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Situated near Tetbury in Gloucestershire Highgrove is the home of their Royal Highnesses The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall. Bought in 1980 the work began to transform the 15 acre garden surrounding the house along organic and sustainable working practices, the gardens are now open to the public with all proceeds supporting the Prince's charitable foundations.

Location

Tetbury, Gloucestershire

Dates

April - October. Selected dates in February and March for spring walks.

Admission

Pre-booked timed tours only. Various tours can be booked: a 2 hour garden tour, group tours, private tours or tours including dining/ champagne afternoon tea. Prices from £27.50 pp

Arrival times are strict and photo ID of each guest must be presented for security reasons. No recording or photographic equipment is permitted.

Content

The gardens are simply beautiful with the Prince's principle of 'let it be' shining through, to the extent that the climbers adorning the house must be swept aside in order to enter. This is certainly a garden for people with a land and nature conservation leaning within their gardening. The tour started with a short introduction video introducing the garden and the Prince's horticultural approach, we then entered the garden proper.

For two hours we are led through 16 very different gardens. The walled Carpet Garden, inspired by a Turkish carpet at Highgrove and won a silver medal at the Chelsea Flower Show before being transported to its permanent home at Highgrove, is a complete contrast to the Cottage or Sundial Gardens which are far more what is expected from a Georgian neo-classical house in Gloucestershire. It is however magical, and that was on a very wet August day. There is certainly not a feeling of repetition as we wander through each garden area.

This is a very different garden than most open to the public, this is partly due to limited numbers of people and that we cannot wander freely but mostly in approach. It is far less formal than RHS Gardens or some National Trust gardens, and is better for being so. There is far more personality conveyed and the garden feels like a living entity in it's own right rather than nature constrained and moulded to purely fit the will of the gardener. It is an excellent lesson is delivering Spirit of Place through means other than interpretation and signage.

This is very much the garden of the Prince of Wales, the conservation principles are clear and an integral part of the garden. The Wildflower Meadow for example is carefully managed along conservation guidelines usually only seen within conservation charities or at SSSIs. Green hay is brought in each year to add to the variety of species year-on-year, this is then cut by by scythe. Through the autumn sheep graze the meadow to distribute the seed that has fallen and to prepare the ground for germination. Invasive grasses are kept down by the use of yellow rattle allowing the wildflowers to flourish, this includes over five types of orchid.

An insight into sustainability at Highgrove

The one acre Kitchen Garden is entirely organic and divided into 8 triangles and 8 squares with an apple tunnel running through the centre with a Italian fountain at the heart of the garden. Alongside the pink gates (the Queen Mother's favourite colour), fruit trees and vegetables there are herbaceous boarders and tunnels of sweetpeas. The principle that overrides the whole garden of 'let it be' prevails here in what is usually the most cultivated of environments. The central fountain is encrusted with moss, it's a gentle reminder of who's garden this is and the principles surrounding it.

Throughout the garden are areas for contemplation, always with a single seat, busts of significant people in the Prince's life and memorials to treasured pets are additional reminders of the Prince's influence. The Thyme Walk however highlights that this is not just the garden of the of The Prince of Wales, each of the golden clipped yew topiary balls (the only remaining element of the original garden) is tended by a single gardener to their own design. The Stumpery is another area where another side of this garden emerges. There is a distinctly other worldly feel to this part of the garden with the enormous Gunnera erupting from the pond. Two very clever classical temples made from oak but look like stone with their pediments decorated with tree roots sit alongside a thatched tree house, used by the children in the Prince's family since 1988.

Alan Titchmarsh tours Highgrove and interviews HRH The Prince of Wales

The garden is home to several National Collections including beech and broad-leaved hostas. The garden has been designed by the Prince of Wales with various collaborations such as Sir Roy Strong, Lady Sailsbury and Miriam Rothschild. There are many examples of commissioned works throughout the garden.

The tour guide concludes our tour and we return to the Orchard Room where refreshments are available and the shop is located.

Interpretation

As tickets are only available through prior booking only the guidebook is also offered at this point, this enables the visitor to have read a substantial amount of material before arrival.

The 32 page guide book designed by Katie Beard features an introduction by the Prince of Wales, hand drawn map of the garden by Jonathan Myles-Lea, a brief but informative overview of each of the 16 gardens and sections on organic sustainability and the Prince's charitable work.

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The format is predictable and completely in keeping with the visual identity which is very strong throughout the visit. The guide book does not challenge conventions in anyway, however this is not what it is meant to do. It conveys information in a clear way to its target audience. It's certainly not required for use during the tour but acts as good, well laid out introduction before arrival and a souvenir.

The tour starts with the obligatory, if quite lenghty, introduction video with as predicted lots of classical music and soft imagery. The Prince of Wales features heavily, again unsurprisingly, anything else I suspect would leave the majority of visitors disappointed particularly the international visitors. The garden and it's formation make up a large part of the video, but substantial time is devoted to cause messaging surrounding the Prince of Wales' charitable work and how profits from the garden, shop and restaurant go to support these causes.

This is a guided tour, depending on which tour has been booked depends on the size of the group. The standard tour has upto 26 people with one guide, the private tour accommodates upto 12. Our tour guide was very knowledgeable, a good thing and impressive as there are no plant lables as in other gardens open to the public and had a clear delivery. She certainly was not reciting a script which is a huge plus point, each tour guide has their own style and methods of delivery which makes for a far more engaging experience. Asking questions was positively encouraged and our guide was sufficiently knowledgeable about both horticulture and Highgrove to be able to answer confidently and accurately. The added little stories and insights regarding the Prince of Wales and his family are undoubtedly what visitors relish in.

Visitor Experience

Estate colours loom into view and you know you're in the right place, if you were in any doubt the Policeman on duty and the security cameras give the game away. Each vehicle is stopped and ID and tickets checked. However Highgrove does not feel like a fortress, it might be the rolling countryside and acres of Cotswold stone but there is a distinctly friendly feel and it feels far more of an event that driving up to a ticket booth. Once through the security checks at the gate the security becomes much less conspicous.

Arrival at The Orchard Room, built in 1998 to provide meeting and event space the building also provides facilities for the garden tours. The foyer is warm and welcoming, decorated in a very traditional style with dark wood furniture and colours reminiscent of well known heritage paint brand. The decorative scheme extends to the lavatories which were pristine, both in cleanliness and presentation. Light and airy they were exactly what I expected them to be, closer to a country house hotel than a visitor attraction, certainly no hint of cubicles in a line. For once an appropriate amount of space has been devoted to the facilities and the absence of a Dyson Airblade is a joy. It's quiet, with individual hand towels and the hand cream. This is a complete luxury which most attractions cannot achieve, however it is lovely to experience when it can be.

Small amounts of merchandise are carefully displayed without feeling like a secondary outlet. Standard sales techniques of introducing key product early has been used in a thought out manner.

Our guide arrives and is reassuringly dressed for the very wet weather, sensible Hunters and riding jacket. As we progress around the garden it becomes clear that she's almost embodying the garden. In both there's no pretension, she knows the Latin names for everything but doesn't feel the need to use them unless asked. There's no tweed jacket in the warm August weather or skirt and heels because she might bump into the heir to the throne. A straight forward, middle class, middle aged lady who points out where she used to ride her pony at Pony Club cross country before the Prince of Wales took residence. This particular guide has struck the right note.

The introductory video takes place in a small semi-permanent marquee; it's the high end of semi-permanent marquee with lined walls, ceiling and chiavari chairs and flat screen TV but still a little disappointing. Highgrove has USP in being the home of the Prince of Wales and it's not afraid to capitalise on it. However it doesn't feel tacky or exploitative, the introductory video is just the right side of this line for my cynical tastes and although Dutchy Orginals and Highgrove products dominate it is delivering the experience that most expect.

The guided tour takes us extremely close to the house, to the point that a sneaky peek through a window is unavoidable. This was surprising but made the tour feel special as it certainly wasn't expected for security and privacy reasons and is no doubt a highlight for many. Combined with the little insights as to how the Prince of Wales uses the garden give a glimpse into his personality helps to raise this experince above being a tour of a garden.

The tour occurs at a good pace, enough time to feel you've seen everything in particular location without feeling hurried. This was aided by the extremely wet weather during the visit which meant we were disinclined to linger. At full capacity of 26 people on the tour I can imagine that it would feel a little full and particularly for those hard of hearing it could be difficult to follow.

*360 degree tour of the Cottage Garden*

After completing the tour, which was delivered very well we were delivered to the Orchard Restaurant for refreshments. Here proceedings began to feel a little formulaic with the whiff of reaching the next stage of our visitor journey. Surroundings were of a good quality and well done tea room of a visitor attraction rather than the country house feel that had previously been conveyed. The food was lovely, with a good range and as expected all suppliers are listed on the menu to elevate the status of the ingredients. Presentation and service were good, however there is a huge advantage to the catering team in the arrangements that Highgrove by its nature dictates. Prebooked timed tickets on guided tours ensures that capacity should never be issue, staffing levels are easier to predict as numbers are not weather dependent and it can be relatively certain that most visitors will visit the restaurant.

Visitor facilities are run along sustainable principles using a biomass boiler, ground source heat pumps, reed bed sewage, air source heat pumps. However considering the environmental credentials of Highgrove this is not highlighted to visitors, a limited mention is included on the website.

Retail and Catering

The retail offer is predictable, a medium sized shop with outdoor products including a small plant selection. Product is well displayed and described as luxury, this reflects the price point of many items however the luxury description is perhaps relative to competitors rather than fully descriptive of the product. The product is however all very good quality as would be expected from the Dutchy Originals or Highgrove brand.

The catering experience is more fully mentioned above and is not typical of most visitor attarctions, the pre-booked nature of the tickets with the assumption that most, if not all, visitors will visit the restaurant makes wastage and staffing much easier to predict.It should also make service impeccable, this was perfectly adequate with no grumbles excepting that of having to wait for the bill a little longer than was convenient. Food was lovely with a good selction and a price point that reflects the surroundings, over all it was value for money albeit not an inexpensive lunch.
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