Yesterday, on a freezing December day, I visited the RHS gardens at Wisley for the first time. I’d been longing to go there for years. It was not, perhaps, the best time to see the gardens but, on the other hand, it wasn’t too crowded, there was still plenty to see, and the Coffee Shop and the Glasshouse Café were both very welcoming when our fingers got numb and coffee – or lunch – called.

Lake with Laboratory in the background

The Royal Horticultural Society’s Gardens at Wisley are known and respected throughout the world, not only for the diversity of the plant collection; it is also home to the Laboratory which accommodates the centre’s scientific staff and the School for Horticulture which trains gardeners of the future.

Tulip lights in lake

The first thing I noticed was that the lakes were full of huge scarlet tulips and white lily or snowdrop-like flowers – which obviously light up at dusk. This is a special Christmas sight and, as gardens are open until 8pm, they must look spectacular. Unfortunately, mine was a morning to lunch time visit.

Skeleton of an oak with conifers on either side

Even without the flower lights, there are plenty of other things to see. I loved the skeletons of the trees on the skyline, particularly the oak. The oak has always been my favourite tree: oaks offer homes to the most creatures; their leaves and bark are instantly recognizable; I love the way that acorns fit so neatly into acorn cups, and – which thrilled me as a romantic child – it was an oak tree which hid the future Charles II from the Roundheads when he fled after the battle of Worcester in 1651. They’ve always been special trees to me.

Decorative seed heads with beech hedge behind

The head gardener at Wisley plainly has an eye for which plants will look good together once the flowers have gone, as the above photo shows. There is a lot of beech hedging at Wisley, perhaps because it’s a tree which keeps its dense coppery autumn leaves well into winter.

Waterfall in the rockery

The rockery with its hard landscaping which allows the yellowy moss-encrusted steps to show up, and the orange leaves in the water to echo the colour of the beech tree behind, draws the eye. The rockery is designed so that you can climb up and over it – at which point I realized that my layers of thermal vest, warm shirt, Shetland wool jumper and a heavy woollen coat, not to mention jeans, winter tights and warm boots, might well weigh a stone or more. (If you don’t believe me, try standing on the bathroom scales when wearing full winter outdoor gear and see for yourself.)

Callicarpa bodinieri ‘Imperial Pearl’

On the way down we passed a small shrub with the most astonishing amethyst-coloured berries which glowed like jewels. I loved the Flower Fairies as a child, and I could just picture one of Cicely Mary Barker’s fairies wearing a necklace of those vivid berries.

Orchids in the Tropical Zone

We visited both the Tropical Zone and Moist Temperate Zone glasshouses but, alas, the lens on my camera kept misting over and most of my photos came out covered in a fine haze. However, I did manage to photograph these sophisticated orchids with their subtle colours.

Orchids in the Moist Temperate Zone

This colourful display of orchids and the long yellowy strands of the plant on the right were very cheering on such a cold day. You can see the condensation on the window behind – but, fortunately, my camera lens was unaffected this time.

Friendly robin on post

There were lots of birds around but most of them were too far away to photograph – I tried to stalk a wren, but failed. However, a friendly robin allowed me to get this close up. One would think that a red-breasted robin would stand out anywhere, but he’s well camouflaged by the fallen leaves from a conifer.

Beech pillars, dried grass stems and the skeletons of trees

My last photo shows what can be done by a clever garden designer with assorted autumnal colours, shapes and sizes. I like the geometrical pillars of beech seen through the yellowy grass stems, with the bare trees behind.

We’d been at Wisley for about two-and-a-half hours and, in spite of warming-up coffee and lunch breaks, we were increasingly feeling the cold. It was time to go home.

I’d love to visit Wisley again in the spring.

Elizabeth Hawksley

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2 Responses to Winter Walk at RHS Wisley

  • Not the best day for it, Elizabeth! But nevertheless a very inspiring set of photographs and information. It’s amazing how the design allows for winter. I hadn’t thought of this before, but clearly designers have to keep the cold seasons in mind as well as the summer flowers. It looks as if it is beautiful in life.

    • Thank you for your comment, Elizabeth, I’m delighted that you enjoyed it. Yesterday, as I was walking around the garden holding my camera and my fingers growing number by the minute, I kept thinking: Would this photograph well? And I realized like you, that everything I was looking at had been very carefully designed for year round appeal. And, of course, there are thousands of bulbs underground just waiting for spring.

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