Highgrove, Prince Charles' private gardens, is well worth the trip

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Editor's note: This article first appeared on July 26, 2008. Atlas Travel Service is planning a similar trip to England on May 19-26 to coincide with the 2014 Chelsea Flower Show.

Highgrove, a 37-acre Georgian estate in Gloucestershire, England, has been in royal hands only since 1980. But Prince Charles, who lives there, has quickly turned it into a showcase for his many interests. His great love for the natural world was easy to see when we joined 14 other Pittsburgh women on a rare tour of the prince's country estate and other English gardens in the region known as the Cotswolds.

The entrance to Highgrove is so well hidden and unassuming that one could easily pass by without noticing it. The house dates to the 1790s and was built in a Georgian Neo-classical style, elegant but restrained. Since Prince Charles took over the estate, he has initiated organic farming and gardening practices and turned the vast fields and woods into a haven for wildlife (and some not-so-wild creatures). So that he can easily see his prized herds of cattle and exotic sheep, no hedges block his view of them grazing in the fields outside his window.

Among the many sights, an odd creation in the Woodland Garden, the stumpery, made a big impression on us. Enormous tree roots that were unearthed when the fields were tilled were brought to the garden and stacked on top of each other. Workers filled the spaces with soil and planted ferns in the crevices. The result is an otherworldly atmosphere as if one is walking through a primeval forest. There is a beautiful lily pool with enormous terra-cotta jars, fabulous topiary yew hedges and small classical temples.

In the Southern Hemisphere Garden, huge tree ferns, cabbage palms and banana trees grow among other subtropical and tropical plants. Other highlights included an impressive arboretum filled with native trees, a lovely wildflower meadow, a thyme walk and an adorable thatched treehouse made for Princes William and Harry.

Our visit, which included tea in the Orchard Room, lasted 21/2 hours, but we could have stayed much longer to take in all the beauty of the place. As tours of Highgrove are few and take years to arrange, we felt very fortunate to enjoy this unique experience.

In addition to Highgrove, Atlas Travel will tour Blenheim Palace, Hidcote Manor, Chenies Manor, Hatfield House and Wisley Gardens. On May 23, the group will make an all-day visit to the Chelsea Flower Show, considered by many the biggest and best flower show in the world. The 2014 show runs 8 a.m.-8 p.m. May 20-24 at the Royal Hospital Chelsea. Tickets cost 58 pounds (about $78) all day, 36 pounds (about $49) from 3:30 p.m. Tickets are available from the Ticket Factory (www.theticketfactory.com): +44 (0)121-767-4000 or customerservices@theticketfactory.com.

Cost for Atlas Travel Service's English Gardens Tour is $4,330 double occupancy, $5,125 single. Guests stay at the Hare & Hounds in Tetbury and the Millennium Gloucester in London. An optional extension to Paris is available. Information: Atlas Travel on the ninth floor of Macy's Downtown (412-261-0248). Note: Round-trip flight cost may change, affecting the total cost.

Silvia Speyer of Point Breeze has been gardening for 40 years. Phyllis Katz of Squirrel Hill owns Atlas Travel Service with her husband, Bill.

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