Complete 1500 word article. More pictures available

IT'S THE 'YEAR OF GARDENING' IN BRITAIN AND THE FLOWERS ARE BLOOMING

by Pam Hobbs

All that changed a century later with new plants arriving from exotic overseas destinations. As far back as the 18th century botanists from Kew Gardens were sent off on plant-hunting expeditions around the world. Still it was some years before the common folk could afford to brighten areas around their cottages with flowering shrubs and plants. Now conservation is the focus, gardening is a passion, and when they aren't working in their own gardens Brits love to visit others, for ideas, for tips from experts, and simply for the pleasure of it all.

2004 has been declared The Year of Gardening throughout Britain, in part because the nation's Royal Horticultural Society is celebrating its 200th year with flower shows, concerts, art exhibits and lots of special events. There are guided Garden Tours (including several from Canada) as well as garden maps for independent travel and a new 46 page booklet on Britain's gardens, which are yours for the asking.

VisitBritain's map will guide you to gardens in every part of the country from the Channel Islands with their sub-tropical gardens and popular Battle of the Flowers parade, to Inverewe Garden in northern Scotland whose plants imported from around the world now prosper on the shores of Loch Ewe. Meantime we have chosen four gardens close to London, each of which is guaranteed to give you a memorable half or full day trip out of the city.

SISSINGHURST CASTLE GARDEN IS ONE WOMAN'S LABOUR OF LOVE

In 1930 when author/poet Vita Sackville-West moved her young family into Kent's Sissinghurst estate the buildings were derelict, the gardens littered with centuries of trash. Yet here her two great talents met and prospered, as she gardened by day and wrote through the night.

The magic here lies in Vita's knack for mixing flowers for all seasons in ten gardens which she looked on as roofless rooms, divided by tall hedges. In places the flowers appear to have grown with minds of their own, when in fact every centimetre of space was meticulously planned and cultivated. My favourite is a ghostly tapestry of whites and greys which is her fabled White Garden.

Wild flowers were important to Vita who allowed that they have as much right to be here as her cultivated blooms. In consequence violets and primroses are tiny jewels sparkling on the orchard's floor. Bluebells arrived inadvertently 70 years ago when she lifted loads of leaf mould from the woods to provide a bed for her azaleas.

The estate's l9th century Castle Farm is now a handsome B & B. Housed here on the grounds I walked in the woods at dusk, and around the moat in early morning when only the gardeners and rabbits are about. My thoughts then wwere on Vita Sackville-West, and this perfect place where her two great talents met to inspire each other .

RHS GARDEN WISLEY

I first discovered Surrey's RHS Garden Wisley three years ago when a friend suggested I meet her there before continuing on to her nearby home. Since then I have returned twice more, each time with her children, Harry and Hannah (now 4 and 6 yrs old) as my enthusiastic guides. They come often they said, for the story-telling sessions, and ice-lollies, and a run in the open areas. During last year's visit they gleefully introduced me the new Golden Jubilee Rose Garden and a variety of pumpkins being grown for Hallowe'en.

Wisley is the flagship of the Royal Horticultural Society's four gardens across Britain. It is so popular that from early May through September a special garden bus meets rail passengers from London disembarking in Woking.

Founded in 1804 The Royal Horticultural Society is Britain's gardening charity, committed to "improvement of the practice of horticulture", through its gardens, flower shows such as the renowned Chelsea Flower Show in May, concerts and other entertainment in garden settings.

This original garden was given to the Society by a keen gardener and former RHS Treasurer, George Ferguson Wilson, in l903. He had established an experimental garden with the idea of making 'difficult plants grow successfully', and today's prolific Wild Garden is a direct descendant of it. So are the collections of lilies, Japanese irises and water plants which continue to flourish. More property was added over the years, until the gardens now cover 24 hectares.

There is always something going on here, especially at weekends: guided walks, talks, craft sessions, flower arranging, photographic workshops - open to members at discounted prices, and to the general public for a little more. Often art and sculptures are on sale

The Wisley Shop has a huge selection of gardening books, tools, and packaged seeds. The Terrace Restaurant and Conservatory Café serve hot and cold meals, as well as scrumptious Afternoon Teas.





HAMPTON COURT IS BRITAIN'S OLDEST TUDOR PALACE

Beautifully sited on the banks of the River Thames, Hampton Court Palace fairly reeks of its centuries of history and intrigue. Built by Cardinal Wolsey in 1514, its gardens were laid out in their present style for William ll a century or so later, and the famous 1,350 sq metres maze created in 1690 for William of Orange. When Capability Brown was the estate's head gardener he is said to have planted what is now known as The Great Vine for George 111. The world's oldest known vine, it still produces up to 318 kgs of grapes each year.

The world's largest flower show is held here every July (6-11 this year) featuring floral displays and show gardens. If roses are your first love, you will want to be here then, for glorious exhibits presented by the Royal National Rose Society and British Rose Growers' Association.

The palace's own rose gardens are truly spectacular. Check out the grand over-all view from the Tudor style raised walk, and the orangeries for their statuary. Join a historical costumed garden tour (June 5 - September 25) And don't be shy about going into the maze. The story about a tourist who disappeared into it in l970, not to be seen ever again? It is probably untrue.

If you are taking in the palace as well as the gardens you will want to make a full day of it, perhaps lunch at one of the riverside pubs, and travel by river boat from Westminster instead of hopping a train from Waterloo.

KEW GARDENS IS THE ALL-TIME FAVOURITE

The current buzz at this grand-daddy of Britain's botanic gardens is that, after decades of scouring exotic locations for new species of orchids, resident botanists have just found one in one of their own greenhouses. What's more, the 2 metre high plant has been growing in full public view for 13 years! Mind you, with so much happening at Kew, it isn't too surprising that an orchid incorrectly identified as a seed could be overlooked for so long - especially when you know these former royal properties now cover121 hectares.

A good place to start your tour is the Visitor Centre where the gardens' 250 yr history is spelled out, and you can pick up a map to save unnecessary walking. Much of Kew's charm lies in its spacious informal landscapes. By the 20th century, the gardens were receiving 2,500 packets of seeds a year from overseas, which means you can now see just about everything from massive Chinese rhododendron bushes to the smallest alpine flowers.

Kew's most famous building is its enormous l9th century Palm House flanked on one side by statues of the Queen's Ten Beasts and on the other by a rose garden. The most photographed structure is a l0 storey pagoda designed for Princess Augusta who started the gardens in 1759. One of my favourite spots is a herb garden with each plant labelled in Olde English so we know which ones ease toothache, and what will combat "the rank smell of armholes" Several plants are said to "exhilarate and make the minde glad."

For lunch or tea I suggest a restaurant called The Original Maids of Honour across from the gardens, where Maids of Honour tarts are baked from a recipe used for Henry Vlll. These and savouries can be purchased for a picnic or served in the dining room. Either way you'll not need a plant to make your minde glad, because the veal, ham and egg pie will do as much and more.

For more information on Britain and its gardens click onto www.visitbritain.com/ca or telephone: 1-888-VISIT UK for a free Britain's Gardens map and booklet.