As one of the country’s few remaining privately-owned garden attractions, you would be forgiven for dismissing Compton Acres as the ideal venue for a spring or summer day trip; the reserve of spring blossom and endless summer splashes of colour. But in fact, Compton Acres is a year-round destination, its flowers and foliage painstakingly planned and meticulously maintained to guarantee glorious colour and appeal 362 days of the year (closed Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day). That’s not to say that wandering through the Grand Italian Garden bathed in the strong rays of summertime isn’t blissful, but if you hold off visiting this attraction until the schools kick out for six weeks, not only do you miss the delightful seasonal variation and festival celebrations on offer but you’ll share your visit with many more people who have exactly the same plan!
You enter the gardens via one of Compton Acres’ gift shops, which don’t just sell souvenirs, but stock a wide selection of gifts, quality handmade products, rustic wares and even plants. In fact, with its own garden centre on site, where better to source your own perennials (annuals, biennials, Christmas trees and more) than from one of the country’s finest gardens?
Compton Acres occupies 10 acres overlooking Poole Harbour and is home to over 3000 species of plants, some the only examples in the country. The grounds are maintained by a 30-strong team of gardeners who work full or part time all year ‘round. The owners Bernard and Kaye Merna are advised by expert gardening consultant Mary Payne, a Chelsea Flower Show Gold winner who puts together her own show-stopping display for you to enjoy at one of the venue’s most prominent vantage points, overlooking Poole Harbour.
The Italian adventure
Compton Acres has been planned as an intricate, yet easily navigable necklace of five separate gardens, strung together with intricate and keenly planned link-ways. And there’s a recommended (and clearly sign-posted) route you can follow to make sure you don’t miss an inch. You start your tour down an avenue of tree ferns, which meander down to the Italianate Gardens. This is a small but exquisitely styled courtyard garden with a small central pool and charming statue of a boy with a turtle on his back.
Continue your journey through a limestone-walled Grotto and your view opens out to the magnificent Grand Italian Garden. This is a real spectacle, with sweeping ornamental pool, fountains, statues, topiary pieces and colourful seasonal beddings providing swathes of colour or a carpet of greenery depending on the time of year. Some of the horticultural highlights include clipped yews, swags of clematis and towering Chusan and Dwarf Fan Palms.
You’ll notice The Italian Villa, which backs onto this magnificent courtyard. This is a popular venue for weddings, conferences and other functions and although it shares the Grand Italian Garden for a breath-taking backdrop to any photographs, it’s actually a separate business privately rented from Compton Acres. But the building blends magnificently into this charming Mediterranean corner and was designed sympathetically by the owner, who has a background in architecture.
The final leg of your Italian adventure takes you to The Palm Court garden, flanked by four huge specimens of Chusan Palm. This area is bathed in a carpet of colour in the spring and summer months.
A walk in the park
Compton Acres’ self-guided tour leads you away from this Mediterranean medley of colour and grand masonry into a sub-tropical corridor of colour. A sweeping flowerbed purposely planted with rich colours waves you through as you continue to the Wooded Valley. This intriguingly monikered pine wood is a shaded woodland garden snaking through the rhododendrons and camellias past dramatic waterfalls and pools and over dainty bridges.
Wander through open glades planted with foxgloves, bluebells and other woodland flowers. Children will have quite the adventure following the paths and pools of the lower level while the top paths are ideal if you prefer to keep a slower, more even pace.
If you’ve managed to keep the kids with you so far, you are all rewarded with the discovery of the children’s activity area where they can burn off steam safely. With all-weather tepee, den and totem pole hidden in the foliage they’ll feel like they’re on a real adventure in the wild while staying firmly in sight.
The end of the Wooded Valley is home to the bog garden; not the most appealing name but this wet and marshy environment attracts nature’s beauty in the form of wildlife like butterflies, toads and dragonflies.
Room with a view
The landscape changes attitude and pace once more as you enter the Rock and Water Garden. Considered the largest rock garden in private ownership in the country this intriguing space is home to over 300 different kinds of plants – from mature, slow-growing conifers, to alpines and hundreds of dwarf spring and summer flowering bulbs for a contrasting splash of colour. Follow the streams through the pools and gullies and enjoy the serene hum of nature as the water trickles through the colourful foliage.
The tour then takes you to the Harbour View Café – with a name that doesn’t mislead. Order a snack or drink from this seasonal tearoom to enjoy in front of sweeping views across Poole Bay over to Brownsea Island and the Purbecks from this prominent and colourful vantage. Compton Acres are blessed to have the talented Mary Payne as a consultant on all its maintenance and designs and the area just by the café in the foreground of the harbour view is where she crafts a signature flowerbed to delight all who encounter it. This grand corner of Compton Acres also houses a magnificent sculpture garden.
From the dramatic views across Poole Bay from Compton Acres’ prestige vantage spot to the lilting fragrance of the Heather Garden, why not enjoy a change of pace as you take in the glorious colours and aromas of this year-round attraction. If you visit in the spring, you’ll enjoy the colours of many thousands of heathers at their most magnificent including some Southern Hemisphere plants which couldn’t thrive if planted any further inland. This season also welcomes the Acacia Pravissima and Sophora Sun King. This garden is awash with colour in all seasons but reach their peak in winter (look out for the winter flowering Grevillea ‘Canberra Gem’ and G. Victoriae) and late summer.
A link to the past
Compton Acres has a rich and fascinating history which dates well before its present owners’ stewardship. While they’ve really added their own stamp on the venue there are many sentimental touches that give you a glimpse into the gardens’ deeper past. One touching tribute is The Memorial Link, an old picnic arbour redesigned in 1956 as a tribute to the then-owners’ three children Dick, Elizabeth and Anne, who all died tragically young. Once you’ve passed this touching memorial you encounter a formidable screen of bamboo which welcomes you to the striking Japanese Garden.
A Japanese journey
The Japanese Garden is widely regarded as one of the best in Britain. It’s calm and serene, designed in the style of the country’s famous water gardens. The garden features a Tea House draped with Japanese wisteria in May time and a thatched summerhouse constructed in line with authentic designs. The stone and bronze works dotted around this beautiful showpiece were imported from Japan in the 1920s and the plants chosen to emphasise the dramatic effect – the evergreen Karume Hybrid azaleas, Japanese maples and cherry trees, hostas, Hakon grass, a Ginkgo and colourful Asiatic flowering shrubs. It also hosts fine specimens of gnarled pines and a weeping form of Hemlock. If you dare cross the water using the stepping stones, you will be rewarded with the best views of its population of large resident Koi carp.
A rich history
Compton Acres was created by Thomas William Simpson in the 1920s at the cost of £220,000 – the equivalent of £10 million today. Simpson bought the 10 acres of heathland plus mansion with a vision to create a series of five themed gardens to reflect his grand world travels.
The attraction was opened to the public just ahead of the second world war and again just afterwards. It was then bought by London architect J Stanley Beard in 1950, who restored it to its pre-war grandeur and welcomed back the public in 1953. The current owners are Mr and Mrs Merna, who purchased the site in 2003 and have transformed it into the diverse attraction you see today, complete with Italian Villa, Compton Acres gift shop, café and tearooms, Plant Centre and The Ark gift shop.
Learning a love of nature
It’s never too soon to instil a love of nature into a new generation of horticulturalists. And for pupils at the Wise Owl pre-school they get to enjoy the peaceful backdrop of Compton Acres while they learn. This privately-owned establishment gives children access to the tranquil setting and a safe place to play and learn while its sympathetic design doesn’t jar with or detract from the beautiful gardens. In fact, and unusually for a class full of pre-schoolers, you wouldn’t even know they were here! But what a place to learn!