The town of Usk, nestled on the banks of the River Usk, in rural Monmouthshire, has become something of a byword in the world of flowers. Since 1981, Usk has earned an enviable reputation for its floral displays and visitors won’t be disappointed during the summer months when the town is a riot of colour. Winner of their class in Wales in Bloom for over thirty years, Usk has also won Britain in Bloom five times, as well as representing the UK in the European competition, Entente Florale. Last year the town crowned these achievements by winning the International Communities in Bloom, beating off competition from Ireland, the Netherlands, Italy and Hungary.
Success in the international competition was secured with the help of what has now become a fixture on many gardeners’ calendars and a must in the run-up to the RHS at Hampton Court –
On the final full June weekend, over twenty Usk gardens open their gates to thousands of visitors. This is a great chance to have a look round other people’s gardens, chat to the owners, stop for lunch in a pub or by the river, take afternoon tea, and maybe buy a plant or two (or three or four…) from markets stalls or from one of the town’s two garden centres.
This year they are celebrating their Silver Anniversary and so every effort is being made to make this year even more special.
It all started in 1994 when, as Cathy Davies, a committee member who opens her own child-friendly garden complete with tree house, explained: ‘We asked people with gardens if they would like to open them. Now it’s grown to over 20 gardens and has been extended to two days. There is something for everyone, no matter what their gardening interest.’
Jan Mundy, Chair of Usk Open Gardens, added: ‘The garden-ers range from the novice enthusiast to long-standing experts but all are enthusiastic supporters of the cause and enjoy welcoming our visitors and sharing the beauty of Usk. It really is a community effort with young and old involved.’
She praised the community groups who volunteer their time during the weekend: ‘Many community groups help with welcoming visitors to the town. Volunteers assist with ticket sales, car parking, directing visitors to the free bus service around Usk, signposting walking routes between gardens and providing homemade teas.’
All this volunteering means nearly all the ticket money can be donated to charities. Last year, they handed over £19,500 to organisations such as Ty Hafan, St David’s Hospice and North Gwent Cardiac Rehabilitation. Small local organisations benefitted too, with donations going to Usk Brass Band, Gwent Wildlife Trust and Usk Cat Rescue. Since its inception, over £250,000 has been raised.
Perhaps the highlights of the weekend are the herbaceous borders at Usk Castle, in itself worth a visit. ‘It’s like a secret castle that no-one’s ever found!’ exclaimed one visitor, on seeing the natural, peaceful setting, the ancient walls covered in creeper and the old stone towers inviting the visitor to explore. Although the castle is open to the public throughout the year, the borders themselves are best viewed from within the private grounds of Castle House, where custodians Rosie and Henry Humphreys live. These gardens are only open a few times a year but Usk Open Gardens is one of those times.
‘It is the highlight of our summer season,’ commented Rosie, ‘when Usk Open Gardens attracts the curious, the brave and the active of all ages to walk up the hill to Usk Castle.’
The gardens were first created by Rudge Humphreys: ‘The gardens date from 1908 when the family first came to live in Usk, so there are many trees and shrubs of a good age contributing something in every season. Rudge kept a diary of his work in the gardens and this is now presented as a map and leaflet to encourage exploration of the grounds – did you find the palm tree? Did you recognise the Medlar, taste the Mulberries? Where is the Hydrangea Petiolaris, and the Magnolia Grandiflora?’
Apart from the wonderful borders, there is a herb garden with plants that would have been used when the castle was last occupied about 500 years ago. Topiary animals and hedges abound, as well as wonderful 3D wood carvings of animals and birds. The view over the town and Vale of Usk also tempts visitors to stay within the Castle grounds.
One very special garden is owned by Marian Powell, who has been taking part in the weekend for over 15 years. Renowned for her artistic ability and enthusiasm, Marian finds gardening very therapeutic. The colourful garden features topiarised shrubs, mature trees, a pond and water feature, hanging baskets and a quirky side passage.
‘Every year I try to add that wow factor. Celebrity gardener Alan Titchmarsh described it as a little world of wonder when my garden featured on his television series Britain’s Best Gardens.’
Marian’s garden was visited by the Duchess of Cornwall in 2014 and also featured several times in Good Morning Britain when the weather reports came from there.
Keen camera fans can enter the photo competition and there are certainly plenty of opportunities to take photos, as the town gears up for not just the Open Gardens weekend but also for the various In Bloom competitions. Usk in Bloom is a voluntary charity where a growing number of local people plant and care for over 90 tubs and displays throughout the town. The centrepiece is Twyn Square, spectacular when in full bloom. Their volunteer efforts are backed by the enthusiastic supports of the pubs and shops, as well as public buildings – even Usk Prison!
Several of the gardens feature refreshments, one even providing a pop-up prosecco and ice cream stall. Not that Usk is short of places to refresh the weary visitor. The little town is full of coffee shops and pubs, restaurants and wine bars, so there’s plenty to choose from as you take a break from admiring all those flowers.
People regularly travel from all over the Continent, as well as the UK, to enjoy the weekend. Some visitors choose to cram in visits to as many gardens as possible in one day, but the weekend ticket is such good value that many opt to make a weekend of it. There are several hotels and pubs with rooms in the town, as well as b&bs within easy distance.
One group returning this year comprises 34 keen Canadian gardeners, plus the head of the Canadian National Botanical Gardens.
‘We just had to visit Usk Open Gardens again,’ organiser Marjorie Mason enthused. ‘It was voted unanimously the best day of the tour last time. It is so special to be invited into private gardens and meet the actual gardeners, and we so loved Usk.’
The weekend is heavily supported by local businesses which sponsor publicity and the bus service to enable all the funds raised to be donated to charity. All the gardens are within walking distance of the free car parks and there is a regular free mini bus service around the town. Admission is £7.50 for a day or £10 for the weekend. Children aged 14 and under go FREE.
For more information, visit www.uskopengardens.com,
Phone 01291 672713 or email firstname.lastname@example.org