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Wisley is the flagship garden of the UK's Royal Horticultural Society. The garden is located near the junction of the A3 and the M25, about 20 miles (32 km) to the south-west of London. It comprises 97 ha (240 acres) of every different style of garden, from manicured lawns and rosebeds, to wild gardens, orchards, rock gardens, spreading trees, lakes and water features. Just 20 minutes' drive from Wimbledon, the gardens at Wisley offer interest to all visitors, whether they be fanatical gardeners, or simply enjoy feeding the birds swimming on the duckponds.

To the RHS, however Wisley is also the centre of their research activities, the core of their horticultural trials and the main offices and headquarters. Wisley was the Society's first public garden, and remains the place where the RHS displays the very best of English gardening technique and practice. The gardeners keep the interest running, changing the planting and the layout each year. This was especially noticeable after a very destructive storm hit much of south-east England in 1987. Many of the tall trees on Wisley's Battleston Hill were damaged, or felled by the gales. At the time, many thought it an ecological disaster, but in the subsequent 15 years, the gardeners have made use of the opportunity to create a Mediterranean garden in the well-drained soil on the hill, and to re-model other parts of the gardens extensively. Much of the wood from the felled trees was stored to dry out, and then used by local craftsmen to make fruit bowls and other ornaments, which were sold from the Wisley plant shop to help fund the redevelopment of the garden.

Access to all parts of the garden for non-walkers is fair, though some of the paths are quite rough. A few electric buggies and wheelchairs are available at the entrance kiosk. Visitors are advised to book ahead of time.

I like it in the apple season, when many of the 670 different apple cultivars are available for sale and eating. I like it in high summer, when you can rest under spreading trees, shelter in the shade, watch children run off their energy, and enjoy a rare taste of pure freedom. I love it in Spring, when the early flowers poke their colourful heads through the rich soil. In Winter, it is an inspiration, showing colour and interest even as the frosts form and the snow falls. Wisley always has something to offer to the gardener and non-gardener alike.

Sundays are very busy, with the massed ranks of English middle classes wandering round, discussing their herbaceous borders, but mid-week, the gardens are almost empty, even in summer. In any case, the gardens are closed to non-members of the RHS on Summer Sundays.

For the non-gardener, there is a cafe, a separate fine restaurant, a large souvenir shop and a particularly fine plant shop which offers money-back guarantees should your plants die. Non-gardeners love the gentle walks, the winding paths through beautifully-tended gardens and the open spaces giving a sense of calm and peace just a few miles from the centre of London. Local parents find it an excellent place to meet, as it is enclosed and therefore safe for young chlidren, but there are also vast expanses of grass where little boys can run around until all their energy is spent, and then the parents can eat soup and fresh bread at the cafe, while their toddlers devour pasta and sandwiches.

If you are a gardener (and I am not), Wisley is the place to visit. It is the home of gardening in this land of gardeners. The rock gardens with their cascading streams are always popular. In Spring and Summer, the rose gardens offer rich, intoxicating smells, vivid colours and tremendous control of blackspot. The Alpine greenhouses are among my favourites, showing tiny irises, narcissi and bright blue gentians, picked out like jewels among the thin, sandy soil. For the specialist gardener, Howard's field within Wisley garden contains the National Collection of heathers.

For gardeners who do not aspire to national standards of excellence, Wisley offers demonstration gardens, typically around 10m square, which show how their experts interpret a design brief. Each garden has notes on the type of soil and the plants used, which makes it easy for amateurs and novices to get similar results in their own space.

Unfortunately, public transport to the gardens is very limited. The RHS suggests a train to West Byfleet, and then a taxi for the 3mile (5 km) journey to the gardens, but in summer, the RHS runs a special bus from Woking rail station to the gardens. The RHS suggests visitors phone ahead of time to get details.


A (very) brief history of Wisley garden

Wisley was originally the home of George Fergusson Wilson, but on his death in 1903, the house and gardens were bought for the RHS by Sir Thomas Hanbury. He offered it to the RHS as an experimental garden, and it remained the only public garden of the RHS for 80 years.


RHS garden Wisley Wisley, Woking, Surrey, UK GU23 6QB Tel: +44 (0) 1483 224234 http://www.rhs.org.uk/garden/mn_rhswisley.asp

Opening times (taken from http://www.rhs.org.uk/garden/mn_wisleyadmission.asp):

Open all year, except Christmas Day Winter Hours Monday to Friday: 10am - 4.30pm Saturday & Sunday: 10am - 4.30pm

During the winter the Garden is open to RHS Members and the general public from 21 October 2001 to end of February 2002.

Summer Hours Monday to Friday: 10am-sunset Saturday & Sunday: 9am-sunset (6pm during British Summer Time; last admission 5.30pm)

NB: During Sundays in the summer, the Garden is open to Members only who may also bring either one adult guest or two children between the ages of six and 16 years.

In June and July the Garden is open until 9pm; last admission 8.15pm.

Members FREE Adults £5; £6 from 1/1/02 Children (6 to 16 years) £2 Under 6 years FREE Groups of 10 or more £4 Groups of 10 or more Children £1.60 Groups must be booked 21 days in advance, call (01483) 212307/8.

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