Best winter gardens in the UK

On a sparkling frosty day, why not explore one of Britain's great winter gardens? Here are some of the best for seasonal colour, scent and spectacle

A beautiful winter garden

Country gardens are often associated with spring and summer, when trees and shrubs are green and flowers are in full bloom. So much so, in fact, that the idea of visiting a garden in winter can seem a little fruitless.

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However, all across Britain there gardeners out there dedicating time and space to the winter months, so visitors can enjoy their gardens all-year-round.

We’ve put together a list of the UK’s best winter gardens, each offering seasonal walks through gorgeous foliage, as well as ideas of the best winter plants and trees for you to plant in your garden.

Best winter gardens in England

Dunham Massey, Cheshire

Winter sunrise over lake
Dunham Massey in winter/Credit: Getty

Britain’s largest winter garden – Dunham Massey – is in Altrincham, just a stone’s throw from Manchester. Many of the trees in the surrounding parkland were planted in the 1730s by the Earl of Warrington: they were paid for with the dowry of the unfortunate wealthy merchant’s daughter who he married for her money.  The Earl may have been a bounder but his trees look pretty amazing. The 300 acres of parkland boast a range of architectural oddities, fallow deer and fabulous walks.


Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire

Winter garden
Birch trees at Anglesey Abbey/Credit: Geograph
Anglesey Abbey has one of the finest winter gardens in the country. Loads of exciting plants full of texture and scent set alongside a generously proportioned pathway. Go right to the end of the path as there is a deeply wonderful surprise waiting for you. No, I am not going to tell you what it is: suffice to say that I saw it for the first time in the snow and was captivated. Perfect for a gentle winter amble.

Clumber Park, Nottinghamshire

Sunset through trees
Lime Tree Avenue, Clumber Park in Nottinghamshire/Credit: Getty

Clumber Park has the longest stretch of working glasshouse of any of the National Trust properties: it is a beautiful thing and is in the process of being painstakingly restored. After you have finished striding purposefully around the gardens and along the two-mile Lime Tree Avenue, drop in on the museum of garden tools where you can marvel at how our ancestors did all that digging with such extraordinarily heavy spades and discover the point of a cucumber straightener.


Pensthorpe Natural Park, Norfolk

Winter garden
Swathes of prairie style planting at Pensthorpe Millennium Garden, Norfolk/Credit: Getty

Piet Oudolf is probably the number one garden designer in the world at the moment. Among others, he is responsible for the High Line – a sensational park in New York created on the old elevated railway track. At Pensthorpe Millennium Garden, he has laid out his characteristic swathes of planting: on a frosty morning it will look spectral yet scintillating. The gardens are surrounded by acres of natural wetland landscape and woodland brimming with birds and sundry wildlife.


Painswick Rococo Garden, Gloucestershire

Snowdrops
Look for snowdrops coming into flower in late winter/Credit: Getty

I spent a week here in the summer and loved it – it is the sort of garden that I could imagine owning. Big but not ridiculously so, full of quirks and interesting corners, good fruit and, once you climb out of the valley, some gorgeous views. This was a garden designed almost 300 years ago for parties and it would be a pity to stop now. If you go in January, when the Painswick Rococo Garden reopens, the place will be carpeted with snowdrops.


Fountains Abbey, Yorkshire

Abbey in snow
Fountains Abbey after heavy snowfall/Credit: Getty

If you catch Fountains Abbey in just the right light – maybe with a bit of early morning mist, or possibly as the sun sinks into an early sunset – then it looks not only ethereal but a little bit spooky. The ruined Cistercian abbey (the monks were booted out during the Reformation) is close to the Georgian gardens of Studley Royal, Fountains Hall and the old medieval deer park. Come back next October to sample the apples from the orchard.


Stowe, Buckinghamshire

Daffodils and country house
Winter daffodils at Stowe House, Buckinghamshire/Credit: Getty

Walking boots on – there is a lot of landscape to see here at Stowe House. There’s nothing that you would easily describe as a garden but lots of cleverly landscaped valleys studded with some of the finest garden buildings ever made: “Elysian fields? Certainly, sir, right down there by the Temple of Ancient Virtue.” The gardens were laid out by such eminences as Capability Brown, William Kent, Charles Bridgman and John Vanbrugh and are not only majestic but also tell a great story.


RHS Wisley, Surrey

Winter garden and woodland
Frosted Winter Garden and Woodland Garden at RHS Wisley, Surrey/Credit: Getty

RHS Wisley is the flagship garden of the Royal Horticultural Society: 60 acres of planty happiness, with something going on every day of the year. There are deep borders stuffed with striking wintery stems and berries. If the weather gets too hideous then there are some excellent cafes and a huge and exciting glasshouse, showcasing a world-class plant collection. All the RHS gardens are also very strong on activities designed to both educate
and amuse children. 0845 260 9000


Stourhead, Wiltshire

Snow, lake and woodland
Winter morning at Stourhead, Wiltshire/Credit: Getty

The large Stourhead estate is home to a spectacular landscape garden, which contains a number of interesting temple-style buildings and a man-made lake. The garden was designed by owner Henry Hoare II in the 1740’s and since then has been altered and added to by subsequent landlords, most notably Sir Richard Colt Hoare who introduced rhododendrons and pelargoniums. The striking features of this garden have caught the eye of many a film crew in recent history, and can be glimpsed in both the 2005 adaptation of Pride & Prejudice and Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 feature Barry Lyndon.

If the day promises to be sunny and frosty then an early morning visit is recommended in order to see the estate in its true winter glory.

Mottisfont Winter Garden, Hampshire

Winter garden
Amble around the Mottisfont Winter Garden/Credit: Geograph

The village of Mottisfont is home to the magnificent Mottisfont Abbey and it’s surrounding gardens. Since the estate housed an Augustinian priory in the 13th century, the gardens have been a key feature of the property, and were shaped by Georgian landowners into the charming pleasure grounds that they are today.

As winter looms, the garden becomes a haven of late-flowering shrubs and sweet-smelling winter honeysuckle.

Flatford Wildlife Garden, Suffolk

Long tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus)
Look for long-tailed tit resting in the trees/Credit: Getty

A lovely garden brimming with wildlife, Flatford Wildlife Garden offers a number of interesting autumnal activities that you can get involved with before the frost kicks in. The head gardener will be on hand for a chat on how to extend the flowering season in your garden, or you can explore the wide variety of toadstools growing in the grounds.

Once winter truly begins, Flatford is still worth a visit if you are a keen birdwatcher, as flocks of long-tailed tits and siskins can be found in the trees.

Belsay Hall Gardens, Northumberland

Yellow berries in bush
Look for yellow-berried holly in winter/Credit: Getty

Since the 13th century, Belsay Hall has been owned by just one family, the Middleton’s, several of whom were gardening enthusiasts. As a result, Belsay is home to several beautiful formal gardens, including the Winter Garden.

As temperatures drop winter plants begin to flourish in the gardens. These include:
  • Flowering Christmas box (Sarcococca confuse)
  • Pink and red rhododendrons
  • Yellow-berried hollies and cloud shaped box
Additionally, three varieties of snowdrop can also be seen.  These are: the common snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) and the double flowered species of Galanthus nivalis ‘Flore Pleno’ can be seen.  The taller Galanthus ‘Sam Arnott’ can be found in the Winter Garden.

Brodsworth Hall Gardens, near Doncaster

Winter gardens
Brodsworth Hall Gardens in winter/Credit: Getty

Built in the 1860’s and occupied by the Thellusson family for over 120 years, Brodsworth Hall is a grand and dramatic manor which boasts equally impressive gardens. As the family occupied the house all year round, the gardens were designed in a way that would make them interesting throughout the four seasons.

In winter lush evergreens can be seen in the formal garden alongside holly berries, while in the Flower Garden the late-planted spring bedding provides a splash of colour. When January arrives so do snowdrops, aconites and coum, dotting the woodland with lovely little patches of white, yellow and magenta.

Audley End Garden, Essex

Yellow winter flower
Spot winter aconites at Audley in the winter months/Credit: Alamy

Adapted from medieval Benedictine monastery Walden Abbey in the 16th century, Audley End is a house of enormous proportions with a garden to match. Designed by the two famous 18th Century landscapers Richard Woods and Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, this is a sumptuous garden which offers plenty to see and do during the winter.

A trail of snowdrops planted in 2004 twist through the scenery, while winter aconites can be seen, along with hellebores and a variety of oriental and London plane trees that can be identified by their distinctive grey and cream mottled markings. Large mature evergreen trees can also be seen looming over everything, and in January potted strawberry plants can be spied starting to grow in the Vinery.

Witley Court and Gardens, Worcestershire

Kingfisher
Look our for kingfishers at Witley on warm winter days/Credit: Getty
Getty

In 1937 a fire ravaged both the house and gardens at Witley Court, and although it has now been over sixty years since the incident restoration is still ongoing. Yet despite this Witley Court has a lot to offer, especially the brand new East Parterre garden and a Woodland Walks section of forest which includes species of tree and shrub from all over the world.

Additionally, an area named ‘The Ornamental Walks’ is planted with numerous large trees, mostly North American conifers densely under planted with rhododendrons and other evergreens. Other highlights include winter flowering shrubs, snowdrops and a section of evergreen topiary.

As for wildlife, the many pools at Witley attract a variety of birds including coots, moorhens, grebes, swans and kingfishers, and Witley Court itself is used as a roost by various species of bat such as Pipistrelle and Brown Long-Eared.


Best winter gardens in Scotland

Cambo Gardens, Fife

Winter gardens
Winter grasses at Cambo Gardens/Credit: Geograph

Cambo Gardens has beautiful walks through the woodlands of oak, sycamore and ash, which take you along the burn to the sea, and are open every single day of the year. But if you want a special treat, then go when the snowdrops are flowering. In winter, the first emerge to greet you and before long, great swathes of nodding white flowers carpet the woodland floor. Just the thing to shake off the new year blues and set you on a course towards spring.


Dunskey Gardens, Dumfries and Galloway

Snowdrop
Snowdrops flower between January and March at Dunskey Gardens/Credit: Getty

Head to the pretty harbourside village of Portpatrick and to Dunskey Gardens (open by appointment), which holds collections of exotic flowering shrubs such as Clianthus and Sutherlandia. Snowdrops emerge in late winter – much to the delight of the kids.


Glenwhan Gardens, Dumfries and Galloway

Lake in gardens
Glenwhan Gardens between as winter gives way to spring/Credit: Geograph

Established just 40 years ago, Glenwhan Gardens are an unexpected gem, created from a bracken-clad hillside 300 feet above sea level with stunning views out over Luce Bay. Azaleas, primulas and camellias all flourish, as do magnolias in spring and a profusion of buddleia in autumn, attracting a mass of peacock butterflies.

During autumn and winter, the gardens operate an honesty box, allowing visitors to pop in and see the winter foliage.


David Welch Winter Gardens, Aberdeenshire

Glasshouse gardens
David Welch Winter Gardens/Credit: Geograph

Discover an exotic world in the heart of Scotland at the David Welch Winter Gardens. One of the largest indoor gardens in Europe, the Winter Gardens here include the Temperate House, Corridor of Perfumes, Fern House, Victorian Corridor, Japanese Garden, Tropical House and Arid House.


Best winter gardens in Wales

Bodnant Garden, Conwy

Winter garden
The Dell at Bodnant Garden in winter/Credit: Geograph

With sprightly views of the River Conwy and the distant prospect of Snowdonia, Bodnant Garden is one of the great gardens of Wales. The 80 acres offer both a more formal area up by the house and a wild garden further down the hill, towards the river. There are plants growing here from all over the world, collected by five generations of the Aberconway family. And perched above the river Hiraethlyn, there is a building called The Poem, which has to be a good thing.


Dyffryn Gardens, Cardiff

Winter and spring gardens
Dyffryn Gardens between winter and spring, Cardiff/Credit: Getty

Even as winter sweeps across this Edwardian garden, there are signs of life and colour at Dyffryn Gardens. Head to the arboretum and see shimmering red barks, ruby holly berries and dazzling winter roses.

Snowdrop swiftly follow suit, popping up in the woodlands and among the wonderful water features. If this is all a bit too chilly for you, step inside the glasshouse for a taste of the warmer months to come.


Penrhyn Castle, Gwynedd

Castle and trees
Penrhyn Castle as autumn gives way to winter/Credit: Geograph

Even in the midst of winter, there’s still plenty to see and do at Penrhyn Castle. Enjoy far-reaching views from Maple Lawn across the dramatic North Wales coast and look out for winter flowers on the woodland trails.


Best winter gardens in Northern Ireland

Rowallane Garden, County Down

Leave and berries in frost
Look for holly leaves and berries coated in winter frost/Credit: Getty

Grown from Victorian beginnings, Rowallane Garden is a mixture of formal and informal spaces, giving way to scenic vistas and a variety of plant and animal life, best experienced with leisurely strolls, wildlife watching and afternoon tea.

In the colder months, enjoy the Winter Walk, looking out for holly in the Rock Garden and squirrels in the Woodland.


Castle Ward, County Down

songbird on grass
Mistle thrushes and snowdrops can be seen in late winter /Credit: Getty

Step out on to some of Castle Ward‘s 34km of trails, spotting early signs of spring among the winter foliage.  Carpets of snowdrops arrive in January on Laurel Walk and mistle thrushes can be heard as they mark their territory for the nesting season.


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Words: James Alexander-Sinclair is a regular BBC presenter who works as a garden designer. He was a judge at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2014.