A new garden to explore is always a joy isn't it? A weekend wander around a garden with cake and coffee at the end of a visit is a pleasure for so many of us.
To get a chance for a private visit to a garden with two friends who happen to be gardening experts, and enjoy a ramble around with the owners, is even more of a treat.
That's why I loved going to Sulby Gardens, to record a programme for BBC Radio Leicester's gardening programme, "Down to Earth" doing just that. Derek Cox and Josie Hutchinson , from the programme's panel of experts were with me.
Tucked just inside the Northamptonshire side of the border with Leicestershire, Sulby Gardens consists of twelve acres of formal gardens, kitchen gardens, orchards, a wood and even an ice house.
Alison has lived here since 1976. She and her husband Chris were fired with enthusiasm after reading John Seymour's 'The Complete Book of Self Sufficiency' and were inspired to buy a walled garden and live in the Head Gardener's Cottage there.
There were glasshouses and old storerooms which still bear the pencilled notes on the doors detailing how many fruits and carrots were picked in the early 1900's.
Part of the old apple store is now a conservatory where expertly trained (according to Derek) grapes festoon the ceiling.
There's a rather large glasshouse from 1904, which was the original carnation house.
Alison's husband Chris died nine years ago at the age of sixty. However he's left quite a legacy and they both have amassed a wonderful collection of sixty three varieties of apple trees .
There's a certain romance to the names of the old and new varieties of apples grown ...and there's also a dozen varieties of pear trees .We tasted two or three varieties as we munched our way around the kitchen garden and then found ten varieties of plum trees on the verge of ripeness.
Bill Barker has been the Garden Manager here for twenty years or so, and he too has played an important role in the development of the garden, especially since Chris's death. In fact Alison says he's an important reason why she has been able to stay here - she simply couldn't have done it on her own.
On the right hand side of the walled garden, glass houses previously abutted the walls for a couple of hundred yards or so.
And that's why Sulby Gardens is so interesting...because the gardens belonged to a minor stately home built in 1792 and designed by Sir John Sloane. Echoes of its gardening past are all around, but the house itself is no more. It was demolished in the early 1950's .
We winced and shuddered as we heard this - having seen photographs, it was a beautiful building. Yet we were able to admire what remained of the more formal area of gardens
It's ironic, because so many owners of old houses have, over the years, sold parcels of their estates or gardens for housing or development. Alison and Chris did the exact opposite, they managed to buy extra land to increase their garden, to build a wood and seven ponds.
With the wood, they inherited an ice house. I was dying to see this...Josie walked over it without knowing at first!
This dates from the late eighteenth century and is listed.
We all trooped down the stairs and inside in single file, the temperature immediately dropping as we did so. No torches, but fortunately I had my trusty iphone to light our way
This was where tons of ice, were hacked from the stream running through the gardens by the gardeners, and thrown into the hole. Meat, game and fish, butter and other foods were kept here on the ice until needed for the table.
By now, we had spent two hours wandering around the gardens, enjoying the views and the plantings. We'd also admired the way that Alison, Chris and Bill have enhanced the gardens over the years and developed flower meadows and wildlife habitats for mammals, insects and birds.
By now, the drizzle and wind had died down and we were able to relax on a garden bench in the sunshine.
Left to right...Bill Barker, Josie Hutchinson, Derek Cox, me and Alison Lowe
Such a lovely day and such an interesting garden, with so much to see . You can hear the programme we recorded by clicking this link
You can also see the gardens for yourself as they are open on Thursday 12th October from 1 pm to 4pm and again on Friday 13th October from 11am until 4pm...
Alison and Bill will be around, and you've got the chance to buy some bottles of fresh apple juice too, which is pressed and bottled by Bill, but only sold to garden visitors at open days for the National Garden Scheme. There's plenty of apple cakes to taste too!
Here's just three of the varieties, and Sunset, the bottle I have tasted is absolutely delicious and addictive.
Sulby is worth a visit any time of year though and opens regularly....so do check with the Northamptonshire branch of the National Garden Scheme to find out next year's dates. You will be so pleased you did!