Balmy Britain: why you should visit Ventnor Botanic Garden

Tucked away on the Isle of Wight’s south coast, this haven really can boast a balmy UK microclimate – and has the lizards to prove it

I feel like I’ve been to a lot of places in Britain that have boasted of a microclimate. And, as any self-respecting pedant will tell you, they are probably correct: “There is a distinctive microclimate for every type of environment on the Earth’s surface,” says the Met Office. But while we all love a windy upland, the areas that really get the juices going are those pockets of Britain where it feels unnaturally balmy.

It was when my daughter was so shocked by a wall lizard darting out from a rock that she stumbled backwards and sat on a cactus that I knew that Ventnor Botanic Garden (VBG) was the real deal.

Situated on the south coast of the Isle of Wight, Ventnor is already at an advantage for benign weather. But the botanic gardens are blessed, albeit in a precarious way: thanks to the “protection” of the Undercliff – a landslide complex that dates from the last ice age – they are shielded from the bitter winds off the chalk downs. Frost is hen’s-teeth rare in these parts, they expect only 28in (710mm) of rain every year and the temperature is typically 5C (41F) warmer than the UK average.

A chest hospital operated on the site from 1869 until it closed in 1964
A chest hospital operated on the site from 1869 until it closed in 1964. Photograph: Ventnor Botanic Gardens

This allows VBG to call itself “Britain’s hottest garden” and also to specialise in plants that are hard to grow elsewhere in the UK: these include towering echiums, spiky agaves, aromatic bottlebrushes and more than 20 species of evergreen puya from the Andes. Unusually, most of these exotic plants grow outside, unprotected.

There’s a tropical house, with a vibe that’s a bit more DIY than anything you would find at Kew Gardens – you enter through what looks like a derelict mineshaft before being broadsided by its heat and raging humidity. In summer, you should see an Amazonian giant waterlily. It’s claimed the leaves, which can be up to three metres (10ft) wide, can support the weight of a child, but maybe don’t test that. Or do, I don’t care, but be forewarned.

The restorative effects of time spent at VBG are no secret. It used to be the Royal Hospital for Diseases of the Chest, which opened in 1869 and was the place to go if you had tuberculosis. That closed in 1964 and a few years of limbo followed, but this year VBG celebrates its 50th anniversary. In recent times, the gardeners here – because of the heat and the risk of landslips – have become preoccupied with saving water and sustainability. The gardens might look a bit scruffy, but this is part of an attempt to create a more natural ecosystem.

As for those lizards, some say they clambered ashore after a shipwreck; others that they were deliberately released in the 1920s. Either way, they seem happy sunbathing on the rocks and you could do worse than to follow their example.


Tim Lewis

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
‘The beating pulse of poetry’: why you should visit Keats House
The Romantic poet’s home in London was a haven where he wrote some of his most famous works. Today, two centuries after his death, it still evokes Keats’ spirit

Ashish Ghadiali

28, Jun, 2022 @1:00 PM

Article image
Macabre, biased and fascinating: why you should visit the Wellcome Collection
The permanent collection of gruesome medical artefacts, is just one of the attractions at this mesmerising and forward-looking London institution


27, Jun, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
‘Solitude and awful wildness’: why you should visit Castlerigg stone circle
Instead of fighting the crowds at Stonehenge, head to beautiful Keswick to visit one of the country’s earliest monuments – solstice or no solstice

Killian Fox

25, Jun, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
A monument to Scottish home life: why you should visit Tenement House
Agnes Toward’s beautifully preserved Glasgow flat tells the story of these buildings – not slums but hubs of vibrant communities

Robin McKie

29, Jun, 2022 @1:00 PM

Article image
Social history and art combined: why you should visit the Centre of Ceramic Art
From Lucie Rie’s buttons to WA Ismay’s unique hoard, the peerless pottery collection in York Art Gallery will appeal to all

Rachel Cooke

24, Jun, 2022 @1:00 PM

Article image
Open your eyes to Britain’s hidden history. Here’s our pick of places to explore
From prehistoric stone circles and cave art to castles, houses and galleries, our writers pick their favourite spots for a day out

Rachel Cooke

24, Jun, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
Where to run wild: UK playgrounds and skateparks to visit
From the first play street to a ‘junk playground’, there are many spaces old and new that offer kids the chance to let off steam

Krish Nathaniel

26, Jun, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
Inside the lair of the She-Wolf of France: why you should visit Castle Rising
Norfolk seat of the Plantagenets and once home to Isabella, wife of King Edward II, this fortress is a trip that satisfies the mind, lifts the spirit and takes its visitors back in time

Fiona Maddocks

24, Jun, 2022 @9:00 AM

Article image
Wit, wisdom and better than Wordle: why you should visit Dr Johnson’s birthplace museum
You don’t need to have tired of London to enjoy this attraction celebrating the great lexicographer in his home town of Lichfield

Vanessa Thorpe

25, Jun, 2022 @1:00 PM

Article image
10 enchanted gardens: beautiful and quirky spaces
Our pick of truly unique gardens inspired by everything from black holes and poison to kidnap and cats

Nell Card

03, Mar, 2022 @12:00 PM