Outing to Hillier Gardens In October 2023

A breezy and cold autumn morning with sun peeking through clouds as we made way for the openair dairy to cross our road.  From medieval times the gardens consisted of woodland and grassland, known as the Manor of Romsey Extra. In 1724 a farmer ‘Jarman’ is mentioned as taking land as a back yard of a house, perhaps the origin of ‘Jermyn’s House’. After being used as a smallpox hospital in the 18th century, by 1830 it had been extensively renovated and the house assumed its present appearance, until it was used as HQ for the local Home Guard during World War ll. 

In 1951 the Hillier family took up residence and three years later Sir Harold Hillier, son of a world authority on conifers and grandson of a Winchester florist and nurseryman, established the comprehensive collection of trees, shrubs and half-hardy plants. Corresponding with garden owners, curators and nurserymen all over the world he expanded his ever-growing plant collection.  In 1977 he left the 180 acres under the care of Hampshire County Council as a charity for horticulture, conservation, education and recreation.

Wandering paths lead the visitor past the trees and shrubs, their leaves on best show during the autumn sunshine as nature’s gilded mobiles (reminiscent of an early nomadic Afghan gold crown) or through the leaves of Nyssa Sylvatica Wisley Bonfire and turning tree seed tassels and cones golden, bringing later festivities to mind.  It was a perfect day to sit and listen to the singing of breeze through a stand of mature trees, better than any Tibetan sound bath. With judicious planting the electric pylons that cross the site are not unduly noticeable although at ground level there seemed a similarity between berberis and their metal girders; some plants took on the aspect of metal sculptures such as Phormium ‘Black Velvet’, and I could not help noticing a troop of wheelbarrows lying in wait for volunteers.

The ‘lady in the lake’ shaded by trees and surrounded by yellow, red hot pokers and bright waterside plants showed not a shiver.  Callicarpa Japonia Luxurians was not the only plant showing off beauty berries; venturing past the bog garden into thick bamboo of the Himalayan Valley ginger plants sparkled their rubies, before climbing to the Gurkha Memorial Garden, where Thomson Rhododendron still flowered amongst the prayer flags. Back to England, with a soft pastel flower border beside Jermyn’s House leading to another path where Fascicularia bicolor took us to Chile and across the way there were alpines, heather and evergreen planting.  A visit to the centenary double border, colourful with yellow ginger plants and a 1950’s colour way of a bronze bananas, pink Amarine tubergenii Anastas and dahlia Bishop of Canterbury, were but a few of the plants on show either side of a central lawn with 22 yard bays. Reflecting Sir Harold’s interest in cricket, tall statuesque trees make and impressive final view point. 

Throughout the gardens wildlife homes are evident with mole hills, bird boxes and a Hadrian’s wall of logs.  Tongue twister signs entertain the young, as well as a sturdy tree house slide, bog board walk and adventure site, also catering for doting grandparents to sit on watch. There is a reminder of the season with a tree the shape of a witch’s hat; an openair sink with cauldron; Cotinus ‘Elodie’ diffused by late sunlight, ‘something ghostly this way comes’ and three small trees in a circle with flaking trunks, ‘when shall we three meet again’?  Unfortunately, I missed herding the committee together for a swing photograph but maybe next year now that more adventures await us in 2024.

Text and photos by Sarah Herring