Summer is here and the weather was wonderful (until today's torrential rain!), so why not venture out to Dorset, where there are some really magnificent gardens? You could do two or three in a day if you were determined, so in the first of a series of musings about Thomas Hardy country, I can tell you about some of the historic houses with wonderful gardens that I rate as "unmissable" in this glorious part of England.
Mapperton House is a one of my all-time favourites - I return there regularly and am never disappointed because there is always something different to see against the backdrop of a wonderful English manor house, which overlooks a magnificent garden nestling in the valley below. And this is what makes this garden such a complete surprise! The drive is lined with tall lime trees, and you see the house in the distance. Then you explore the gardens adjacent to the property, starting with a courtyard garden at the entrance, and an immaculate lawn and borders at the front of the 16th/17th century house.
But it is what lies below that will amaze you - a magical garden complete with an Italianate fountain court and sculptured topiary; a flower-covered pergola that changes with the seasons and variously displaying wisteria, clematis and roses; and the orangery, built by the current owner's family some 30 years ago.
But Mapperton does not stop here - there is another garden level below the tower house (pictured above), complete with ponds on two levels and views over the open countryside.
The garden here has something for all seasons and is open from March to October daily, except Saturday. The house is open from the end of June to the beginning of August, but please check times and dates on the website.
Athelhampton is another historic house with an equally impressive, but very different garden that is easily combined with Mapperton in a day. This is a Tudor manor house set in the heart of Thomas Hardy's Wessex, with some of the most striking topiary that you will see anywhere in England; a 15th century circular dovecote; and a winding river walk along the Piddle.
The gardens are both intimate and formal and there is a striking centrally-located Corona (below) with central fountain, which is surrounded by impressive stone obelisks, atop undulating walls, against a backdrop of immaculately-clipped yew hedges.
The house is also well worth visiting to see just how the English lived in days gone by. Parts of it date from the middle ages, although it was added to in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The gardens were designed at the end of the 19th century by the architect Inigo Thomas, although they have obviously taken many years to mature to the stage where they are today with the 30ft clipped yew pyramids in the Great Court (above).
Athelhampton, like Mapperton is open from May to October, but not on a Saturday. Both properties are worth making a special trip to see and you will have the added advantage of enjoying the Dorset countryside, which is quite spectacular at this time of year.