My husband earned himself serious brownie points on my last birthday. He gave me a year’s membership to the Royal Horticultural Society allowing me unlimited access to their garden advice line and access to their gardens, including their four flagship gardens. With forecasts of sunshine over the bank holiday, we packed up the kids and decided to put my membership to good use and visit the closest of the principle RHS gardens – RHS Wisley in Surrey.
I must confess that I hadn’t envisaged the RHS gardens being particularly child-friendly. I anticipated something akin to the National Trust of my youth – all tutting officials snapping ‘don’t touch’ and large ‘keep off the grass’ signs. I also did not have high hopes of Roo finding the experience overly interesting. I never particularly enjoyed visiting formal gardens as a young child – there was too much time spent lingering over long Latin names by adults and I was occasionally deployed as a kind of middle class Artful Dodger taking covert clippings of coveted plants instead of wallets. Roo is also at the age right now where she enjoys bashing everything with large sticks – stick wielding toddler and prize winning plants did not promise to be a winning combination.
My fears were needless. We arrived at RHS Wisley gardens to a car park milling with children and pushchairs. It turned out almost all of the gardens were accessible with a buggy and as the day wore on, it became apparent that this is the kind of garden that will inspire young imaginations and nurture the aspiring green-fingered child. There is even a kids’ playground but we were far too busy having fun elsewhere.
Roo was into everything. She inspected the industrious work of the bumble bees flocking to the flamboyant flowers of the rhododendron and squealed in delight when coy carp of whale-like proportions appeared to flock (or shoal?!) to her calls of ‘fishy fishy’. The tulips were sniffed expectantly, the hill in the orchard scaled, the grassy banks by the greenhouse rolled down and the names of the more common plants dutifully repeated before she would dash off yet again to explore another corner of the seemingly never-ending gardens. I have never seen a child run with such sheer joy for so long before and hers wasn’t the only young face I saw exhilarated by an overdose of fresh air and natural beauty.
We had a pretty good time too! True to our West-Country roots we gravitated straight to the acres of orchard. Here the apple espaliers which I had thought so creative when planting them in my own garden were made to seem downright boring. RHS Wisley apple trees come in fans, tridons, diamonds, cordons designed to look like hand-rails…you name it! Even the rhubarb patch – a most unlikely candidate for inspiration – was impressive! It is no wonder they have had to come up with an entire rhubarb festival to deal with their glut!
We opted for a lunch stop at ‘The Honest Sausage’ cafe. The food was simple but great quality. Prices were a bit steep in all the cafes but then I suppose that was to be expected from this kind of venue. Plenty of people were making the most of the gorgeous gardens with their own picnic amongst the orchards or bluebell woods.
Further exploration of RHS Wisley ‘s famous formal gardens followed. From the chaos of colour in the tulip beds of the Upper Terrace to the glorious mixed borders and tumbling cascade of plants down a whole hillside of rockery the sheer diversity of colour, plant species and planting schemes was amazing. When I found myself taking notes of the names of my favourite plants for use at home I realised that I have become my mother – at least taking a quick snap of a plant label these days is faster than scribbling it down.
One of the highlights of RHS Wisley ‘s gardens for us was the giant glasshouse. Surrounding by a moat of water, this greenhouse is of epic proportions, similar to those at Kew and the Eden Project. Inside it has been divided up into different climatic zones and houses everything from trailing orchids of astonishing hue to the most impressive displays of cactii I’ve ever seen. There is even an interactive educational section that enthralled Roo with an insight into the secret underground world of what lies below the earth’s surface. I hope she was paying attention to the video animation of carrot fly – my carrots need all the help they can get!
The only downside of our visit was the business side of things. Our trip to RHS Wisley got off to an uncertain start when I discovered minutes before leaving that my gift pack contained an activation code, not a gift card. Said gift card would take 2-3 weeks to arrive by post and the activation webpage was down anyway, with no phone-line help available at the weekends. We went anyway, armed with my gift membership pack but were told we had to pay and reclaim our money when we received our card later. When applying to do so at the end of the day, it turned out we should never have been charged in the first place – all-in-all a bit of a fiasco.
The closing times at RHS Wisley also seemed a little strange – the gardens close at 1800 but as we headed to the exits with the majority of other visitors at a few minutes past five, we discovered the shop already closed to new customers and to my horror (but my husband’s and bank manager’s relief), the plant centre also shut. Aside from being disappointing, it made absolutely no commercial sense to me – why shut a key money generating aspect of RHS Wisley at the very time most people are being corralled out the gardens right past them?!
I would also recommend other visitors to check what is on at RHS Wisley before setting off and to time their visit carefully. There are some great family events that look well-worth enjoying but those wishing to avoid a ten minute sit in stationary traffic waiting to access the overflow car-park should probably not visit during a craft fair bank holiday weekend…
Overall though we all had a brilliant visit to RHS Wisley and left feeling like we had only just scratched the surface of what these gardens have to offer. Returning to the car with weary feet and a toddler exhausted from five and a half hours of almost non-stop running, we were already planning our return visit to see the gardens in their summer glory.
Thinking of visiting RHS Wisley gardens? Check the website for opening times and to find out what is on before you go here. If you’ve already been or have visited one of the other RHS gardens then please leave a comment below – I’d love to hear about your experiences!