After four and a half months of avoiding almost everyone, we decided to meet up with Alison's parents midway between London and Exeter. The pandemic rolls on, of course, but we felt comfortable enough as long as we kept socially distanced, stayed outdoors, and generally followed best practice guidelines. The Sir Harold Hillier Gardens were a good fit: outside, big car park, not overly busy because entry is ticketed and must be bought in advance, and pretty much bang on the midway mark. Of course, none of us had ever visited the gardens before, but we crossed fingers, packed a picnic, and struck out.
I'm glad we did. The weather was, shall we say, changeable, but held for the day; the journey was just about right in terms of drive time; and it was really nice to see people in person, catch up, and feel a little bit removed from the whole situation for a few hours. Entry, tickets etc. were all well organised, most people were being understanding towards guidelines and staff, and once you were through the gates the only real difference to "normal" would be the toilet queues.
The gardens themselves were really interesting and – despite spending over four hours exploring – there was still about a third we never got to (though we did amble and take an hour or so for lunch so ymmv 😁). The gardens are split down the "middle" (the entrance isn't quite dead centre, but let's assume it is) by a long avenue of trees; to the left are arboretums, wild meadows, small brooks, and generally quite unmanaged, wild grounds; to the right are the more formalised gardens, as well as the remnants of the original woodlands and the main house. The house itself is closed, both due to the pandemic and for major renovation work, as are other attractions like the climbing course/treehouse for kids, but there's plenty of plants to see regardless.
We went left first and I must admit to finding it a little dull, though the lower gardens and wild meadows were buzzing with life. We saw probably a dozen species of butterfly, twice that of moths and beetles each, and all manner of other insects, including some sizeable darter and hawk dragonflies. I tested out the new Sigma lens on some macro shots but I think that's pushing the flexibility of the glass a bit far. For small critters, you have to be stood so far away it's almost impossible to find them in the undergrowth again, and even if you do get them in shot the result is barely larger than just standing nearby with a regular kit lens. It was worth having over lunch, however, when a sparrowhawk circled overhead, calling away for a good couple of minutes; I never got a good shot, but good enough to ID the bird in the field, something we would have struggled with against the sky otherwise.
Following our picnic – in which I discovered that canned lentils have both the taste and texture of flaked tuna steak in many ways 😂 – we set off into the right of the gardens, which are stunning. The Asiatic gardens, centred around a wide, bamboo-surrounded pond, are beautifully landscaped and planted, with all manner of pathways, hidden details, sculptures, and beautiful plants. From there we struck up the far hill, Richard found a spiritual connection with a great eucalyptus tree, and we somehow wound up at the pig enclosure. I'm still not 100% sure why a section of the old forest has been partially cleared and now houses a small group of pigs, but it was fun trying to find them in the undergrowth. Dropping down off the hill, we found ourselves both at the edge of the garden and at an extraordinarily wonderful smelling section of vegetation, which was somehow producing the scent of caramel mochaccino perfectly. It was quite the highlight of the day, if I'm being honest!
Overall, then, it was a very pleasant way to spend the afternoon. Seeing Richard and Jackie was great, we managed to swap over some items (keeping distance, of course), and the gardens were just a relaxing way to explore a new area. Oh, and we probably didn't need that picnic. Whilst the main restaurants are all closed, there is a "mask required" café and an outdoor BBQ/ice cream stand. Next time we go the burger with mac'n'cheese feels like a good shout 🤤 I imagine we'll probably repeat the trip in the future.