To Bowood on a rainy day to visit the Rhododendron Walks, open for the first time this year. It is almost incredible that England still has such wonders under wraps, but the Lansdownes have kept this separate part of the gardens, miles across the estate from their celebrated Capability Brown lake and spectacular water gardens, as a private enclave around the Robert Adam family mausoleum.
Why miles away? Like many rhododendron collections it relies on greensand, ridges of which crop up on high ground, principally in Kent and Sussex but also in a line between Poole harbour and the Wash. At St Clere in Kent, for example, the Pinetum perches remotely and incongruously on top of the North Downs; beech hangers below, conifers and rhododendrons on top.
At Bowood the woodland garden is sheltered and framed by oaks, and some of the most venerable beeches I have ever seen, on a series of steep spring fed slopes that offer everything rhododendrons could need: shelter, moisture and air-drainage.
Some of the first collections from the Himalayas were planted here in the days of Sir Joseph Hooker, by the great great grandfather of the present marquess. Subsequent Lansdownes have added to what is now a woodland garden of extraordinary beauty, while the present marquess, the eighth, is a full-time hands-on gardener. I am no rhododendron expert, and easily impressed by a bush thirty feet high covered in huge pale pink flowers giving off sweet scents. When I am told that it is one of the earliest hardy hybrids with Himalayan blood, and that its name is lost in time, I can only nod in assent. It is clear why such creations became the show-flowers of the great, raised and selected with as much care as their race-horses.
Satiety would soon be reached, though, if they were too densely planted. It is the beauty of Bowood that there is space and variety, that glades and rides, pools of bluebells and grass open to the sky make it a magic wood rather than a rhododendron forest, There is the delicacy of white dogwoods, the brilliance of Pieris, one the size of a cottage, and above all, here and there among the rich green and the pale glades, floating over the bluebells, the sumptuous near blues and purples of Rhododendron augustinii.
If I were to have one rhododendron it would be this native of Sichuan, the nearest flowers to blue produced by its tribe. In fact it is the only species I have planted in our North Welsh woods. (R. ponticum needs no planting). Ten years or so ago I planted a dozen plants around a waterfall and along a stream under beech and larch. Accidents happen in a forest; sheep the most frequent. Eight of my augustiniis survive, now ten feet high, their feet in bluebells. Why didn’t I plant fifty?
The rain at Bowood, at least in retrospect, was like the creative touch of a great director. The shine and drip (it didn’t pour), the grey light and the cool soft air completed the magic and made the exotic (even the ultra-exotic) seem believable.