Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire
The chateau-style manor house is closed until spring, but the Victorian gardens are open every day with their aviary, grotto and outdoor cafes. Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild created the gardens when he began building Waddesdon Manor in 1874. The grounds are now a galanthophile’s paradise featuring 120,000 snowdrops. By March, the daffodil valley will be a lake of yellow; three-quarters of a million daffodil bulbs have been planted across the estate. Blue scillas and golden aconites are already budding under tall, bare trees. Plenty of evergreens too, including fan palms around the parterre and miles of neatly-clipped hedges.
The grounds are open Wednesday-Sunday from 2 February, £13.20/£6.60 for adults/children, free for NT, RHS, Historic Houses and Art Fund members, waddesdon.org.uk
Mottisfont Abbey, Hampshire
The jasmine-scented Winter Garden at Mottisfont flames with scarlet dogwood stems and bright pink cyclamen; the low sun shines through the loose, papery bark of Chinese red birches and makes it gleam like amber. A February stream of blue Glory of the Snow under the pollarded lime trees echoes the trout-filled River Test nearby, where swans glide past glades of naturalised snowdrops. Waves of early spring flowers, including masses of different narcissi, start blooming from March. Living at Mottisfont from 1934, Maud Russell’s eclectic circle of friends included Ian Fleming, Rex Whistler and Russian emigre artist Boris Anrep. Anrep, whose work includes the mosaic floors of London’s National Gallery, created the mosaic angel with Maud’s face near the entrance to the house under a tangle of wisteria. It’s a well-signed 1¼ miles’ walk across fields from Mottisfont & Dunbridge station to the abbey, past nesting rooks, an orchard and a 12th-century church.
Open daily, £16 adults, £8 children, free for National Trust members, nationaltrust.org.uk
Ardkinglas Woodland Garden, Argyll
Home to one of Britain’s tallest trees, a 64m silver fir, the arboretum at Ardkinglas has red squirrels in the garden all year round, views across misty Loch Fyne from the bank at the top of the garden and walks across the wider estate. This is the area where some of recent BBC drama A Very British Scandal was filmed, and Inveraray Castle is just across the water. Spidery yellow witch hazel blooms from January, followed by the first pale purple rhododendron flowers and the earliest primroses on south-facing banks above the ruined, mossy walls of the old mill. By March, the garden is full of birdsong, rhododendron blossom and the honey-apricot smell of osmanthus, an evergreen Chinese shrub with delicate white flowers. Ardkinglas have recently renovated their garden paths to take out steep steps. You can warm up by a fire at the nearby Cairndow Stagecoach Inn with a choice of more than 40 whiskies, Loch Fyne scallops, or haggis, neeps and tatties.
Garden open year round, dawn to dusk. £5/£2 for adults/children (50% off until end of February) ardkinglas.com
Myddelton House, London
This Enfield gem in the suburbs north of London has a rocky little valley at the far end, which is covered in snowdrops each winter, and a sloping meadow nearby that becomes a sea of spring daffs. Botanist EA Bowles lived at Myddelton House all his life and was a great collector of plants, including dozens of crocuses and a corkscrew hazel. He also salvaged architectural features like the old Enfield market cross, which stands in the middle of the rose garden, and two lead sculptures of ostriches. The gardens are 15 minutes’ walk from Turkey Street station and a short stroll along Bull’s Cross from Forty Hall, another great place for a winter walk and cuppa.
Open daily, free, visitleevalley.org.uk
RHS Harlow Carr, Harrogate, North Yorkshire
There’s a faint smell of violets from the miniature thickets of dwarf irises, which flower from late January to early March at Harlow Carr, and a subtle fragrance of vanilla from the flowering sweet box. Hellebores hang their green and lilac heads under slender crimson stems of Siberian dogwood along the winter walk. Nearby the lake steams gently in pale sunshine and two wicker hares are boxing on the lawn. Walking from Harrogate railway station, you can stroll through Valley Gardens, a pretty winter park in its own right. For a hot drink and a cherry-stuffed fat rascal, there’s a branch of Bettys tea rooms at the gardens.
Open daily, £8.95/£4.75 for car-free adults/children (£12.95/£6.55 with a car), free for RHS members, rhs.org.uk
Newstead Abbey, Nottinghamshire
The poet Byron lived from 1808 to 1814 at Newstead Abbey, once home to 12th-century monks. With snowdrops in the woods, peacocks wandering past lakes and waterfalls, ruined archways and topiary, the grounds are dramatic. The heather is already blooming among the bright green harts’ tongues in the fernery; there are stepping stones and cascades in the Japanese garden. Interesting trees are everywhere: a gnarled weeping birch or moss-rooted beech and, particularly good for winter, the grounds are full of flourishing evergreens: conical box trees, tunnels of yew, an ancient lakeside cedar, miles of rhododendrons (already budding abundantly) and variegated hollies in the little Italian garden behind the abbey. Nearby, Byron’s epitaph for his beloved dog Boatswain is carved under an urn.
Gardens open daily, £6 per car or £2 for walkers and cyclists, newsteadabbey.org.uk
Powis Castle Gardens, Powys
From Welshpool’s bunting-strung High Street, you can walk up through the steep landscaped park, with herds of antlered deer, to arrive at the red, gritstone walls of Powis Castle. First built on a high, rocky outcrop in the 13th century, the castle now has celebrated terraced gardens with views that stretch as far as the Shropshire hills. Urn-topped balustrades and dancing shepherdesses line the walkways; an Ozymandian stone foot stands in the wooded wilderness with views through bare trees back up to the castle terraces, patrolled by jewel-bright peacocks. In the Edwardian formal garden, there are century-old lichen-covered apple trees between box-hedge arches and topiaried yew.
Garden and cafe are open daily until 18 February, £10/£5 for adults/children, nationaltrust.org.uk
Dawyck Botanic Garden, Borders
A leafy regional offshoot of Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden, Dawyck was the UK’s first carbon-neutral botanic garden, with the fast-flowing burn powering hydroelectricity. February snowdrops form a ghostly mist over the gently-sloping banks. Dawyck’s geographically-themed areas, among wooded hills, showcase a global collection of plants: there are Chinese dawn redwoods, Serbian spruce trees, Korean arborvitae and Chilean plum yews. There’s also a trail of rare Scottish plants, including the woolly willow that was threatened by overgrazing. The cafe does seasonal soups and scones plus sweets like triple-chocolate orange brownies. International fungi researchers are drawn to Dawyck’s wild, ferny Cryptogamic Sanctuary, an area of semi-native woodland sporting hundreds of species of mushroom among mosses, lichens and liverworts.
Open daily from 1 February, £7.20 adults/free for under 16s, rbge.org.uk
Audley End, Essex
This English Heritage flagship stately in rural north Essex has interiors by neoclassical architect Robert Adam (several of which feature as locations in The Crown) and big, picnic-ready grounds by Capability Brown. Water birds wander up from the widened River Cam and you can buy duck food in the shop. An organic walled garden with a vine house, evergreen shrubberies, cloud-form topiary and snowdrops under the linden walk all add to the winter interest. The tearoom’s changing menu offers dishes like chickpea and aubergine dhal; there’s Saffron Walden ice cream too, made just down the lane.
Open weekends and February half term, then Wednesday to Sunday, free for English Heritage members, £19/£11.40 for adults/children, english-heritage.org.uk
Winkworth Arboretum, Surrey
The National Trust’s only arboretum is already a profusion of colour in early spring. Extraordinarily tall trees of pink camellias tower over the flowering paths in February and March, and glades of daffs and primroses brighten the steep muddy walkways down to a reed-fringed lake. Bus 42 from Godalming stops outside the gates and the café is open until 3pm to warm up after a woodland walk.
Open daily, free for NT members, £11/£5.50 for adults/children, nationaltrust.org.uk