A tour of the finest gardens of Dorset and Somerset

Thursday 10th October - Thursday 17th October 2024

A benign climate, breathtaking scenery and fertile soil make west Dorset and neighbouring Somerset home to some of England’s most wonderful gardens – and their gardeners. On this Autumn tour, with the West of England at its finest autumnal flush, we embrace the parks and grounds of some of the region’s greatest grand houses and offer exclusive access to its very best private gardens. But as well as formal gardens, you will also experience the wild landscapes of ancient woodlands and beachside cliffs.

We will be staying at historic Symondsbury Manor, near the sea, to enjoy delicious meals, country walks, proper teas and roaring fires. In many ways, this is the best of all seasons in the West Country, as the gardens reveal their form, often blazing with colour. The skies are changeable, and the scents of leafmould and woodsmoke permeate the air. 

Thursday 10th October

Arrive at Symondsbury Manor for a restoring tea. You have plenty of time to unwind and settle in before drinks and dinner.

Simon Tiffin and Jason Goodwin will be on hand to welcome you, and to set the scene with an introductory talk about the gardens and history of west Dorset.

Friday 11th October

The morning is dedicated to exploring the magnificent grounds of Forde Abbey.
Founded in the 12th century by Cistercian monks, there has been a garden at Forde Abbey for over 900 years. The formal layout was begun by Sir Francis Gwyn in the early 18th century and the following century saw the addition of walled gardens and formal Victorian borders. For three generations the gardens have been in the careful stewardship of the Roper family: during his lifetime, Geoffrey Roper planted more than 350,000 trees on the estate. The vast walled kitchen garden, still productive, is a real draw and the arboretum is particularly spectacular at this time of year.

After lunch at the award-winning restaurant Brassica we go on to Farrs, the Beaminster home of furniture maker John Makepeace and his wife Jenny, to explore two strikingly different but equally enchanting gardens. John has created a landscape of order and precision, featuring clipped monumental topiary and
precisely planted grass borders. Pass through a door into the internal walled garden and you enter Jenny’s world of carefully curated colourful chaos; a true
plantswoman’s paradise.

Saturday 12th October

The grass gardens designed by multiple Chelsea gold medal winner Neil Lucas at
Knoll, outside the ancient town of Wimborne, are one of Dorset’s horticultural highlights, and this is the perfect season to explore them. The grasses are stunning at this time of year as the trees and shrubs adopt their autumn colours, creating a beautiful backdrop magically illuminated by the low Autumn light.

After lunch at The Wimborne Pig, showcasing Dorset produce sourced from their allotment, there is time to explore the beautiful Saxon-era Minster, with its famous chained library, before heading to Kingston Lacy along one of the loveliest roads in England, the great beech avenue.

A Victorian treasure house with further avenues of cedar and lime, Kingston Lacy’s magnificent gardens are renowned, not least for the Acer Glade with forty species, and a so-called Japanese Garden, set off by lawns, woods and even an Egyptian obelisk. We will also take a look at restoration work in the huge walled kitchen gardens.

We return to the manor for a late tea, and drinks before supper.

Sunday 13th October

In the morning we leave Symondsbury for the nearby village of Stoke Abbott,
one of the most magical and secluded villages in Dorset. We’ll see the delightful gardens at Manor Farm, Simon Tiffin’s own home, and picnic undercover by the splendid ancient orchard. 

James Crowden, the poet and author of Cider Country: How an Ancient Craft Became a Way of Life will join us to talk all things cidery.

Everyone can pitch in to help press this season’s apples – and try last year’s vintage – in the cider barn!

Nature photographer Alice Tatham is joining us for the picnic. In the afternoon she will be taking us to explore Lewesdon Hill, with its majestic beach trees, moss-clad banks and commanding views over Somerset and towards the sea.

In the late eighteenth century, William Crowe, the rector of the nearby village of Stoke Abbot, wrote a long poem in blank verse inspired by walking up Lewesdon Hill. Published anonymously in 1788, it was a sensation, admired by William Wordsworth, who lived for two years with his sister Dorothy at nearby Racedown House. Coleridge stayed with them and walked the hills in June 1797. Both men were inspired by the poem and referred to it in later years.

Alice will share her photographic tips and ideas, which have brought her an enormous Instagram following. 

Then it’s home for tea and cake.

Monday 14th October

We leave Symondsbury to venture nearby, to the beautiful valley of the River Brit close to the village of Netherbury, to reach Slape: the perfect example of a seventeenth-century mellow stone English manor house. The wonderful gardens were laid out in the nineteenth century, just as Thomas Hardy was working on the design for the manor’s library and coach house. The current owners have been extensively restoring the gardens and rewilding some of the grounds (including the reintroduction of beavers). Slape Manor is also home to the original River Cottage, made famous by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

After lunch overlooking the cliffs at the Seaside Boarding House, we visit the sub-tropical gardens at Abbotsbury. Created by the 19th century diplomat and plant hunter William Fox-Strangways, 4th Earl of Ilchester, the gardens introduced many new species to cultivation in England. Set in a wooded and sheltered valley, leading down towards the sea at Chesil Beach, the microclimate allows more delicate plants than are usually grown in southern England to flourish, and plants that would otherwise need a greenhouse to be grown outside. Today the 20-acre garden is Grade 1 listed in the National Register of Historic Parks and Gardens.

Tuesday 15th October

We set off from Symondsbury to explore Hooke Park, a magnificent ancient woodland that is home the Architectural Association’s ‘woodland’ campus. 

Our walk through the woods will be led by Dorset native Nick Phillips, an experienced (and entertaining!) mushroom collector, who will introduce us to the edible and non-edible species that erupt at this time of year from the wood-wide-web. 

We return to Symondsbury Manor for a delicious lunch prepared by Caroline and Claire. 

In the afternoon, you are invited to walk the Jurassic coast beach at Eype, or to visit Lyme regis with its famous Cobb wall protecting the harbour, before coming home for tea and supper.

Wednesday 16th October

One of the world’s greatest landscaped gardens, Stourhead is the best example of a garden inspired by the great landscape painters of the seventeenth century. The Arcadian ideal was the vision of Henry Hoare, who began laying out the garden in 1741, creating the sort of background scene you see in many Italian Renaissance portraits, including the Mona Lisa; a landscape full of allegory in the form of carefully placed mock ruins and classical Greek or Roman temples and monuments. The autumn colour at Stourhead is magnificent.

After our visit we we will be joined by the garden writer and designer Non Morris, over lunch at the award-winning Roth Bar and Grill, at Bruton’s Hauser & Worth art gallery.

Non will show us around the stunning garden designed by Dutchman Piet Oudolf, a leading exponent of the “New Perennial” movement. The Oudolf Field is a large perennial meadow that flows organically from the gallery buildings. Known for his use of plants with spectacular seed heads, Oudolf has created a garden that has interest year round, in a celebrated Somerset setting. 

We will return to Symondsbury Manor for a valedictory dinner.

Thursday 17th October

Depart Symondsbury Manor after breakfast.