Visit to Bicton Botanical Garden – May 2023

May, a time for making elderflower cordial, heading west, may and cow parsley dotted creamy white about the landscape, deeper into Devon a blue haze settled over woods and valleys.

Taking the woodland railway gave a wider view of the park than would be possible by foot in a few hours: we rattled along with view of the orangery above formal Italian style gardens, reminiscent of ‘Babar King of the Elephants’.  Passing from sunlight to shade, very close to the trees in the renowned woodland and pinetums, Georgian Bicton College came into view set on a knoll above the great lake, and a Japanese Pagoda.

Decanting the train there was a small bright display and educational glasshouse across from a dry Elephant water feature before passing into the Orangery, built in the 1730’s, and housing a limited cafeteria but with a relaxing view over swathes of lawn surrounded by mature trees.  At the bottom of the slope lies the large mirror pond with gushing fountain, unlike the cherubs at the top of the slope among the recently planted formal beds and urns, holding up dry ones.  At each corner of the pond are high plinthed renaissance statues, apart from ‘Mary had a little lamb’, one could imagine a conversation between the young man holding his shotgun above a lifebuoy and the young woman, “Desist sir, such assistance as I require need be for a ladder” while a swan glided serenely along and gave the ducks and geese the once over. 

Beyond the pond is the foreboding mid-19th century mausoleum built on the site of the medieval church, part of whose ruins lie to its west front.  There are two ways back over the stream from the pool, over a modern foot bridge and under a gazebo of white roses or over a more rustic bridge and into the American garden with brilliant blue iris and gunnera before passing under orchard trees and past a fernery to rejoin an herbaceous border the other side of the wall and the scented rhododendron.

Adjacent to the orangery are glasshouses for temperate, arid and tropical plants, exotic and educational, peering through the bromeliads was a single handled opening mechanism for all the windows.  Set above a rose garden, with benches suitable for Barbie, is the domed palm house, unadorned but for rills, 18,000 glass panes and large palms growing under gravel, dry, uncluttered and hot; although a Chamaedorea Radicalis, from Mexico, survives at minus eight centigrade.

Passing a wildflower bank, in full glory, above the countryside museum, where objects and historic films recalled a childhood of life back then… and before.  Old notice boards hung on the walls giving encouragement

A clean House and a well cultivated Garden

Should be the Cottagers pride

or plainly stating what was disallowed for public right of access. Surprisingly nothing has changed as the same problems still apply: camping, lighting fires, vandalism, littering anti-social behaviour etc.

With a view to climate change the Mediterranean Garden experiments with plants which are suitable for the water wise gardener, and is never watered. The blue of the pergolas and pots set on the slope amidst drought tolerant trees, palms, shrubs and plants were stunning with steps leading down to a shaded patio table and chairs, perfect for a writer or pre-dinner drinks.

A return visit in spring or autumn to view the park colours maybe desirable, until then

God Speed the Plough…

I have lawns, I have bowers

I have fruits, I have flowers …

Long life and success to the farmer …

or, in our case, the gardener.

Text & Photographs by Sarah Herring