This very special tour combines birding with the great British tradition of gardens! We take in gardens that deservedly have international reputations – the incomparable Kew Gardens, Sissinghurst, Great Dixter, Hever Castle, Beth Chatto’s Garden, Hyde Hall RHS, East Ruston , Wyken Hall, Sheringham Park and many others not on regular tourist routes and with attractions all their own. Our birding is at nature reserves and national parks, although naturally there is a suite of birds in the gardens themselves. We target several choice species – Pied Avocet, Dartford Warbler, Bearded Reedling, Cetti’s Warbler, Western Marsh Harrier, Stone Curlew, Nightingale and many more. Starting in London, we head to Kent, the county referred to as the garden of England, and then head west through Sussex and Surrey before turning northeast to East Anglia, arguably the best birding area in England, where we visit Minsmere, Titchwell and Cley among several RSPB nature reserves.
• Acclaimed gardens with varied designs and styles in the green rolling English countryside, and excellent birding in the well-established network of nature reserves and RSPB sites that occur across England.
• May is a delightful month to be in England; mild and pleasant, fine evenings. The breeding season for birds is in full swing, and delightful early summer flowers in gardens.
Day 1: Arrival
Our Tour begins after dinner in the lobby of our hotel near Heathrow where our leaders will meet the group to discuss the upcoming trip and the next day’s activities.
Day 2: Kew RBG and Stodmarsh
Our first garden visit is to the recently proclaimed World Heritage Site, the RBG at Kew, 300 acres of themed gardens, special collections and wildlife trails. In spring, literally millions of spring bulbs adorn the gardens and woods, including the last burst of displays of bluebells, trees in blossom, wonderful shows of rhododendrons and azaleas, and spring bedding displays. In the Cherry Walk, thousands of scillas planted beneath its trees can be stunning, along with the total of more than 900,000 wild daffodils, crocuses and snake’s head fritillaries planted between the Lilac Garden and the Magnolia Collection. Kew is a major scientific research centre, with ongoing investigation into plant conservation issues worldwide; currently, one of the most exciting sights is a tree, the Wollemi Pine, thought to be extinct for 2 million years but recently discovered alive and well and thriving in Australia. Fewer than 100 of these magnificent trees survive in their secret location in New South Wales, and a propagation programme ensures the survival of the species and lessens the threat to trees in the wild. Wollemi Pine was known from fossil records dating back 90 million years; the discovery has been equated with finding a dinosaur alive today. Our stroll through woodlands and along the well-reeded ponds at Kew should turn up several woodland birds, including Green and Great Spotted Woodpeckers, and waterbirds such as Mandarin Duck, Tufted Duck and such oddities as Egyptian Goose.
We leave London and head to Kent and the fine National Nature Reserve site at Stodmarsh. Stodmarsh in the Stour Valley is managed by Natural England. The reserve grew from marshland caused by coal mining subsidence, creating large reedbeds, lakes, ditches, meadows and wet woodland. The diverse habitats support numerous breeding and migrating birds. Lagoons and reedbeds are important for wildfowl. Mallard, Gadwall and Pochard breed on site most years and other birds present on the reserve include Reed and Sedge Warblers, Great Bittern, and Great Crested Grebe. Rare plants include the carnivorous greater bladderwort, greater spearwort and bog bean. Night in Kent.
Day 3: Dungeness Nature Reserve and Great Dixter
Kent hosts several excellent nature reserves, protecting marshland, rich deciduous woodlands, shallow lakes and ponds. This morning we visit Dungeness, one of the oldest nature reserves in England, established in 1929. Wetland areas support breeding Northern Lapwing, Common Redshank, Yellow Wagtail, and birds of prey such as Eurasian Kestrel and Western Marsh Harrier. Waterfowl include Greylag Goose, the ancestral species for domesticated geese. Reedbeds hold Reed and Sedge Warblers and Common Reed Bunting. Brushy areas echo to the songs of Greater and Lesser Whitethroats, Garden Warbler and Yellowhammer, whilst ponds lure Little Egret, Pied Avocet, Great Crested Grebe and Common Terns. There are several hides here, and from these we should locate Great Cormorant, Little Grebe, Tufted Duck, Common Pochard, Eurasian Curlew, Whimbrel and parties of Barn and Bank Swallows. The area around the lighthouse is a noted area for Black Redstart and Northern Wheatear, and migrants and overshoots from nearby Europe, and we may be lucky enough to locate a few specialties. We also visit the shingle garden of Derek Jarmin, known for its ecological sensitivity and landscaped with flotsam and jetsam left by tides.
In the afternoon, we visit Great Dixter, the family home of the late renowned gardener and author Christopher Lloyd. The garden is planted around the medieval buildings, with the arrangement of colours, forms and texture of the plants so well orchestrated that house and garden appear as a beautiful painting. Bring lots of film - although you may be too entranced to take pictures! Night in Kent.
Day 4: Sissinghurst and Hever Castle
In the morning, we visit the garden at Sissinghurst Castle. The 'garden rooms' style of plantings is one of the most described and emulated in the British Isles. It was the joint creation of poet and writer Vita Sackville-West and her diplomat husband Harold Nicholson. Their work transformed the ruins of this Elizabethan mansion into a remarkable must-see garden. The White Garden, the Purple Garden, the Rose Garden, the Herb Garden, the Lime Walk, and the Cottage Garden - scent and colours to be personally savoured.
After lunch, we visit Hever Castle - the romantic double-moated 13th century castle which was the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII and mother of Queen Elizabeth I. The Gatehouse and curtain walls were constructed in 1270 with the Tudor manor house being added within the castle walls by the powerful Boleyn family. Picturesque parkland walks and award winning gardens grace the grounds; within the gardens are the Pompeiian wall and classical statuary in the Italian Garden, giant topiary chess set and the scent of over 4,000 roses in the quintessential English Rose Garden. Then relax by the breathtaking loggia overlooking the 38-acre lake before exploring the cascades, grottoes and fountains. We then travel north past London and into the east coast county of Essex. Night near Chelmsford.
Day 5: Hyde Hall RHS Garden and Abberton Reservoir/River Crouch estuary
In the morning we visit the Royal Horticultural Society’s garden at Hyde Hall. With sweeping panoramas, big open skies and far reaching views, a visit to the 360-acre Hyde Hall estate is unforgettable. It is in an area that has very low rainfall, and this factor, combined with soil conditions and exposed nature of the site, makes it a challenging area for gardening. By choosing the right plants for the right places and by working with the prevailing conditions, it is possible to create a garden of beauty. The garden boasts an eclectic range of inspirational horticultural styles from traditional to modern, providing interest and colour, whatever the weather or time of year. Some highlights include a Dry Garden – showcases a range of drought tolerant plants, Robinson Garden – a plant lovers garden with many detailed and unusual species. Australian and New Zealand Garden – a contemporary garden designed around existing Eucalyptus trees. Hilltop Garden – includes a colour-themed herbaceous border, ponds, rose garden, gold garden, farmhouse garden, shrub rose border, woodland garden and island beds. Queen Mother’s Garden – with meandering paths and a mix of grasses, perennials and roses, and Clover Hill – naturalistic, with vast swathes of grasses and perennials.
Later in the day, we visit Abberton Reservoir or the River Crouch estuary for a good selection of waterbirds and shorebirds. Night near Chelmsford.
Day 6: Beth Chatto Garden and Marks Hall Garden & Arboretum
Today we visit the remarkable private garden of Beth Chatto, an internationally recognized garden of innovation and admiration. The Beth Chatto Gardens began in 1960 when the site was an overgrown wasteland between two farms. Faced with all kinds of difficult conditions Beth and the late Andrew Chatto set out to find homes for many of the plants they wished to grow. With dry and damp soil in both sun and shade, they were able put into practice the underlying principles of "Ecological gardening". In the afternoon, we take in Marks Hall Gardens and Arboretum. The Gardens and Arboretum feature a tree collection from all the temperate areas of the world set in more than 200 acres of historic landscape. Paths wind their way through the Arboretum, where you can see beautiful vistas and a host of exotic trees from around the world. Night in the Saxmundham-Southwold area.
Day 7: Minsmere RSPB
We have several days to visit the numerous excellent and productive RSPB sites and nature reserves of this area of England, generally acknowledged as the best area for birding in Britain, with a good range of breeding birds and a long list of rare migrants. The coastline is largely unspoilt, much of it protected as bird reserves, and we visit the best reserves along the coast. In protected areas of saltmarsh, brackish and fresh water lagoons, Reed and Sedge Warblers are singing from reedbeds, Common Reed Buntings sing from exposed perches, and Common Cuckoo, a declining species in Britain, and which here frequently parasitizes Reed Warbler, should be calling. We make special efforts to find Grasshopper Warbler and Bearded Reedling, as well as Water Rail, Great Bittern, European Swift and Yellow Wagtail. Along the coast, we should encounter breeding Pied Avocet, Common Ringed Plover, Eurasian Oystercatcher and Common Redshank, along with migrant Black-tailed Godwit, Ruff, Black-bellied and European Golden Plovers, Dunlin, Sanderling, Bar-tailed Godwit, Eurasian Whimbrel, Common and Green Sandpipers, Spotted Redshank, Common Greenshank and Ruddy Turnstone. Grey Herons and Little Egrets patrol the shallows, and waterfowl include Common Shelduck, Eurasian Teal, Northern Shoveler and possibly dark-bellied Brant. Terns include Sandwich and Common, and areas of mature woodland in search support Stock Dove, Green Woodpecker, Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler, Eurasian Nuthatch, Eurasian Treecreeper, Great, Blue, Marsh and Long-tailed Tits, Eurasian Bullfinch and, with luck, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. We will also search for a roosting Tawny Owl. Open fields and hedgerows are home to Ring-necked Pheasant, both Grey and Red-legged Partridges, Wood Pigeon, Eurasian Collared Dove, Barn and Little Owls, Jackdaw, Rook, Magpie, Eurasian Skylark, Meadow Pipit, Pied Wagtail, Winter Wren, Eurasian Blackbird, Song and Mistle Thrushes, European Robin, Dunnock, Chaffinch, Linnet, European Greenfinch, European Goldfinch, and Yellowhammer. Heathlands attract European Turtle Dove, Common and Lesser Whitethroats, Garden Warbler, European Stonechat and the elusive Dartford Warbler. East Anglia still supports another declining species, Nightingale, and we will venture out one evening to listen for this ethereal singer.
Our visit today is to Minsmere, a reserve of splendid woodlands, wetlands and coastal scenery, an impressive array of breeding and migrating birds including rare birds such as Pied Avocet, Bearded Tit, Great Bittern, Western Marsh-Harrier, and Nightingale as well as shy wildlife like otters, beautiful insects and colourful wild flowers in summer. Avocets can be seen at close quarters from hides overlooking the Scrape, an impressive man-made wetland, and Bearded Tits and Bitterns can be watched from other blinds around the reserve. Nightingales sing in the evening from thickets and tangles. Night in the Saxmundham-Southwold area.
Day 8: East Ruston Garden near Stalham, Norfolk and Hickling Broad, Norfolk
Today we visit a remarkable garden, East Ruston Old Vicarage, a 32 acre garden incorporating formal design, enormous decorative exuberance and brilliant planting. It lies close to the North Sea but is well protected by windbreaks, which create a unique micro-climate making it possible to grow many tender plants. The individual gardens include herbaceous borders, cutting and vegetable gardens, exotic garden, Desert wash, Mediterranean garden, sunken garden, autumn borders and a fabulous cornfield planted with the `weeds´ of yesteryear. Sculptures and imaginatively planted pots and containers plus finely detailed walls and gates all play their decorative part. The garden grows yearly as the owners,continue to refine and develop more, and larger, areas.
Afterwards, we travel to Hickling Broad in Norfolk. The Norfolk Broads are a series of marshes and ponds formed when medieval peat diggings were flooded. We look here for Great Bittern, Western Marsh Harrier, European Kingfisher and Cetti’s Warbler. We may also find Eurasian Hobby and Common Crane, a few pairs of which breed in this area. The Breckland, an area of thin, sandy soils much of which is covered in plantations of conifers, support Woodlark and Common Crossbill and, in the evening, the strange, bug-eyed Eurasian Stone-curlew. Night in Norwich.
Day 9: Cley Marshes, Norfolk and Sheringham Park
Cley Marshes Nature Reserve on the north Norfolk coast is one of the UK’s finest bird watching sites. Pools and scrapes, all within easy view of hides, are full of unusual and interesting birds, including highlights such as Great Bittern, Pied Avocet, Spotted Redshank, Western Marsh-harrier, European Woodcock, huge numbers of waterfowl and shorebirds, and Brent geese. The shingle beach and saline lagoons, along with the grazing marsh and reedbed, support large numbers of Bearded Tits.
We then travel to the National Trust’s Sheringham Park. Sheringham Park is the most complete and best preserved example of landscape gardener Humphry Repton's work. Repton designed the park in 1812 and proclaimed it 'my most favourite work'. He adapted the landscape to stage-manage spectacular views of the sea, framed by woodland. There are fine mature woodlands and a large variety of rhododendrons and azaleas. In the early 20th century Henry Morris Upcher obtained rhododendron seeds of various types from plantsman Ernest "Chinese" Wilson. Plants from this source which can found at the garden include Rhododendron ambiguum, calophytum and decorum, among others. Many other species of tree and shrub are represented in the garden, including fifteen kinds of magnolia, large specimen pieris, maples, acers, styrax, eucryphia, Pocket Handkerchief Tree and a fine example of the Snowdrop Tree. Several overlook towers provide good views over the gardens, nearby coast and surrounding countryside. A garden temple was constructed in the Park in 1975. Night along the north Norfolk coast.
Day 10: Titchwell, Norfolk and Pensthorpe Wildlife and Gardens, near Fakenham, Norfolk
The RSPB site at Titchwell Marsh is a popular reserve on the north Norfolk coast. A walk from the visitor centre down to the sandy beach takes you past reedbeds and shallow lagoons, which are often full of birds. There are many benches and wheelchair-accessible hides. In summer, Western Marsh-Harriers float over reeds, where bearded tits nest. On the lagoons are avocets, gulls and terns.
In the afternoon, we visit Pensthorpe Wildlife and Gardens. Set in the heart of the Norfolk countryside, in the beautiful and tranquil Wensum Valley, Pensthorpe is an award-winning mix of meandering nature trails and beguiling woodland walks, and a showcase for British wildlife and nature conservation. As one of the leading Norfolk attractions, it's a fine place to visit, with beautiful gardens and spectacular wildlife. Night along the north Norfolk coast.
Day 11: Thetford Forest, Norfolk and Wyken Hall, Bury St Edmunds
Thetford Forest is the largest lowland pine forest in Britain. Breckland Forest is found within Thetford Forest Park and constitutes 28,947 ha in the form of a Site of Special Scientific Interest. The forest is largely surrounded by farmland, and has a high level of biodiversity. It is home to large populations of hares, rabbits and pheasants, several species of deer - Muntjac, Roe Deer and a small population of Red Deer – and scarce breeding birds, such as Woodlark, Nightjar, Goshawk, Common Crossbill, Siskin as well as an introduced population of Golden Pheasant. Stone Curlew breed on the edges of the forest.
Wyken Hall Gardens is a romantic 4 acre garden, designed in the last 25 years with a series of `rooms´ wrapped around a cosy pink house, leading into a more natural garden. The knot and herb gardens were designed by Arabella Lennox-Boyd. A formal kitchen garden has been planted to the north of the house. Old fashion rose garden enclosed by a hornbeam hedge and rose pergola, herbaceous borders, a wild garden, wildflower meadow, nuttery, gazebo and beech maze. Unusual touches include a parterre with rocking-chairs and superb maize gate. A woodland walk leads to the 7-acre vineyard. Regular wine tastings are also held. We return to London for a final night near the Heathrow airport.
Day 12: Departure
Our tour ends after breakfast in time for catching flights back home.
• Pied Avocet
• Dartford Warbler
• Bearded Reedling
• Gray Wagtail
• Cetti's Warbler
• Great Bittern
• Kew Gardens
• Great Dixter
• Hever Castle
• Beth Chatto Garden
• Hyde Hall RHS
• Sheringham Park NT
Tour Dates: April 19-30, 2014
Duration: 12 days
Price: t.b.a. (2013 was: $4,480 USD, $4,425 CAD, single supplement $560 USD, $550 CAD)
Tour Starts & Ends: London, England
Driving distances will usually be short, with a couple of longish drives as we travel north into East Anglia. Walking will be mostly relatively easy and leisurely. Comfortable walking shoes will be fine. The weather should be mild and pleasant, but it can be cool and windy along the coast, and we can expect rain at some time during the tour so an umbrella or waterproof clothing is recommended. The excellent system of nature reserves and RSPB sites in England should ensure a good list of species of birds and other wildlife, and we make good use of them, concentrating on the specialties in each. Our visits to gardens will be relaxed and we should have ample time to appreciate each one.
Each evening, the list of birds and other wildlife will be reviewed, and plans for the next day will be discussed.
• Mild, pleasant weather
• Tour price includes all meals, accommodation, entrance fees, and transport while on tour
• Easy to moderate walking, mainly short drives, comfortable vehicles; a couple of long drives
• 6 to 12 participants with two leaders
Previous checklists from our England Birds & Gardens tour:
2012 England Birds and Gardens Tour (pdf)
2011 England Birds and Gardens Tour (pdf)
2010 England Birds and Gardens Tour (pdf)
2007 England Birds and Gardens Tour (pdf)
2005 England Birds and Gardens Tour (pdf)