Sunday 29th August –heavy rain showers in the morning gradually cleared to leave an unexpectedly sunny but blustery afternoon. After the summer we’ve had I will not waste a single ray of sunshine by sitting indoors. The children, however, take ever more convincing that a trip to yet another garden is going to be a fun day out. The promise of ice cream usually works and I have been known to embellish the truth somewhat: “Sam – this one has a dragon garden!” – “What, with real dragons? Like kimodo dragons?” – “I don’t know – there might be…”
Even though we didn’t spot any real dragons on our visit to Eaton Hall Estate, we will remember it as one of the more unusual gardens. I am still scratching my head over quite how to summarise it in a few hundred words. This 11,000 acre estate lies just a few miles outside Chester and is owned by the Duke and Duchess of Westminster. The gardens are only opened to the public on three days each year and I was very thankful that I had marked the last open day in 2010 on a spreadsheet of gardens to visit. A quick look at the web site was enough to intrigue me – a French style chateau and the promise of several different style gardens. Right from the car park it felt very different to a trip to Tatton. Smartly dressed young RAF cadets shepherded cars into neat rows and a very polite chap took our money, rounding it down to £10, thus giving free entry for the kids. As we always take all morning to get ready to go out it was well past lunch time by this point and we headed straight for the refreshments. Tea, coffee and homemade cakes were served in the covered courtyard adjacent to a magnificent collection of horse drawn carriages. The courtyard was buzzing with visitors and dogs – we had left Daisy at home guessing she would be unwelcome and I was feeling very guilty as we spotted yet another boxer dog.
Having browsed through (and purchased) a book about the gardens I was keen to get going and we headed into the walled kitchen garden where it was evident that the household still very much relies on its abundant produce. It was here that it became apparent that these are gardens where design and form reign – nothing is allowed to stray outside of a precise plan. The branches of fruit trees have been carefully trained horizontally and vertically and every area is precisely delineated. This theme of perfection and formality continues throughout the gardens, even the vast lawns stretching away down to the lake are mown in stripes. Box hedges look as if they would pass any spirit level test and loungers and parasols stand in perfect symmetry by the family swimming pool. The pool is a stark reminder that this is someone’s home. Abigail and Sam couldn’t get their heads around that: “People actually live here?!” We weren’t sure whether to be dark green with envy or just glad that we had the chance to ogle and explore such a private and splendid garden. It’s easier to live with the latter – we would have to go back to our little house and garden at the end of the day after all. We also assumed that the policemen and women strolling around the gardens weren’t just enjoying an afternoon out – another clue that someone important lives here.
As ever my initially reluctant children were soon running ahead of us, keen to get to the next garden or pool before we did. Running up and down stone steps, along pathways, across grass, sitting on giant stone balls, posing next to statues of knights and dogs, hiding behind hedges and jumping out, but best of all dashing through the spray from the fountains as it blew sideways across the grass. Who needs kimodo dragons to keep their interest?! And there was plenty to keep Nic and I interested too. The Lioness and Kudu statue in the oval pond is stunning and fantastic to photograph, with the dark blue water of the brimming pond contrasting with the green grass.
The most photographed part of the gardens must be the Dragon Garden, with the French chateau style house and the clock tower in the background. The dragon statue in the pond and that of an ibis are beautiful, but it is the design of the formal garden and its gorgeous purple, white and green planting scheme, with the house as a backdrop that make it so special. And have I mentioned that it was a glorious afternoon with blue skies and the occasional fluffy cloud? Photographer’s heaven! To mention the lake, the rose garden, the flower borders and the wild flower garden would run the risk of turning this from a blog into a full blown guide book. But I can’t leave out the tea house garden – well the tea house itself really as the gardens were probably at their best earlier in the summer. I could easily imagine myself sitting on the veranda of this black and white building, watching the dappled light playing across the chequered stone floor and sipping tea (or something stronger, as apparently the windows are decorated with glass circles from bottles!). The kids also enjoyed watching light playing across the teahouse, as there was a modern art installation creating arcs and cubes inside the teahouse.
Although the gardens themselves are very formal the atmosphere and mood was very relaxed and people were extremely friendly, from the man who let us off £2 off the entry fee, to the lady who allowed us to eat our own sandwiches in the refreshment hall (we did buy tea and cakes too!). The brass band in front of the Parrot House (no parrots in sight either – sorry, Sam!) played well known and not at all stuffy tunes – we sat on the grass in the sunshine and listened to a theme from a Bond movie. We were reluctant to leave at the end of the afternoon as the sun was still warm, but the Eaton Estate was closing its enormous black and gold gates to the public until next spring. What I wouldn’t give to see the gardens in the autumn, partly for the colours and light, but also to see the neat pathways and lawns strewn with leaves and mussed up just a little!

By Jane Burkinshaw. Share this post by clicking on one of the Share buttons on the right hand side. I’d love to hear your comments too!

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