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.
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.