A guided tour of Prince Charles’ gardens at Highgrove impresses Jane Moore

I have been to Highgrove twice. The first time was remarkable only for a couple of stand-out moments. It was some 20 odd years ago when HRH the Prince of Wales only opened the garden for special visits and I went there with a Britain in Bloom contingent in my previous life as a gardening journalist.

At that time I was staggered at the sheer scale and expense of the place. It was quite early days then and the garden was only some 10 years in the making and I was more in wonder at the cash spent than the garden itself.

Now it’s been 35 years since HRH began gardening at Highgrove. This spring when I visited again I was bowled over once again by exactly the same things and I’ve seen a lot of very big, expensive gardens in the meantime. Highgrove is still a wildly expensive garden to create and keep, but this time I realised just what a labour of love it has been for Prince Charles. He’s a real gardener.

First Impressions

Working at The Bath Priory I am very familiar with the shabby chic ethos. Our owner likes things to look not new but not worn out, slightly lived in and dishevelled in a charming, artfully careless way. The whole of Highgrove is like this and it takes an awful lot of work.

The Thyme Walk with its golden yew topiaries treads that line of sharp focus clipped shapes and interesting little thymes, primroses and dainty bulbs nestled between the paving underfoot. Not a weed in sight.

Throughout whole sections of the garden there’s a delightfully intimate feel which contrasts with the grander avenues and sweeps of meadow. The Cottage Garden has just this cosiness with its soft clouds of golden philadelphus catching the dappled sunlight filtering through the majestic trees which predate the garden. Dotted here and there are benches in muted shades of blue, green and terracotta. These individual elements are everywhere, as well as odd little quirky items and objects which all go to remind you just how much a personal project this garden is.

The wow factor

Don’t be misled by that artful dishevelment, there’s some intricate and involved management going on here, fuelled by a top notch head gardener and a veritable phalanx of gardeners all of outstanding calibre. No surprise then that everything looks in superb health, beautifully pruned and cultivated with neat hedges and lawns to set off the elegant planting. It’s everything one could wish for and all managed organically to boot.

The really wow parts of the garden are spectacular: the Stumpery, the glorious meadows and the Kitchen Garden are outstanding. Everywhere you look there are beautiful pots and statuary, interesting gates and architectural touches. There are gazebos, rustic cottages and even a ‘wall of gifts’ created from presents given to the Prince over the years by all sorts of people. He gets given stumps for the Stumpery too.

Sense of place

When I visited before I don’t remember really noting how well the garden sits in its landscape but then the garden wasn’t as complete as it is now and I was less experienced. These things really do matter, especially with a ‘nature perfected’ style such as Highgrove, where the garden needs to seep and permeate into the surrounding fields and trees. HRH has a light touch with his gardening and while any formal areas are always softened with gentler planting, it’s the natural style which abounds.

There are gnarled fruit trees with hens pecking about happily beneath them and a couple of meadows. Drifts of acers and hydrangeas sprinkle through the Arboretum while the Stumpery is a dingle dell of damp ferns, mosses and shade loving plants.

The fact that he loves to arrive at Highgrove along the drive with the meadow literally brushing against the car and the grass growing along the middle like a country lane says it all. He told his head gardener that he sees enough tarmac and concrete in his duties and wants Highgrove to feel like the countryside as soon as he arrives. We all know what he means.

My favourite bits

Highgrove is simply one of the best gardens I’ve visited in a long time and it’s hard to pick the stars of the show, especially as you don’t get a great deal of time in each garden as you are chaperoned around. The headline grabbing Stumpery is outstanding in every way from its shady twisting paths bounded by the gnarled grotesques of stumps to the dripping water feature in its green pond that looks like something from a lost civilisation. It’s very Alice in Wonderland meets Indiana Jones and I love it.

Another eye-catching water feature lies in the Kitchen Garden, a centrepoint to the radiating paths lined with fruit trees and filled with vegetables. Highlights include the wall trained fruit as well as the glorious apple tunnels.

The Arboretum must have been on fire this autumn as there are so many acers and cherries there. In spring there are carpets of dainty daffodils underplanting the flowering cherries, as well as the scent of countless azaleas. Prince Charles has been planting specimen trees in this area for 30 years, gradually building a collection many of which he has planted himself.

And doesn’t that strike a chord with all gardeners: that need to collect and hone our collection, to make our garden look and feel like a special place that we have crafted within the world.

Highgrove gift experiences

Spoil a loved one with a Highgrove gift experience, including vouchers for 2018 garden tours (£27.50) or a unique Champagne Tea Tour experience (from £79.95), boxed with the official Highgrove guidebook. All profits from the sale of Highgrove products, tours and events are donated to The Prince of Wales’s Charitable Foundation, which was founded in 1979 as a grant-making body that supports a wide range of causes.

Gift experiences can be purchased online at: highgrovegardens.com

Jane Moore is the award-winning gardening columnist and head gardener at The Bath Priory Hotel.