Our latest trip started in Somerset, where we saw gardens designed by three famous matriarchs of English garden style: Gertrude Jekyll, Marjorie Fish and Phyllis Reis, whose ideas collectively changed modern gardening.
First we drove to Somerset. Snuggled into a bed-and-breakfast between Wells and Bristol, we plotted our itinerary, consulting a detailed road map and the excellent Gardener's Guide to Britain by Patrick Taylor. We had also acquired the Gardens of England and Wales Open for Charity, which lists private gardens that open on certain days, but were never in the right place at the right time. I had looked into joining the Royal Oak Foundation, the American branch of Britain's National Trust for Historic Preservation, which entitles you to free entry at all National Trust Properties, plus a variety of discounts. We realized later it would have saved us money.
Our first stop was East Lambrook Manor, home of Marjorie Fish, who invented the cottage garden, in East Lambrook village across from the pub.
Although late June, it was one of those days when you huddle into sweaters and under umbrellas. But the weather went with the garden - a symphony in subtle colors woven and jumbled together, the gardener's hand concealed by the informality of the plantings. We entered through an old apple orchard, where fragrant roses climb each tree, making our way to the malthouse, which serves as toolshed and visitor's center. We were greeted by Andrew Norton, who purchased the tumbledown property in 1985 and, with his wife, is restoring it.
He told us about Fish, who, after World War II, realized that English property owners would have to learn to garden themselves because the days of cheap, plentiful labor had vanished forever. Using Fish's books as guides and getting plant donations from gardeners all over Britain, Norton is reestablishing some of the 5,000 varieties Fish grew, including many endangered plants. And he has opened an adjacent nursery that sells Manor specialties, including hardy geraniums and astrantia, a tall, airy plant nicknamed ``Hattie's pincushion'' that I hope to grow at home.
Features including a row of clipped Lawson cypress ``pudding trees,'' which bring order to the jumble, and the silver garden filled with lavenders and other pale plants that release clouds of scent when you brush against them, left us - just as Fish would have wished - with a heady sense that our garden could look like this, too, with work and planning.
After a ploughman's lunch of cheese, bread and chutney at the Rose and Crown pub in the village, we drove to Tintinhull House, where the garden was designed by Fish's friend Phyllis Reis and restored for the National Trust (after Reis died) by the famous contemporary gardener Penelope Hobhouse.
Tintinhull's grounds consist of right angles and controlled vistas. The path of clipped yews lures you from the terrace into three garden rooms defined successively by an eagle-topped stone wall, mixed flowering shrubs, and a formal hedge around a fountain. A seat carved into the far hedge looks back at the house, built of local golden stone.
The crowded but orderly vegetable garden features berries grown in cages to foil the birds, sweet peas clambering up bamboo tepees, and raised beds with contrasting-colored vegetables planted in patterns. The serene pool room, with its oblong lily pond, is flanked by two flower gardens - one with hot-colored bulbs, annuals, perennials and shrubs, the other, cool blues, pinks, and grays. Noticing how much mileage Reis and Hobhouse got from each plant juxtaposition, we resolved to pay more attention to shapes and textures instead of plunking things in and hoping they'll fit.
The next morning we went to Montacute House near Yeovil, a 16th-century Elizabethan country house also owned by the National Trust. The house is worth visiting, but for us, the 25 acres of garden, planted most recently by Reis with help from Vita Sackville-West, are the real attraction.
The East Court, a grassy rectangle enclosed by the house and an ornate, vine-covered wall, is made for romance and intrigue. Atop the wall, pillared gazebos with curved stone finials invite private confession. Who knows what could happen in the glassed-in pavilions overlooking the deer park? Reis' dramatic, bright-colored flower and shrub borders enhance the airy architecture.
Our next stop was Ilminster and Barrington Court, another National Trust property with gardens designed by the most famous of all British grande dames of gardening, Gertrude Jekyll. We were distressed to find that nearly everything in the house, rented by an interior design firm, was for sale. Although the rain had returned, we enjoyed the lily pond surrounded by raised brick flower beds with roses on posts for height. The walled kitchen garden could feed an army; its produce is served at a restaurant on the property, but we were too cold and wet to find it. The next day, we would see one of Jekyll's masterpieces and we wanted to rest up.
Hestercombe in Cheddon Fitzpaine near Taunton is worth a day by itself. We chose it for the formal gardens designed by architect Sir Edwin Lutyens and planted by Jekyll in 1906. When we got there, we discovered that a 40-acre Georgian ``pleasure garden'' had just opened for the first time in 100 years. We would have ignored it had we not met Philip White, a local landowner who is overseeing the restoration, eating lunch in the tearoom. ``We dredged four lakes, took out thousands of trees, and repaired two main buildings,'' White said. ``And we got the great cascade running again after 50 years.''
We never pass up a cascade. So despite more rain, we followed a winding, woodland path past lakes, exotic temples, and follies to the musical waterfall surrounded by hundreds of tall, pink foxgloves.
The sun came out for the formal gardens. What a sight! Lutyens carved terraces into the steep hillside, and Jekyll made layered gardens ending in a rose-and-clematis-covered pergola overlooking the park. The ``great plat,'' between house and pergola, is a magnificent sunken square bisected by formal beds filled with Jekyll's signature floral and foliage drifts, and flanked by narrow cement water courses planted with white calla lilies and iris.
Our last country visit was to Wilton House, home of Henry, the 17th Earl of Pembroke, whose family has lived there for 450 years.
We roamed the water garden designed by the present Earl, where lacquer-red Chinese bridges link islands of flowers, watched wild turkeys among the roses, walked along the River Nadder to the Palladian bridge, and headed to London.
The afternoon we carved out for the sleepy Museum of Garden History, across the Thames from the Houses of Parliament, was a respite. Founded in 1977, the museum is housed in St. Mary-at-Lambeth Church, now closed after 900 years of parish service. Its serene, walled garden, which contains the tombs of Captain Bligh of Mutiny on the Bounty fame and Capt. John Smith, saved by Pocahontas, is a popular neighborhood lunch spot, with a munching reader on every bench. The main feature is a Tudor knot garden - a geometric design of interlaced circles and squares edged in tiny boxwood hedges and filled with 17th-century herbs.
On our last day, I decided to forgo Shakespeare and visit the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, a horticultural extravaganza in King Henry VIII's Thames-side palace gardens 20 miles southwest of London. Special trains run every 10 minutes during this weeklong event. I arrived on the first train and joined a sea of ardent gardeners pouring into the show grounds like cattle in a roundup.
Although the show, like Philadelphia's, has its share of elaborate, gee-whiz gardens and competitions, the number and variety of displays and merchandise (800 vendors on 25 acres, compared with 130 on 10 acres in Philadelphia) are what make Hampton Court so appealing. And it's outside, the first week in July, when lots of plants are in bloom. So instead of the forced flowers (that never bloom together in real life) seen at indoor, winter shows, the nurseries can make credible gardens. And they sell plants in amazing variety.
Highlights of my flower-show day include a list of new plants and combinations to try; champagne tea overlooking the palace grounds; and the perfume of 20,000 flowers in the British Rose Festival tent. And the shopping.
I spent more than I had, carried more than I could, collapsed on the train, and cheerfully suffered all the way to the airport with my gardening booty and scented memories, already planning the next trip back.
IF YOU GO Days and hours for public garden visits:
* East Lambrook Manor, South Petherton, Somerset. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Mon.-Sat., March 1-Oct. 31.
* Tintinhull House, Tintinhull, near Yeovil, Somerset. Garden only. Open noon to 6 p.m., Wed.-Sun. and bank-holiday Mondays, March 22-Sept. 28. Admission fee.
* Montacute, Village of Montacute, 4 miles west of Yeovil, Somerset. Garden open 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (or dusk) daily except Tuesday. House open noon to 5:30 p.m. daily except Tuesday, March 22-Nov. 2. Admission fee.
* Barrington Court, Barrington, near Ilminster, Somerset. Open 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily except Fridays, March 22-Oct. 30. Admission fee.
* Hestercombe, Cheddon Fitzpaine near Taunton, Somerset. Open daily 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (last admission 5 p.m.). Admission fee.
* Museum of Garden History, Lambeth Palace Road, London. Open 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Mon.-Fri.; 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday; closed Saturday. Free.
* Hampton Court Palace, East Molesey, Surrey. Open all year, dawn to dusk. Free admission to gardens.
Note: If you are going to several National Trust properties, it pays to join the Royal Oak Foundation at $45 for an individual membership, $70 for up to seven people living at the same address. Membership includes free admission to all National Trust properties, and discounted lectures in the United States and Britain. For information call 1-800-913-6565.