THERE'S more to rural Cheshire than Tatton Park. The country's Year of Gardens is an attempt to highlight some of its many lesser-known green attractions, reports Lee Karen Stow…
Tatton Park’s head gardener Sam Youd, clad in mustard tweed, leans on an umbrella and casts a loving eye over one of the finest Japanese gardens in Europe, now filled with fragrant almond and cherry blossom.
“You often see homesick Japanese students crying as they walk around,” he says.
It’s probably not the first time Tatton has inspired such strong emotions. The historic estate attracts 750,000 visitors a year to admire its mansion, deer park, restored glasshouses and woodland, and hosts the Royal Horticultural Society Flower Show in July.
But Cheshire tourism chiefs want visitors to see beyond Tatton during this first Cheshire Year of Gardens.
The county claims to have more gardens open to the public per head of the population than anywhere else in the UK and is highlighting some 27 worthy of a visit.
These include the newly opened secret garden at the National Trust’s Quarry Bank Mill, a former cotton factory now home to a museum.
“If you think Cheshire’s flat, think again,” head gardener Alan Knapper tells me, as we climb past tiers of gardens rising from a river where dragonflies and kingfishers flit beneath overhanging chestnuts.
He proudly shows how 6,000 National Trust volunteer hours have restored this picturesque pocket, with vistas straight out of an 18th-century romantic landscape painting.
Two miles away is Chester Zoo where, beyond the obvious draws of Raman, the cutest of the elephants born in 2006, and the orangutans swinging in the trees, there is a zoological garden whose tropical habitats have won many a horticultural prize.
A great hornbill flaps above the Asian rainforest and two condors launch from a raised area near the Andes garden, a miniature slice of monkey-puzzles and giant rhubarb. In the fabulous £2million Jaguar house, funded by Jaguar cars, the elegant animals pad through lush green vegetation typical of South America.
Many of the gardens will be hosting events this year. Visitors can join one of the regular walks at the National Trust’s Dunham Massey, where drifts of bluebell now lie in the shaded woodland in the grounds of this 18th-century house, or attend the Pumpkin Games at Arley Hall & Gardens in October.
Today marks the start of the first Tatton Park Biennial, where specially commissioned contemporary artwork will be on display. This includes a pagoda made from five English garden sheds stacked on top of one another, and solar-powered sculptures.
A host of talks and events are planned for the year, from plant fairs to harvest festivals.
Later this month Tatton Park’s Sam Youd will fortify visitors with Pimm’s before his Bothies, Bell Jars And Brussels Sprouts guided tour and encouraging all to sing his garden anthem to the tune of All Things Bright and Beautiful. Altogether now.INFORMATION:Parkmore Holiday Cottages
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£60. Continental Breakfast. The UK's largest, liveliest and funkiest party hostel.... For more information on Cheshire’s Year of Gardens 2008 visit yearofgardens08.comChester Zoo (as before) is open daily; £14.95 adults, £10.95 children.Green Bough Hotel, Chester (01244 326241/greenbough.co.uk) offers doubles from £175 per night (two sharing), B&B. Five-course dinner at the Olive Tree Restaurant £45pp, excl. wine.Visit Cheshire: 01244 405600/visitcheshire.com