Diarmuid Gavin's top five UK and Ireland gardens

by Diarmuid Gavin

The television and celebrity gardener talks about five of his favourite gardens from every corner of the UK and Ireland

I was born in London but grew up in suburban Dublin and, though there was no real gardening background in my family, as I got older I realised my love for the outdoors and the things that grow in nature.

I travel a lot and I always take the opportunity to visit the gardens of the world to draw inspiration. I find myself continually amazed at the way the world of gardening is changing. The more you learn, the more you can appreciate it, and it becomes an even bigger lifetime hobby with every garden visited.

The British and Irish have a real flair for creative gardening. Garden lovers will be no strangers to my top five gardens in the UK and Ireland, but anyone can visit and take inspiration from some truly beautiful places.

Eden Project and The Lost Gardens of Heligan

(Bodelva, Cornwall, England, PL24 2SG; +44 1726 811 911; www.edenproject.com)
(Pentewan, St.Austell, Cornwall, England, PL26 6EN; +44 1726 845100; www.heligan.com)

These two beauties are only 20 minutes apart and the talented Tim Smit brought both to life.

At Heligan he came across some gardens that had been long since abandoned and he realised their amazing potential due to the unique microclimate enjoyed by that part of the world. He set about restoring them and did an incredible job.

People came from all over the world to see the gardens, which are split into different sections. There’s the Jungle, which boasts all kinds of exotic trees and plants – and enjoys an extra five degrees of warmth thanks to its position in a steep-sided valley. The Northern Gardens produce heaps of fruits, vegetables and herbs and Horsemoor Hide is the perfect spot to view some of the local wildlife.

Then, a few years ago, with the help of renowned architect Nicholas Grimshaw, he turned an old open mine into the Eden Project. It is remarkable in terms of everything I love. The architecture is striking, the gardening is thoughtful, evocative and educational, and the whole thing is very James Bond like. They actually filmed some scenes for the Bond movie Die Another Day here. Inside there are different climate zones from all around the world. As an educational tool, it’s really quite incredible.

Where the lost gardens are from another century, the Eden Project is much more democratic; it’s a garden of the people and a true garden of its age. It envelops all the concerns of our planet, how we use the resources of the planet, and the things we should be doing to look after it. It’s hugely inspiring to me.

Where to stay

There are lots of great B&Bs near these two gardens but if you want something really special the Scarlet Hotel located over on the north coast in Mawgan Porth, just north of Newquay, is worth the 30-minute drive. It opened in 2009 and has cutting edge eco design, breathtaking seas views and a great spa. Doubles from £160.

The Garden of Cosmic Speculation

(Portrack House, Holywood, near Dumfries, Scotland, DG2 0RW; www.charlesjencks.com)

Charles Jencks designed these captivating gardens. The gardens incorporate all the same materials Capability Brown used 200 years ago, but in a completely different way. Charles Jencks is a philosopher and a landowner and his projects can be found around the world.

At Portrack House, where Jencks lives with his wife, he has been inspired by the creation of the universe in the creation of these gardens. Mounds of turf go up into the sky across the very large estate and everything tells the story of black holes and life and creation. It’s all very dramatic and I find it massively inspiring. This was the garden that gave me hope that there was a future for all those thinking differently about creation. I met him and he lives on a different planet to me. Considering the way his garden looks, with mounds of earth and wacky sculptures, he had never even heard of the Teletubbies!

For anybody who loves gardens, check this place out.

Where to stay

Trigony House Hotel is five miles from Portrack House. This corner of Scotland is often by-passed by the hordes of tourists heading north and this place is well worth stopping for. The accommodation is Scottish country house hospitality at its best set in more than four acres of woodland and gardens. Doubles are from £90.

Derek Jarman’s Garden

(Prospect Cottage, Dungeness, Kent)

Derek Jarman was a filmmaker who died in 1994 after being diagnosed as HIV positive. When he became ill, he moved to the cottage on the beach, in the shadow of the power station at Dungeness. He had no gardening experience, and it was bitter and inhospitable ground, but he created the most marvellous gardens nonetheless. He would walk up and down the beach and anything he found he would use in his garden. The garden was windswept and salt-laden and the landscape was desolate, but he’d find plastic, metal, driftwood, fishing tackle - anything washed up by the sea – and he would use those alongside plants that he had learned would stubbornly cling to the ground. It is unashamedly modern and so inspiring.

It’s a very, very famous piece of creativity for garden fans and his book about the project became a best seller.

Where to stay

A great place to stay is Rye, the pretty Kentish seaside town. It’s a 25-minute drive away and make sure you check into The George in Rye, a 450-year-old inn, which was once favourite with the author Henry James. Today it’s got a great restaurant, stylish rooms with some art deco touches and doubles are £125 a night.

Mount Stewart Garden

(Mount Stewart House, Portaferry Road, Newtownards, Co. Down, Northern Ireland; 028 4278 8387; www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-mountstewart)

This is a truly amazing garden that was built by the landed gentry; it is now run by the National Trust. Nearly 100 years ago the gardens were planted by Edith, Lady Londonderry, and they have grown to be both beautiful and a national treasure. She found it miserable when she first arrived there; it rained all of the time. She transformed the grounds by realising there was a microclimate and knowing she could grow plants there.

She would hold court for all of the most powerful people at the time, including Winston Churchill and other political leaders. Soldiers convalescing in the nearby area during the Second World War would visit the gardens too. It’s a place of beauty, with large formal flowerbeds, but it’s a place with tremendous humour too; there are stone statues of animals dotted around the gardens that are said to be names after people liked Mr Churchill (he might have been the warthog, I can’t remember). It never fails to brighten my day.

Where to stay

Mount Stewart is a 20-minute drive out of Belfast, which is packed full of places to stay. One of the first ‘boutique’ hotels to open in the city a while back is Ten Square; it’s still a great place to stay. It is just over the road from the City Hall and doubles start from around £100 a night.

The Dillon Garden

(5 Sandford Road, Ranelagh, Dublin 6, Ireland; www.dillongarden.com)

One of the best town gardens anywhere in the world. Originally from Scotland, Helen Dillon married an antique dealer in Dublin. They had a very nice Georgian house and no idea about gardening. She just decided that she wanted to create something special. It has gone on to become one of the most renowned gardens in the world.

Her personality is very dramatic and this reflects in the project. I lived in the same road actually during one stage of my life. Originally she had created a very formal lawn, with stripes being mown in by her long-suffering husband! Then she shocked the gardening world by taking out the beautiful lawn and putting in its place an Islamic pond. It’s a tank and it’s striking: reflecting the sky in the earth. She’s a visionary and an eccentric plant woman. She’ll know the whole history of a certain type of plant. She’s a bit like a mad Duchess; I wouldn’t want to one of her plants, she’s scream at it if it was under-performing!

Where to stay

Get a room at The Merrion hotel to stay with the upmarket theme of the garden. It’s a group of Georgian houses across the road from the Irish Parliament. The hotel is absolute luxury of the old world and very discreet. From visiting dignitaries to Bruce Springsteen, all the big visitors stay here. The last time I was there Bono was meeting friends for a drink. It’s a really lovely place.

Where to eat

Nico’s (53 Dame Street, Dublin 2; +353 1 677 3062) has a dining room that has been in operation for about 50 years. If you can look past the bad décor, which they always seem to be messing with, you’ll find truly delicious food. I’m a creature of habit and comfort and I always have the lasagne, it’s the best I’ve ever had. It’s a mid range place in terms of price and you’ll always have a jolly evening with someone on the piano to entertain.

Tips for visiting gardens

• In Britain and Ireland, always pack an umbrella and waterproof clothing
• Write down what inspires you
• Bring a pencil, much easier to write with when it’s pouring
• Take photographs. In summer I probably take 1,000 every week – my digital camera is essential.

Diarmuid Gavin

Diarmuid Gavin is an Irish garden designer and television personality. Diarmuid’s modern vibrant city garden at the Chelsea Flower Show in 1996 caused quite a stir and led to a career in television where he developed a unique style in contemporary garden design. The BBC made a five hour documentary series called “Diarmuid’s Big Adventure”, which followed Diarmuid as he desperately attempted to raise money for the 2004 Chelsea Show. He has since worked for all the main broadcasters on both radio and television in the UK and Ireland. For eight years his main programme, “Homefront”, broadcast by the BBC, achieved top ratings. Other garden design programmes include “I Want a Garden” and “Planet Patio”. Diarmuid has worked on garden history programmes such as “Art of the Garden” in association with Tate Britain and “Gardens Through Time”, profiling the history of the Royal Horticultural Society over 250 years. Diarmuid is currently working with ITV1’s This Morning programme for a series of garden makeovers. He has written nine books on garden design – the last two in collaboration with Sir Terence Conran. See www.octopusbooks.co.uk for details of his latest book ‘Planting’. His garden designs are commissioned from all over the world and he operates from both his London and Dublin studios. He now lives in Co. Wicklow with his wife and daughter. See more on www.diarmuidgavindesigns.co.uk.