What do you do if you have to sell all but a few unproductive acres of Essex farmland? If you are Beth Chatto you set about creating a garden. Fifty years later it will become the envy of professionals and amateurs alike, with students queuing for a chance to be trained and visitors by the thousand in all seasons. Not to mention winning enough Chelsea gold to keep a footballer's wife content.
Six miles east of Colchester on the A 133 just outside Elmstead Market, the Beth Chatto Garden is well signposted. The route from Colchester is by way of the University; alternatively, there is a turning from the A120 through Great Bromley. A drive leads into a generous parking area with space for the numerous customers who arrive towing trailers. There is good provision for disbled drivers and the toilets are right at the entrance: very thoughtful.
Visitors have a choice: either to pay and visit the garden first or to go into the sales area (free admission). A compromise is to visit the dry garden, developed a few years ago in response to changing climatic conditions. This area is also free and offers ideas for us all to use. Whichever choice you make there is the cafe as well, offering free trade tea and coffee with delicious food prepared on the spot.
All plants for sale have been trialled in the garden so it is worth the admission fee to see them at home, as it were. There is a range of plant habitats with several large ponds and a woodland area. Seats are placed in different areas, including one just below the private garden of Beth Chatto's house.
In this almost rainless spring (despite the winter floods, even to some extent in Essex) the dry or gravel garden was a particular delight. Fritillary, euphorbia, iris and anemone were outstanding, presided over by graceful amelanchier.
The main garden is still recognisably related to the house. From the entrance a wheelchair-friendly slope leads to expansive lawns and the first of the ponds, where carp were active in the early afternoon. The trees are magnificent, including birch and giant redwood. There is a steady progression from a more formal area towards an almost wildwood with acid soil.
Children can find plenty to do, beginning with the wildlife board at the entrance, so grandparents can make themselves useful while the middle generation concentrates on plants to buy. The range on sale is too numerous to list: suffice to say every season is represented as is every letter of the alphabet. Whenever you go there will be plenty in bloom. It is a place to treasure.