PUBLISHED: 16:28 26 February 2009 | UPDATED: 15:49 20 February 2013
Spring gardens never fail to lift the spirits and none more so than Lydney Park. Words and pictures by Mandy Bradshaw
Few gardens embrace spring as enthusiastically as Lydney Park. Its bulb display is measured in thousands and trees and shrubs are chosen for their early performances while rhododendrons and azaleas in a kaleidoscope of colour transform the woodland.
Yet much of its glory is hidden from general view: the house is glimpsed in the distance from the main road while the only hint of horticultural delight is the daffodil-lined approach. Even arriving at the house, home of Viscount Bledisloe, does not reveal the whole picture as the woodland garden - the real star of the show - is concealed some distance away in the deer park.
The house dates from 1876 and was built to replace an earlier building sited closer to the River Severn. From its elevated position the house has far reaching views out to the river.
"I never get tired of looking at it," comments head gardener Des Howe. "It's fantastic."
As befits a mansion of its size and style, the garden around it is essentially formal: a topiary yew hedge dominates the front lawn and gardens to either side are set around circular pools and fountains.
Plants chosen mainly for their contrasting foliage surround the West Fountain, including golden euonymus, spiraea, berberis, rue, bergenia, cistus and nepeta, while low-growing rhododendrons make up the bulk of the planting by the East Fountain.
Against the house walls is a range of early flowering shrubs and climbers - chaenomeles, both apple blossom pink and scarlet, mahonia, actinidia, with its pink, cream and green leaves, and the yellow-flowered Rosa banksiae 'Lutea'. A magnificent Magnolia grandiflora is nearly as tall as the house and is believed to be as old.
Magnolias are the highlight of this formal area and Lydney has a varied collection. M. kobus is an early flowering variety with star-like slightly scented blooms. M. soulangeana is pink, M. 'Sayonara' has goblet shaped flowers that are white with a pink tinge, while the white blooms of M. 'Brozzonii' are tulip-shaped. Some of the trees date back 40 years and more are being added to the display.
In the lawns alongside the drive are primroses thousands of daffodils, their flowers picking up the colour of forsythia and providing a golden carpet under cherry blossom.
And as Des explains, it is a feature that is being constantly improved: "Over the last five years we've planted about 10,000 daffodils."
If trees are your interest, then the deer park is home to several fine specimens including the plane tree with the largest girth in the country. There is also a Tulip Tree, Liriodendron tulipifera, Pocket-handkerchief Tree, Davidia involucrata, catalpa, the Golden Rain Tree, Koelreuteria paniculata, hornbeams, beech and stately old yews.
However, it is the eight-acre woodland that sets Lydney apart from other big house gardens. It was started in the 1920s when the current Viscount Bledisloe's grandfather planted some rhododendrons in a sheltered valley in the deer park. Some 40 years later the area had become overgrown and while clearing it his son decided to extend the planting a create a proper garden.
"It was just a boggy area with a little natural stream," explains Des.
This stream was dammed to create two lakes and a small pool, and specimen trees and dozens of different rhododendrons and azaleas were introduced, planted in bold drifts alongside narrow winding paths.
Flowering begins as early as Christmas with the pink Rhododendron 'Christmas Cheer' and trumpet-shaped 'Lee's Scarlet', while the last blooms fade in July with the bulk of the display in April. Early varieties are found mainly at the far end of the valley with the colour gradually sweeping down towards the entrance.
Among the highlights are the pink 'Lord Swaythling', R. lacteum, which is white flushed with pink, 'White Glory' whose pink buds open to white, and 'Jocelyn', which has purple splodges on the throat of its white blooms.
'Dame Nellie Melba' is rose pink while R. lutescens has yellow flowers with long golden stamen.
"It's a little bit unusual."
Some of the varieties are just as striking for their foliage as for their flowers: R. falconeri has a copper underside to its large leaves that give the whole plant a burnished appearance; R. sinogrande has big leaves with a bronze underside. Both give an almost tropical feel to the woodland.
Despite the underlying rock being magnesium limestone, the rhododendrons are thriving, possibly due to the centuries of leaf mould that have enriched the soil.
"According to the experts we should not be able to grow rhododendrons, but they are obviously successful."
Each year, fallen leaves are raked off paths and left to rot down under the plants, while the rhododendrons grow so vigorously they have to be kept in check with pruning.
Meanwhile, the original rhododendrons - R. 'Cynthia' - are still a major feature 80 years on.
"They are the grand old masters of the valley."
On one side of the valley is a small Venetian temple, dedicated to the memory of Viscount Bledisloe's father. It is a tranquil spot, scented by skimmia and with a colourful display of rhododendrons - yellow 'Princess Anne', red 'Elizabeth' and 'Blue Diamond'.
The azaleas are mainly clustered around the entrance. Small, evergreen varieties fill a border near the pool and the pink-flowered 'Hinomayo' has colonised a small island, while deciduous, scented varieties make a long rainbow of colour alongside the path from white and yellow to orange and red.
"Their smell is almost overpowering."
A talking point among visitors is the curious Lysichiton americanus with its striking yellow spathes that grows happily in the damp soil near the stream. Another favourite are the bluebells that form a carpet under trees on one side of the valley.
Yet it is not the brightly coloured flowers or the stately trees of the woodland that linger in the memory but the atmosphere. There is a sense of being enveloped by the garden, shut off from the rest of the world and the silence is broken only by the noise of the waterfalls, birdsong and the occasional pheasant.
"People like to come here and just sit," says Des, "the flowers are a bonus."
Lydney Park Spring Garden is between Lydney and Aylburton on the A48. It is open 10am to 5pm from March 29 to May 3 on Sundays, Wednesdays and any Bank Holiday Mondays, then daily except Fridays and Saturdays from May 3 to June 7. Admission is £4 adults, 50p children. The tearoom will be open in the afternoons. The gardens are open for the National Gardens Scheme on April 15 and May 12 and the first and final Sunday openings are for local charities.
© Mandy Bradshaw