I have always loved rhododendrons. From an early age I remember playing hide and seek inside old specimens at Saville Gardens which was close to my family home. The flowers are everything I like in a flower – blousey, exotic, bright but it is also the whole structure of the plant that delights me. I should clarify that I am talking about mature specimens here not the neat dwarf tidy examples that are now prompted for the small garden or to grow in pots if you don’t have the right soil. It is the strange peeling bark, the twisted and contorted branches, the large glossy leaves I love. As a small child they were magical to be in and my imagination has been caught ever since.
Recently I have had a longing to see some large rhododendrons again. I have missed them since we moved here in 2000. Although they will grow in this area and you see many examples, including one or two smaller ones in my own garden, I think I was looking for somewhere that would bring back the excitement and wonder I remember as a child. I had read about the Dorothy Clive Garden in Shropshire but its a 3 hour round trip and seemed a little far. Then I remembered that Hergest Croft in Herefordshire had rhododendrons. I peered at the photographs on their website and decided that this might be the place for me and only a 2 hour round trip.
Hergest Croft is the home of the current President of the RHS, Elizabeth Banks and unsurprisingly the horticulture is of a high level. There is a wonderful rock and pool garden where masses of ferns were unfurling and all sorts of other delights but I knew the rhododendrons demanded a 20 minute walk out of the garden proper, across a field full of gamboling lambs and finally through beech wood. Hergest Croft whilst being well-known isn’t that well visited. I suppose it’s a bit of a trek for many people being on the English/Welsh borders and so I doubt there were more than 20 or 30 people visiting on Sunday afternoon and I only encountered one or two during my walk to Park Wood, where the rhodendrons were.
I passed through the beech wood (top photo) and the bright sunlight was illuminating the leaves giving a wonderful iridescent glow. The birds sang and it was just me out exploring. Then as my map indicated I was getting closer there were glimpses of bright colour high up in the tree canopy and I mean high. I am no judge of size and distance but I would say 30ft at least in some cases. This is somewhere where you have to look up above you as much as in front, to the sides and down.
As you enter the rhododendron area there is a large pool which is fed by a small stream trickling down the hillside. The water then exits the pool by a small waterfall and continues down the side of the hill. So if you can imagine the silence only interrupted by bird song, running water and the occasional breeze through the trees. At this point I felt quite overwhelmed, ridiculously so. I felt transported back to the emotions I had experienced as a child. Here I was surrounded by vast, giant, enormous rhododendrons, smothered in flowers – it was magical and the walk was certainly worthwhile.
If you have ever visited the Lost Garden of Heligan and been bowled over by the hidden valley where there are vast tree ferns and palms and you feel like you have stumbled on a lost world then this is similar except with rhododendrons. The fanciful part of my nature wondered if what I was seeing was anything like the planthunters experienced when they discovered the rhododendrons in the mountains and valleys of China but then I heard a distant voice of another visitor and I was brought back to the here and now.
The map takes you on a loop round the main rhododendron area on either side of the stream and you see gunnera emerging from its winter break, sunk cabbage with its yellow flowers just appearing under vast elephant ear like leaves. The ground is littered with fallen flowers but also with last year’s fallen leaves and in at least two areas these had decayed slowly and become leaf skeletons which was quite a strange site.
I took so many photographs and few, if any, do the wood justice or give a sense of the size and scale of the plants. I don’t know how long ago they were planted but the current custodians are the third generation and I think I saw a plaque commemorating 100 years of the garden.
Sadly the heat of the day started to get to me and a cooling drink beckoned so I walked back through the shimmering beech wood, past the lambs who were frolicking this time and returned to the formal gardens.
You know you are in the formal gardens as you pass through a set of these rather superb wrought iron gates. The tree behind them, an acer I think, was also lit by the sun and was being much photographed. I could have gone on to visit the azalea glade but the flowers were only just opening and to be honest I didn’t want to dilute my rhododendron experience. I did however visit the kitchen garden and orchard on my way to the car as I had really liked this part of the garden when I previously visited with Michelle (aka Veg Plotting) some years ago – we had decided it was as we imagined Mr McGregor’s veg garden to be. This time early in the season it was the spring bulbs in the ancient orchard that stole the show and I will try to remember to show you those later on.
Suffice to say that I hankering to find some vast rhododendrons in order to relive my childhood memories has been satisfied. I will be going back maybe later this year to see the acers in the Autumn but I will definitely be going back soon.