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It was like walking into a scene of a period drama. Maybe one of our beloved Jane Austen’s movie sets: expansive lawns, landscaped gardens, the sun casting shadows. Ladies strolling leisurely with lacy umbrellas, fashioning flowing floral dresses, matching sunhats and fans. The men in light attire, linen shirts and panamas. Calm, picturesque with nature’s beauty in my panoramic eyeline

But its August 2020, mid-pandemic and I’m at Wisley Gardens in Surrey. The temperature gauge is soaring, topping the 30’s. Ice cream cornets are the order of the day.  The gardens are vivid in colour, the water reflections sharp and defined from a cloudless sky

Web Use KOSBoasting bonsai and birch trees, lilies and lavender, water and walled displays, sculptures and science, these gardens cover a vast expanse of 240 acres. There is a lot to see, learn and appreciate, appealing to families, romantics and enthusiasts alike. And it’s a learning hub. Which tree is used to clean teeth or to form a new dashboard for your car? Answers can be found by visiting the Jubilee Arboretum while the Fruit Field is a living library of over 1,000 different fruit cultivars.

Planting the first seeds of Wisley was George Fergusson Wilson, a businessman, scientist, inventor, keen gardener and former Treasurer of the Royal Horticultural Society. He bought the original Wisley site in 1878 after which the garden quickly gained a reputation for its collections of gentians, Japanese irises, lilies, water plants and primulas.

It’s wise, so I am told, to plan your route beforehand.  Take a left turn or the right path, straight ahead or the riverside walk, the landscape changes constantly cultivating new discoveries; an array of plant arrangements and carpets of colour, the Glasshouse, Pinetum – the oldest tree collection, a meadow, orchard and a conifer lawn, the list goes on. Web Use KOT

A Jigsaw of Garden Ambiances

There are two walled gardens, East and West, each encasing styles pleasing to the eye. The East features evergreen and deciduous dwarf shrubs manicured neatly into symmetrical lattice work while the West showcases yew topiary cones.

The naturalistic Rock Garden dates back to 1910 and is one of Wisley’s oldest features. A wide variety of plants that flourish in alpine conditions are on show along with weeping trees and conifers. Take care navigating the paths through the rocky stones, following the flow of trickling water to the ponds below. It is well worth the journey to enjoy this Japanese style landscape and the authentic wooden bridge.

The Glasshouse Borders have a different story to tell.  Unusually for any garden, this area flourishes without being fed, watered or staked. These borders stretch 150m (500ft). In cool tones of blue, these prairie-inspired drifts undergo what is known as the “Chelsea chop” to keep them tamed. Low maintenance horticulture at its best.

Wisley wouldn’t be complete without the quintessential English Cottage Garden, more relaxed and creative, blossoming with charm and archways draped in climbing roses. This garden was created by Penelope Hobhouse in the early 1990s and exhibits plants from similar habitats and cultural needs as any typical English cottage garden.

Web Use KOTBy contrast, the Exotic Garden was created in 2017. The plants here have a more tropical look and feel but can thrive outdoors in a typical UK summer climate.  Expect to see palms nudging hardy bananas, gingers and flashes of vibrant colours, ornamented with a stone fountain at its centre.

The Jellicoe Canal on the lower terracing was designed and built in the early 1970s, providing a formal garden area. A huge range of waterlilies thrive here, while the two raised ponds at its head are home to many miniature varieties. At the far end of the Canal is the Water Lily Pavilion while the is set amid a terraced landscape.

The Mixed Borders are often noted as the highlight of Wisley, bursting with palettes of colour and displays especially during the summer, creating a must-see framework to the Broadwalk.Web Use KOT

Walking Routes


Make sure you have your walking shoes to take advantage of the many and varied structured walks which are well signposted. Interesting surprises lie in wait in the form of larger than life sculptures as you walk through different sections of the grounds.

Short but particularly fascinating is The Bonsai Walk, steeped in history ranging from 40 to 100 years in age. It’s an attractively presented avenue of evergreen, deciduous bonsai trees each presented on wooden plinths.

But perhaps the most iconic route follows the Jellicoe Canal which is laced with waterlilies and the Wisteria Walk, when in season. A view not to be missed is the Laboratory building which is set among a terraced landscape and a good place to sit and reflect in silence. It is here that I was joined by one of the resident ducks taking shade and enjoying the stillness and tranquillity.

Scented pathways:

What better way to complete my discovery trail than along the scented pathways spiralling to Viewing Mount.  Escorting me are the fragrant bouquets of lavender and rosemary to enjoy unrivalled views over the gardens. As I look out to a carpet of colour I no longer see a movie set but an expansive English garden estate packed with horticulturalist activity deservedly rated as one of the country’s most visited gardens of the 21st century.

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Tips and facts: 

Shop and graze 

Time for lunch or afternoon tea? There are a number of kiosks and vans for a quick bite with al fresco dining facilities. The Food Hall is open as is the Wisley Café.

Save enough time to browse the Plant Centre, which has one of the largest selections of plants in the UK.

Wisley tomorrow

The RHS was given Wisley in 1903 as an experimental garden. The spirit of research lives on with the Society’s horticulturists, botanists, taxonomists, plant pathologists and entomologists all located here.

About RHS

The Royal Horticultural Society‘s garden at Wisley is located in Surrey, southwest of London. It is one of five gardens run by the RHS.  These include  Harlow CarrHyde HallRosemoor, and Bridgewater (opening in 2020).

Visit http://rhs.org.uk/wisley

For other health-inspired escapes, visit www.thehealthcareholiday.com

Jane Wilson is editor of www.thewellnesstraveller.co.uk and www.thehealthcareholiday.com