The best historic gardens to visit 2021
The results are in. Here are 2021's eight best gardens – including the first-prize winner – as selected by the experts at Historic Houses and voted for by you.
Each year Historic Houses select their shortlist for their Garden of the Year award, bringing to light fabulous creations from all four corners of the UK. And this year was no exception with eight superlative suggestions grouped then pitched together for a public vote.
Historic Houses are a cooperative association of independent historic houses, castles, and gardens who represent, advise, and support their owners so that their buildings and gardens can continue to be enjoyed by thousands of visitors every year and for generations to come.
This year a record number of votes were cast – over 11,000 – and while there can be only one winner (revealed below) their entire shortlist provides an enticing glimpse at some of the UK's finest gardens and an excellent 'must visit' checklist for any keen gardener looking to enjoy the gardening world's state-of-the-art for 2021-2022.
If you're planning a day out then why not spend it in one of the nation's finest gardens?
Here are full details of Historic Houses' top eight. Be sure to click through on each to get full opening times and travel details before you visit.
This year the finalists were…
Doddington Place Gardens, Kent
Landscaped gardens around a Victorian mansion on an 850-acre Edwardian estate.
These lovely landscaped gardens, recognised of being of historical importance by Historic England, are set in the grounds of an imposing Victorian mansion and cover ten acres. They are surrounded by wooded countryside in an area of outstanding natural beauty on the North Downs.
There is a notable woodland garden – especially spectacular in May and June – which includes many different varieties of rhododendrons and azaleas. Also, watch out for the large Edwardian rock garden with pools, a formal sunk garden with herbaceous borders, and a flint and brick folly.
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Extensive lawns and avenues are framed by impressive clipped yew hedges and many fine trees.
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Harewood House Gardens, Leeds
One of England's finest houses with close connections to the Royal Family.
Harewood House has been home to the Lascelles family since it was built in the 1760s and is renowned for its magnificent Robert Adam interiors.
Additionally The Terrace Gallery hosts a changing programme of exhibitions and has welcomed artists including Sir Sidney Nolan, Antony Gormley, and Henry Moore.
It is also home to superb Thomas Chippendale furniture and a world class collection of paintings by, amongst others, JMW Turner, Reynolds, Titian and El Greco.
Outside, an Italianate Terrace, designed by Sir Charles Barry in the 1840s, stretches along the southern aspect of the House and provides stunning views over Yorkshire’s most beautiful landscape and lake.
Crafted by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, Harewood’s landscape encompasses over 1000 acres and represents one of Brown’s most famous vistas. Away from the formal gardens, Harewood also boasts the naturalistic Himalayan Garden which was redeveloped by Head Gardener, Trevor Nicholson.
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High Beeches Gardens, West Sussex
A botanical treasure trove of 27 acres of woodland, water gardens, and a collection of rare, exotic and award-winning plants.
This hidden gem in the High Weald of Sussex delivers in every season: In spring the magnolias and camellias are under planted with swathes of daffodils and in summer the woodland glades and vistas are carpeted with bluebells and filled with the colour and fragrance of the many rhododendrons and azaleas.
In June the ancient natural acid wildflower meadow is a spectacular sight and in August the willow gentians flourish here, the only garden in the country where they are naturalized.
Autumn, meanwhile brings a glorious display of colour provided by the many nyssas, liquidambers and maples.
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Kelmarsh Hall Gardens, Northampton
A brick-built elegant, eighteenth-century country house.
Built in 1732, successive owners and influences have left their imprint on this elegant Palladian style home.
The Hall is surrounded by its working estate, grazing parklands and Grace II listed gardens. Kelmarsh boasts a distinctive Walled Garden, Sunken Garden, topiary and rose gardens, woodlands, lake and herbaceous borders – all designed principally by Nancy Lancaster, with Norah Lindsay and landscape architect Geoffrey Jellicoe.
The informal, feminine designs laid out by Nancy are welcoming throughout the year, and are celebrated for their dizzying array of dahlias in late summer.
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Lowther Castle Gardens, Cumbria
The spectacular shell of one of England's grandest Gothic mansions.
Lowther Castle has enjoyed a rich and varied history. One of the finest Gothic buildings of the north west, the castle was completed in 1812 and for a century or more Lowther played host to the great and the good of the United Kingdom.
The Gardens were first formally laid out in the 17th century by the first Viscount, Sir John Lowther, a profound thinker and – significantly for the gardens – a committed vegetarian. However, in 1936, the castle was abandoned, then occupied by the army and finally in 1957 partly demolished.
Today Lowther Castle has been rescued from wilderness, the castle ruins have been planted and ancient borders jostle with new designs. Its woodlands house one of the UK’s largest adventure playgrounds and in the courtyard, there is a fabulous café and shop making it an ideal destination for young and old alike.
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Penshurst Place Gardens, Kent
One of the best examples of a fortified medieval manor house in England.
Penshurst Place has been home to the Sidney family since 1552 making it one of the oldest family-owned estates in England.
Surrounded by 11 acres of walled formal gardens and housing one of the few surviving medieval Baronial Halls in England, Penshurst Place is an historical gem in the Weald of Kent countryside. The stately home and gardens were once used as a hunting lodge for King Henry VIII, and now feature beautiful staterooms and grounds that are frequently showcased in popular TV and film productions.
Visitors can enjoy a stroll through the 11 acres of formal walled Gardens, discovering hidden corners brimming with fruit trees, an abundance of tulips, roses, colourful borders and water features.
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Riverhill Gardens, Kent
A fascinating garden, 170 years in the making.
The product of 170 years of continual planting by six generations of the same family, their hard work has created a rich and valuable plant collection for visitors to enjoy.
The gardens at Riverhill are an intriguing mix of historic and traditional planting, with contemporary and quirky twists, making it a fascinating ‘must visit’ garden for families and garden lovers alike.
The principal features are the Walled Garden, restored in 2011, with sumptuous contemporary grass curves and frothy fountains, Rose Walk, Italianate terraces and Wood Garden.
The Wood Garden displays magnificent colour from carpets of bluebells with a vast array of specimen rhododendrons and azaleas. The gardens also have fantastic views over the Weald of Kent.
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And the winner of Historic House's Garden of the Year 2021 is…
Gordon Castle Walled Garden, Moray, Scotland
Perhaps one of Scotland’s best kept secrets.
Not only is this year's winner the first Scottish garden ever to win the award outright, it also marks the first time that a single entry has won over three thousand votes in the competition’s 37-year history.
Situated between the River Spey and the Moray Coast, Gordon Castle is an ancient aristocratic estate centred on its ancient castle, extensively remodelled in the mid twentieth century. And Gardens Illustrated even paid it a visit back in 2019.
At almost eight acres in size it is one of the oldest and largest kitchen gardens in Britain and has been lovingly restored to its former glory with a modern design by world famous designer Arne Maynard. An oasis of peace and tranquillity, the garden is also a hive of activity.
Constantly tended by a small team of dedicated gardeners, a myriad of herbs, cut flowers, fruit and vegetables are grown within its ancient walls making the garden as beautiful as it is productive.
There's freshly picked produce in the award-winning café, a wonderful natural play area and seasonal garden trails so there's plenty for children to see and enjoy too.
Gordon Castle itself – a magnificent 15th century house – is not open to the public but is available for exclusive hire, fully staffed. Alternatively for those on a smaller budget you can always stay in one of their beautifully rustic and well-equipped holiday cottages.
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Ben Cowell, Director General of Historic Houses said:
“Our own hardy perennial, the Historic Houses/Christie’s Garden of the Year Award, has celebrated the very best in British gardening since 1984. This year’s winners are no exception. We hope the award will mean many more garden visitors will seek out the horticultural wonders of Gordon Castle Walled Gardens.”
Ed Bollom, Head Gardener at Gordon Castle Walled Garden, said:
“We couldn’t be more excited about winning the Garden of the Year Award. We are only a small and relatively unknown garden and we’ve been working incredibly hard over the last seven or eight years to turn a bare patch of ground into one of the biggest working kitchen gardens in Britain, it has truly been a labour of love.
"Our visitors are often surprised by the sheer variety of plants within the walls. Everything we grow has a use; the vegetables go to our café or for sale direct to visitors, the fruit is used for cider, gin, jams and chutneys, and our cut flowers are used to decorate the castle and holiday cottages or sent off to local florists. We extract essential oils from our lavender and rosemary and the herbs are used in a range of cosmetics. The garden and gardeners work very hard to earn their keep!
"Originally the Walled Garden was used to provide fresh produce for the Duke of Gordon but now it’s used to provide an income for the estate and the gates are open to all. I find it immensely satisfying to see the fruits of our labour being enjoyed by so many people. We want the garden to be enjoyed by everybody and with a hardy band of volunteers, regular trips from the local schools and growing visitor numbers we’re really becoming part of the local community.
"We are so grateful to our visitors for voting by the thousand to help us win this award. We’re still relatively unknown and so the title of ‘Garden of the Year’ will go a long way to put us on the map and spread the word about the project and all of the fascinating things that are going on in our walled garden the far North of Scotland.”
Daniel Griffiths is a veteran journalist who has worked on some of the biggest home and entertainment brands in the world. He is a serial house-renovator and home improvement expert, taking on everything from interior design and DIY to landscape gardening and garden design.