Pop star turned horticulturist Kim Wilde sings the praises of Cumbria and picks out its outstanding lakes and gardens.
The natural romance of the gardens in the Lake District is something that I have fallen in love with. The way that they reflect their setting among the fells, mountains and lakes with wild flowers, natural water features and local materials such as slate and limestone is so simple, yet so beautiful.
I was 36 before I even knew Cumbria existed and couldn't believe how stunning and unspoilt it was. My husband, whose family has a wonderful old house overlooking Derwentwater, near Keswick, introduced me to the area and it's had a huge impact on us both. It's where we spent our honeymoon and it's our bolt hole when life gets too busy.
Now I feel Cumbria is something of a home from home for me. We've spent many happy holidays here and visited many gorgeous gardens, often taking our two children along with us.
There's John Ruskin's weird and wonderful creation at Brantwood and the exquisite traditional rose gardens at Dalemain. Holehird, run by volunteers, is a true gem and was deservedly voted one of the Nation's Favourite Gardens on BBC Gardeners' World. Some of the gardens are fantastic for children - Muncaster has a maze which is such good fun and at Mirehouse you'll find adventure playgrounds hidden among the trees.
This year I have teamed up with designer Richard Lucas to create a Cumbrian fellside garden for the Chelsea Flower Show, which runs from May 24-28. I hope that we have captured the essence of this amazing county in our exhibit - and inspire other people to enjoy it, too. There are so many Cumbrian gardens I could mention and many others I can't wait to explore, but here are just some of my favourites:
These gardens recently won the Cumbria in Bloom Award for Adventurous Horticultural Excellence and are a firm favourite in our family. The fabulous Holker Garden Festival is now an annual fixture in our diary. As well as providing a wonderful day out, the gardens are a delight to wander through, full of rare plants and carefully tended by their charismatic owners, Lord and Lady Cavendish. I've been fortunate enough to have designed a garden for the festival for the past three years.
Standards are high and it's as good as Chelsea. There's a lovely feel to the event - everyone is so friendly it feels like a big family get-together. The gardens are immaculate and there's always something new to admire. Many of the features are unique to this special micro-climate in the South Lakes. The children love it here, too - there is so much for them to do. There's the hall to explore, an adventure play-ground, a deer park, a great cafe, a food hall and a motor museum.
- Holker Hall, Cark-in-Cartmel, near Grange-over-Sands, Cumbria LA11 7PL, 01539 558328, www.holker-hall.co.uk.This year's garden festival is on June 3-5.
One of my favourite secret places in the Lakes is the tiny summerhouse in the gardens of William Wordsworth's home, Rydal Mount. You can look down on the lawns and see the lakes and mountains shimmering in the distance. Wordsworth designed the garden and composed much of his work in the summerhouse. It's still an inspiring place. He had strong views about gardening and preferred informal planting that harmonised with the countryside.
Richard and I share his sentiments and hope to reflect that in our Chelsea garden with wild flowers, dry stone walls and slate from Borrowdale's Honister Slate Mine. We couldn't design a Cumbrian garden without a few words from its most famous poet and after many late nights deliberating, we chose a quote from his poem A Farewell. 'Our spirits carrying with them dreams of flowers' will be inscribed in slate.
- Rydal Mount and Gardens, Rydal, Cumbria LA22 9LU, 01539 433002, www.rydalmount.co.uk
John Hawley, Sizergh's fantastic head gardener, took me on a tour of the gardens just a few weeks ago. I was really impressed by the stunning limestone rock garden which contains one of Britain's largest fern collections. What I loved most were the rows of gorgeous Prunus Shirotae with semi-double white flowers that have a honey-almond scent. Lovely walks take you round the lake and ancient woodland filled with butterflies in summer. It would be perfect for a picnic. A highlight is the orchard, which has rare varieties of apple such as Bloody Plowman, first grown by a man who was later beheaded. I'm a fan of traditional fruit varieties - in fact, my determination to grow fruit and vegetables for my children inspired me to become a gardener. Just before we left Sizergh, I saw the first swallow I've seen this year - a lovely end to the day.
- Sizergh Castle, Sizergh, near Kendal, Cumbria LA8 8AE, 01539 560951, www.nationaltrust.co.uk
I visited Levens with my family in the autumn and it was a blaze of orange and gold - I was bowled over by the beauty of the place. The world-famous topiary garden is a sight to behold with yew clipped into towering crowns, peacocks, lions and birds. It has an Alice In Wonderland atmosphere. The gardens are lovingly cared for - trimming the figures alone takes a team of gardeners four to six weeks each year. There are rose and herb gardens and wonderful colour-themed herbaceous borders. The gardens have survived virtually intact for 300 years and it's a testament to the strength of the design that no owner has felt the need to alter it.
A Frenchman originally created the plans, but there is a very English feel to Levens Hall. It's the sort of place where you want to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon before sitting down to cucumber sandwiches and tea on the terrace.
- Levens Hall, Kendal, Cumbria LA8 0PD, 01539 560321, www.levenshall.co.uk