According To Hewson ... Hidden gem remains nation's top garden

Back in the day, when I was a trainee gardener in London's Royal Parks, I was a regular visitor to one of the capital's hidden gems - the Isabella Plantation.

Tucked away among the vast sprawl of Richmond Park, this 180-year-old woodland garden is an absolute delight, particularly during spring and early summer with its stunning displays of azaleas and rhododendrons.

Frankly, it's a wonderful space at any time of year and I adored the richness of its autumn colour almost as much as its springtime chintz. I've never really understood why this garden is not more publicised or better known beyond the broad and well heeled acres of sunny Richmond.

So I was delighted to learn that it's had a £1.6m facelift to fulfil its potential as one of our finest gardens and that garden lovers are indeed flocking to see what is, I reckon to be, the finest display of azaleas we have. What's more, it's freely accessible to the public.

Essentially, the plantation is a 40-acre garden set within a woodland originally planted during the 1830s and first opened to the public in 1953. It is best known for the azaleas - more than 100 varieties, no less - that flank its ponds and streams, along with some 50 species of rhododendron, including more than 125 varieties of hardy hybrids.

Its many spring delights include the elegantly tall Loderi hybrids and one of my particular favourites, R. williamsianum, with its attractive bronze shoots and bell-shaped shell-pink flowers. Wonderful.

The £1.6m of Heritage Lottery Fund, Big Lottery Fund and Sita Trust money has been spent restoring and reconstructing the plantation, including dredging its ponds and steams, clearing overgrown rhododendrons and replanting with new stock.

The restoration has also funded horticultural apprenticeships, guided walks and an online database of the plantation's myriad treasures. Money well spent because it is the best garden in England. Trust me.

Andrew Hewson is a freelance writer and columnist

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