A Life Botanic

Morning is the perfect time for a walk in the leafy tranquillity of Best Western Plus Grim’s Dyke Hotel. We share our favourite spots that you must visit.
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Morning is the perfect time for a walk in the gardens at Best Western Plus Grim’s Dyke Hotel, a grand old house built on the site of Iron Age earthworks known as “Grim’s Ditch”. As I walk along well-tended pathways, the sun is breaking through the mature woodland and flooding a carpet of flowers. It’s a leafy, tranquil, almost out-of-time experience that makes it easy to forget that we are only 20 minutes from central London, in the suburbs of Harrow. 

When the house was originally built this corner of the capital would have been even more peaceful and pastoral, surrounded by 170 acres of parkland, much of which remains. This undoubtedly attracted its first owner, the artist Frederick Goodall who was known among his peers as the ‘artist gardener’ and frequently spent early mornings outside painting. The building’s design belongs to noted Scottish architect Norman Shaw who – under Goodall’s instruction – gave pride of place to the gardens. And Shaw didn’t disappoint. The house welcomes the outside in at every opportunity with views from rooms specifically angled to catch the best of the gardens as the day progresses.

Yet despite the glorious greenery, and Goodall’s large open studio to overlook them, the artist never quite settled here, selling Grim’s Dyke in 1890 to its most famous owner: W. S. Gilbert, of Gilbert and Sullivan fame. Gilbert was already a wealthy celebrity for works such as H.M.S Pinafore, illustrated overleaf, and he set about adding lavish touches throughout. Goodall’s studio became a music room,  adorned with a Cornish alabaster fireplace of his own design – said to have come to him in a vision whilst traveling in India. And it’s a sight to behold: a full bestiary of carved mythical creatures dancing in elaborate relief from floor to ceiling.

Gilbert, it seems, was not a man for subtlety. He embraced the exoticism of the age and spent much of his time strolling the halls with a pet lemur named Paul on his shoulder. But he was a prolific worker too. In his luxuriously appointed study – now the hotel bar – he wrote his last ten works. The gardens were also a passion for Gilbert and his wife;  indeed, many of Lady Gilbert’s plantings are still in evidence – from rhododendrons to towering redwoods. Her pride and joy was a superbly scented rose garden, still blooming today with many varieties that are the legacy of her collection.

Her work lives on wonderfully today through current head gardener, Helenka Jurgieleewicz, who joins me on my walk
We use both original Victorian seed varieties and more modern plants.” She explains. “I try and embody the spirit of adventure and exploration from the time, rather than just being a facsimile.

Helenka’s expert eye certainly keeps the garden a vibrant, thriving and useful place. We stroll through formal beds, ancient orchards and a kitchen garden laden with produce for the hotel restaurant. And like all the best gardens it’s an environment that exists perfectly in balance with nature - at once tamed and celebrated in all its wild glory. I can’t help feeling that Frederick Goodall and the Gilberts would still be proud to call it home.

Head gardener Helenka Jurgieleewicz’s four favourite species from the grounds:

Gunnera Manicata - A relative of rhubarb, this giant foliage plant adds drama and a lush tropical feel to the sunken rose, a wild contrast with the historical surrounds.

Chimonanthus Praecox - Originally from China, this shrub throws out small, fragrant, waxy pale-yellow blooms in the depths of winter; a real treat for those who venture out.

Rosa ‘Comte de Chambord’ -  A beautiful richly perfumed pink Portland rose; the epitome of a romantic English country garden.

Sequioadendron Giganteum - Soaring high around the perimeter of the formal gardens these Victorian statement trees often planted in pairs mark the perimeter of the formal gardens and the transition into the wider woodlands and on to Gilbert’s Lake.

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