Britain's year of bloom

The garden at Hampton Court.

Gardens and gardening are a passion of the British. Thanks partly to horticultural expeditions in past centuries, you can see more species of plants there than anywhere else in the world.

The home of legendary designers such as Lancelot 'Capability' Brown and Vita-Sackville West has something to delight the garden lover in every region and season, especially in 2001.

It is an extra special year: One of the most remarkable garden projects, containing the world's largest glasshouse, opens; there's the National Botanic Garden of Wales (the first new national botanical garden in the UK for 200 years); anniversaries and special events.

The National Trust, the world's number one garden owner, has declared 2001 Gardens Year.

A "living theatre of plants and people" - the size of 30 football pitches - is being constructed in a former china-clay pit in England's West Country.

The focal point of the Eden Project, which opens near St Austell, Cornwall, are two massive conservatories called biomes.

One of them, 45 metres high and big enough to hold the Tower of London, is the world's largest and houses hundreds of plants from Amazonia, West Africa, Malaysia and the Oceanic Islands.

The other, the warm temperate biome, contains plants from California, Southern Africa and the Mediterranean. It is so inspiring it has been attracting crowds even while under construction.

Some 120 miles north, across the waters of the Bristol Channel near Carmarthen, is the National Botanic Garden of Wales.

Although limited opening began last summer, 2001 is its first full year (open from January 1).

Like the Eden Project, its most stunning feature is a great glasshouse. This one boasts the largest single span anywhere - an engineering feat achieved by the architect, Sir Norman Foster.

Inside are 1,000 species of Mediterranean flora and features including a ravine, rock terraces, a waterfall and even a lake.

The National Trust, which looks after the world's largest and most important collection of gardens and landscape parks, has a packed programme of activities planned at many of its 200 gardens and parks throughout England and Wales for the Gardens Year.

There are events throughout the year, from a Snowdrop Day at Anglesey Abbey, Cambridge held in February to Tree Dressing for Christmas at Prior Park, Bath.

Behind-the-scenes tours by the Trust's gardeners, botanical painting and fetes champetres (costumed garden parties) will also feature.

British gardens are not just about history. Over a five-year period, the Trust is commissioning different contemporary artists to design planting schemes in the Rothschilds' garden, Waddesdon Manor near Aylesbury.

In June, fashion designer Oscar de la Renta will unveil a striking abstract design with scented bedding plants.

Also in the summer, English Heritage opens the latest in its series of contemporary gardens in historic settings at 12th century Richmond Castle, North Yorkshire and at the Medieval Bishop's Palace, Lincoln.

2001 is the centenary of Queen Victoria's death.

Osborne House on the Isle of Wight (76 miles south-west of London) with its lovely gardens, was her beloved holiday home. Here, for the first time, visitors can enter the walled fruit and flower garden, filled with plants of the period, created by the queen and her husband, Prince Albert.

One of England's most exciting garden restorations for years is the new Van Kampen Gardens at Hampton Court.

No, not the famous royal gardens beside the River Thames, but another Hampton Court 130 miles away at Leominster, Herefordshire.

In a region of black-and-white villages, the Van Kampens have restored a gem dating from the 17th century. See a wide range of English styles: there's an original 'ha-ha', a sunken garden, waterfall, hermitage, yew maze, pavilions and towers.

Several gardens have anniversaries in 2001.

Leeds Castle in Kent - often described as the loveliest castle in the world - celebrates 25 years of opening to the public.

Painshill Park, a landscaped garden at Cobham, south-west of London, marks 20 years since the start of its huge restoration project.

Rescued from a derelict, overgrown state by determined volunteers in 1981, the park and lake were created by Charles Hamilton in the 18th century and filled with eccentric follies.

Search out the Turkish tent, Gothic temple, Chinese bridge, grotto and ruined abbey and, newly restored in 2001, the ice-house. A new visitor centre and restaurant also opened in April.

One of the finest gardens in southern England, Compton Acres overlooking Poole Harbour on the south coast, has marked its 80th anniversary.

Its 10 individual gardens represent world horticulture from Italy to Japan and the latest addition for 2001 is a Sensory Sculpture Garden with Zimbabwean stone sculptures set amid scented shrubs and swirling grasses.

One of England's finest country house estates - in Shakespeare Country - reopened on April 1, following major restoration. Stoneleigh Abbey near Kenilworth, which dates from the 12th century, has 690 acres of landscaped grounds. A lake originally created by widening the River Avon has been reclaimed, and the house is once again reflected in its waters.

Those interested in the history of the subject should visit a new exhibition, "Seven Centuries of Gardening" being held daily until October at Penshurst Place, a stately home which lays claim to having one of the oldest gardens in Britain.

Its records date from 1346, and much of its formal garden is just as it was in Elizabethan days. Penshurst, stately home of Viscount De L'Isle, is near Tonbridge, Kent.

Many other beautiful gardens - 100 of them - can be found in the British Tourist Authority's colourful new map-folder Britain's Gardens, available free from its world-wide offices.

The BTA has also launched a searchable website, with 400 more:

Britain's gardens are blooming lovely!

* Bob Barton is the featues editor with the British Tourism Authority (BTA). The authority is working with the Welsh Tourism Board to promote that part of UK and to educate tourists about the attractions in Wales.