Wisley Garden: cures jet lag

If you’ve ever flown to Britain, you know the feeling. You arrive itchy- eyed and irritable after – if you’re lucky – grabbing a couple hours sleep on the overnight flight.

You don’t know what to do with yourself – go to the hotel and miss part of your first day napping, or head out in your rental car and risk dozing off at the wheel?

My wife, Ayesha, and I make several trips a year to the old country, and we think we have the answer. We pick up our car and by 10 a.m., regardless of the season, we’re enjoying what I call the “Wisley jet lag antidote”.

Wisley is the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) garden located by happy chance just half an hour’s drive from London’s Heathrow Airport and 45 minutes from Gatwick. And to visit Wisley is to be plunged immediately into that special ambience that probably drew you to England – verdant lawns, tiny robins singing fit to bust, and a bounty of flowers.

Our routine is never changing. Ayesha, who lives to garden, can’t wait to see what’s new and in bloom; after a bit, I find a bench, usually in one of the little model gardens, and shut my eyes for 15 minutes. Okay, maybe 20. And in no time, the memory of that wearisome flightades.

Don’t think Wisley’s a summer-only option. Gardens bloom almost year-round in Britain. Our biggest thrill is leaving our snowbound Toronto garden in February or March and discovering winter jasmine, heather and fields of daffodils already in bloom at Wisley. Even better, in the off-seasons, we have the 97 hectare (240 acre) gardens almost to ourselves.

In so many ways Wisley says to the tired traveller – even a first time visitor – “welcome home.” The gardens flow from a mellow, parchment yellow Tudor-style mansion that I always fancy could have been the original for Manderley, the centrepiece of Daphne du Maurier’s novel, Rebecca.

There’s a clubby, old-retainer atmosphere which, if you have a gardening interest, you might want to be part of by becoming RHS members. It costs about $60 a year (with a one-time enrolment fee of $17) and includes not only one of the world’s great garden magazines – The Garden – but free admission to Wisley (where it’s members-only on Sundays) and other RHS gardens, as well as special deals for the Chelsea and Hampton Court flower shows. Believe it or not, you also get a mid-winter offer of free seeds by mail so you can grow a little bit of Wisley in your own greenhouse or garden.

But even if you don’t have a green thumb, Wisley offers so much for the spirit. Join us on a stroll through the seasons:

Winter: If there’s a hoar frost, you’ll see Wisley’s astonishing collection of conifers in every size and texture at their stark best; in the wild garden there are always snowdrops and camellias, and look out for the strange green hellebores flowers. Warm up among tropical exotica in the greenhouses.

Spring: They arrive like soldiers on parade, first the crocuses, then the daffs, with the tulips marching close behind. And suddenly it’s a rout, with the whole of Battleston Hill ablaze with azaleas and rhododendrons.

Summer: Where to begin? Perhaps with the perennial borders with real blue delphiniums and fierce Red Lucifer crocosmia plus a hundred others stretching as far as the eye can see. Or maybe the formal pond with water lilies like splashes of paint from an artist’s palette… or strange apple trees not much higher than your knee… or acres of roses… or… Stop me, please!

Fall: When aster is king, its starry faces of richest hue smile at the sun while ice-white Japanese anemones remain coolly aloof. And it’s time to sample Wisley’s bounteous harvest of apples and other fruits and vegetables.

I’ve left Wisley’s oddest crop till last. It used to be that the best place to study the British character was at the seaside. Today, it’s in the gardens.

Our walk over, we head for the restaurant pavilion where the oh-so-polite English enjoy their tea and buns: retired military gentlemen barking orders these days at their dahlias, young moms wheeling china doll babies in throne-like strollers, and tweedy estate gardeners down for the day, making notes.

Thanks to Wisley’s special alchemy, we too are part of the scene. And who’s to know we just stepped off the plane?