I visited RHS Wisley for the first time in July this year (2012), and four months later as I write this review, I am still trying to understand why I went away feeling disappointed rather than inspired.
I think it was that I went with expectations which were too high and unrealistic. I joined the RHS about 3 years ago on a trip to Rosemoor, and have been very impressed by both the design and the immaculate execution of that garden. I've been to the RHS shows at Malvern and Tatton several times, and always be overwhelmed by the big flower tents, and excited by the displays and show gardens. I've read the RHS magazine and been impressed by that too. So just as a pilgrim to Rome hopes and expects to be inspired, I as an RHS member, going to the home of the RHS, was expecting to be inspired. But I wasn't.
In my view the garden has a slightly institutional air about it. It's more of a shining example of what a municipal parks department might hope to achieve, rather than being one of the great gardens of the country. Despite that, it contains a lot of fine things, it's well worth a visit, and on this occassion, my wife and I spent a very intersting afternoon exploring. Here are a few notes on what we saw and did.
The first thing we discovered is that Wisley is popular, so when we arrived in late morning the extensive carpark was full. We just managed to squeeze in on the end of a row, but had to trek quite a way to the entrance.
Being an RHS member, we got in free. It's well worth being a member if you have the slightest interest in gardens and I recommend it highly. I cannot remember how much it would have cost if I had to pay, so I cannot comment on the value for money question.
The house and formal pool, which is the first area you arrive at, are very attractive. It's nice to see every plant clearly labelled (something you notice from the moment you arrive), but it amuses me as I remember the ten or more reasons that Christopher Lloyd gives at his Great Dixter garden for not labelling plants. I think not being the RHS was one of them!
The glass house containing the cacti and succulents is well worth visiting although there is a longish walk to get there. The collection of flowering orchids was nice, although we have seen much more impressive ones in commercial orchid nurserys.
Getting refreshments at the cafe were just like getting refreshments at any other attraction during the summer - slightly more expensive than seems reasonable, slow service from slightly confused and slightly disorganised young staff, difficulty in finding a table, and crowds of noisy people, young and old.
It was nice to see the quite tame heron which put in an appearance at the lake. And it was amazing to see the childern feeding the carp. They were throwing in bits of bread, and there must have been over a hundred fish, some of four or five pounds in weight, almost climbing out of the water to get it. At one point, the fish had two thirds of their backs out of the water in their eagarness to get food.
So a pleasant, interesting but not inspiring afternoon out.
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