendrons were flowering. Today was the ideal occasion, and the other purpose of the return visit, was the lovely old country hotel. We booked their excellent value 3 course Sunday Lunch. The food is Italian, as are all the staff, and for the first time, we experienced the style of Italian cooking we knew in NZ. The whole ambiance transported us back to what we would imagine Britain was like 50 years ago and was quite delightful.
The rock park was, this time, full of purple flowering rhododendron, and looked stunning. Today, the park was full of rock climbers. We met climbers who had had their weddings at the hotel, and photos against the grandeur of these amazing rocks.

This was a very popular excursion destination in Victorian times, and the trip can be recreated today, by catching a steam train from Royal Tunbridge Wells. The train can be seen from the restaurant, and there is a station at the bottom of their garden. Today, it was Thomas the Tank Engine steaming through.

We made another promised repeat visit, on the way home. Just north of Tunbridge Wells is the Riverhill Himalayan Gardens. When we visited previously, we realised these would also be stunning in rhododendron season. The whole hillside is a vista of different coloured bushes. As it is so sunny and sheltered, these were nearly finished (but still worth a visit), whereas the Rhododendron Wood yesterday, was at its best. rhododendron gardens appear to be very individual in their peak times.

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