It is a warm September evening. We drive up to the north facing side of Hatfield House. The dynamic futurist water sculpture at the centre of the courtyard dramatically contrasts with the traditional Jacobean architecture of the Manor house, which was built around 1611. It feels wonderful to be here on these historic grounds. We are greeted by Andrew, the head gardener, estate manager and expert horticulturalist. We join a group of about ten other visitors and begin Blooming Bubbles, an exclusive evening tour of the gardens. Andrew gives a brief introduction to the grounds and explains how he leads five fellow horticulturalists and a huge team of gardeners, including volunteers, to maintain and cultivate more than 60 acres of land.

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The water sculpture at Hatfield House. All photos: Marisa Laycock

Just before we set off into the East Garden, we stop to have a look at the lime trees and Andrew suggests we take a closer look at the way in which they are shaped into cubes. Moulding the trees in a certain way will ensure new growth with the look of the future garden in mind. The East Garden leads into the west side of the glorious Old Elizabethan Palace, built in 1485 by the Bishop of Ely, John Morton, between 1480 and 97. One of the foremost examples of medieval brickwork, the largest East Wing of which is amazingly still intact! Andrew reminds us about several significant events and historical dates as we look up at the old palace, brushing up on our Tudor history. It was acquired from the Bishop by Henry VIII in 1538, and was used as a nursery to raise his three children Mary, Edward and, of course, the future queen Elizabeth I. An oak tree still stands in the very location where Princess Elizabeth was sitting when she learned about her accession to the throne. This south facing historic garden, known as the Knot Garden, actually used to be an inner courtyard. A golden cupid atop the small fountain centrepiece overlooks the flora. Andrew pauses among the herbaceous plants, shrubs and roses and recounts the historical significance of this Hertfordshire location.

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The fountain in the knot garden

Surrounded by pretty scented blooms and strikingly bold colours, I then look down and realise that I am standing beside some yellow courgettes. Lord Salisbury is particularly keen on the vegetable garden and since early lockdown the estate has been providing the local foodbank with plenty of vegetables, such as sweetcorn, chard, runner beans, beetroots and lettuce. As we leave this section, I look back from a distance intrigued by how different the garden’s richly textured and geometrical splendour looks from different angles.

We then step under a canopy of branches and along the lime walk. At the end, shrouded in greenery, we admire the stone frieze of Queen Elizabeth and her subjects. We make stops at the quince and mulberry trees cushioned in a herbaceous peony garden. These particular peonies have rich foliage and are known as the treasure of the garden. Repetition of plants and flower groups tie the long borders together. We take a right into the long holly walk. The budding berries are nestled within the dark spiny leaves in the upright hedge all along the length of the walk and are turning from green to orange. It is gloriously private, a place to take walks and ruminate. Andrew mentions that hedge cutting is an important task and the annual cost across the whole estate comes to over £30,000 a year!

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Ornamental hedges

Just before we step through the grand wrought iron gates into the South Garden near the house, we pass by some woodland and look at a few trees. Groups of trees have been planted together in this vast space. The treescapes are varied in texture and dimension. A continual theme that runs through this guided tour is the fact that plants and trees are all cultivated with the long term in mind. There is a huge variety of species from black mulberry trees, lemon verbena and quince. We look into the distance and the paths are all straight, apparently just as Lord Salisbury likes them. Some of these oak trees that we pass are in the vicinity of 600 to 1,200 years old. There are more than 80 wooden benches dotted around the gardens that need to be carried indoors in the winter. Andrew is over the moon to announce that they have recently started adding a few stone benches. We pass by a group small silver birch trees, their slender, paper white trunks and smooth bark appear luminous in the fading evening light. Mature beech and oak trees tower over us, their enormous evergreen branches sweep across the sky. I would love to meander along here on an autumn tour one day; to linger beneath such robust forest trees in all of my smallness and watch as the leaves transform into beautiful shades of fiery reds deep oranges and bright yellows. As we approach the private residence wing, we step up to some decorative wrought iron gates and are greeted by the friendly family dogs. It feels strange, almost intrusive, to be so close to this formidable manor house. Andrew points out the small chapel and enthuses about how the early morning sunlight casts some amazing colour patterns when it shines through the chapel’s stained glass. We stand near the gates then, as we turn to look out at the nursery garden, we see an unusual sculpture of two elephants filled with growing jasmine! Their trunks are fortuitously raised in a united stance. My husband points out the small baby elephant, which takes me by surprise. Beyond the house we take some steps down towards the West Garden with its cylindrical topiary and elegant parterres with box hedging, statues and some rare plants. The West Garden is simply stunning and was laid out by the 5th Marquess of Salisbury. As we walk through, we have a look at some of the vibrant vegetables that Andrew mentioned earlier. In fact, Lord Salisbury decided to have the croquet lawn dug over in order to make this vegetable garden. The apple orchard houses a variety of apple species from pink blossom and the path and grass is littered with apples. The trees are short and stout, but their yield is plentiful. They are harvested every year and produce an abundance of apple juice and cider both for the family and to be sold in the shop.

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Apples in the orchard

Further on, we see the famous Victorian maze. It’s actually an original with very tall hedges and has been closed to the public since the 1970s as it is just so hard to navigate. I imagine how stressed I’d get trying to escape! The 17th century ‘new pond’ is set alone and hedged off. There are a few lily pads. I spot a single yellow lily about to emerge. The evening draws in. Pink clouds cast their reflection in the pool’s dark water. I look up to ensure that I am not hallucinating as the transition from sunset to dusk has turned the light into a powder pink. I feel a deep tranquillity. I could linger here for an hour or so and just daydream or meditate or write a few poems. A silence pervades, a peace, a stillness. It is one of those beautiful places where the soul might come to rest and recuperate, like the summerland that we are said to remain in for a while in the afterlife.

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The pond We eventually leave the pond and walk down towards the lake leading to the Woodland Garden. The air quality is intensely pure. I tell my husband to stop for a moment and take some deep breaths. I’m always quite sensitive to fresh air as I used to have to take regular walks in the park to smell clean air when I lived in London. We are in ancient parkland where trees combine with deer that can be seen grazing in the distance. We walk around the lake and end the private tour with a glass of champagne served by the butler. Lady Salisbury then appears with her cuddly dogs. We have already heard from Andrew that Lady Salisbury is really the driving force behind the garden as it is her passion. I enjoy chatting with members of our group, who all seem to be keen gardeners. It’s getting dark by now, but I manage to steal a few moments with the lady of the house. It feels like a surreal moment under the pink clouds and she turns to me with a smile. She is wearing a warm fleece and trilby hat. Her bright intelligent eyes are all of a sudden looking straight at me. I smile and ask her what her favourite flower is. "Hydrangeas are my favourite flower and the Acer trees are such a good foliage and colour this time of the year,” she says.

Much to my surprise I learn that the wild Woodland Garden is her favourite part of the estate. “The salvias are still in bloom,” she enthuses.

Lady Salisbury tells me how much she enjoys rolling up her sleeves and spending her weekends joining in with the garden preservation and management. I mention the dahlia field that I recently visited and how I found the names of each species somewhat strange and exotic, she agrees and mentions a black species of Dahlia that she is fond of that are in fact a very dark burgundy. The butler slowly begins to circulate to collect our glasses as the evening draws to a close. I have enjoyed every minute of this exclusive tour. It has been a very special evening. We have been lucky enough to experience the landscape surrounding the house in a complete circle. We thank Andrew for walking us through such enchanting gardens and into areas that we wouldn’t normally see and for giving us a real insight into the features and story of the gardens’ voyage of this 400-year-old estate.

  • Marisa Laycock moved to St Albans in 2000. She enjoys sharing her experiences of living in the city. These columns are also available as podcasts from 92.6FM Radio Verulam at .