English Gardens
Pleasure for all the Senses

The English are known to be fond of gardening and for long English gardens have been a byword for stylish relaxation. But if you're thinking of immaculate lawns, croquet and afternoon tea, then you have only half the story.

I love visiting English gardens, and not just because they're beautiful to look at and relaxing to wander through. To me, they're also a piece of living history, an idea shaped through the ages, forever changing.

And what we today consider a stunning architectural feature or a plot to delight the senses, might once have been important to the survival of the household.

In the Middle Ages, gardens played an important part in the management of a manor house.

Here the lady grew herbs both for the kitchen and for doctoring the household, for scenting linen, for strewing and for helping with the washing and dying of cloth. Vegetables or 'sallets' to augment the diet were also grown.

Not many medieval gardens have survived, but properties like Glastonbury Abbey, Gloucester Cathedral and a number of historical houses have re-created medieval-style herb gardens within their grounds.

It was only later - during the Tudor era - that gardens became ornamental. Those intricate knot gardens were meant to be admired from the windows of the house. I'm not sure they were ever meant to be walked.

Hampton Court Palace has a wonderful example, as does Hatfield House in Hertfordshire, where Queen Elizabeth I grew up. And the garden that Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, created at Kenilworth Castle to impress his Queen has just been recreated there and already looks spectacular.

The Romantic period brought a love of the outdoors and sweeping vistas and suddenly landscape gardens were all the rage for those who could afford them.

For me, they're what England is justly famous for. England just wouldn't look like England without those parks, built on a grandiose scale like those at Croome Park, Stowe House, Stourhead, or Chatsworth Park - all the more astonishing if you consider how little in the way of heavy equipment was available to create the stunning views and water features.

With the budding Empire and exploration came exotic blooms and plant collecting became all the rage. Landscape gardens like Sheringham Park took advantage of blooms that had never been seen before. Where there was shelter, subtropical plants were grown - such as at Abbotsbury's Subtropical Garden - and glasshouses were all the rage to grow lemons, limes, pineapples and peaches.

And then there are the true plantsman's gardens, gardens built to showcase plants in all their multitude of colours and shapes. Sissinghurst in Kent, Barnsley House and Hidcote Manor in Gloucestershire spring to mind here. And then, there's one of my favourites ... the tiny garden hidden away in the dunes below Lindisfarne Castle.

So follow me into an exploration of the best English gardens ... and I hope you'll derive as much enjoyment from it as we do.