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Lullingstone Castle and The World Garden: A Unique Story of Plant Hunters and Colombian Bandits

Photographing and writing about the UK’s most unique and beautiful gardens is something that fills me with joy. Every garden I visit is different from the last, whether it be in the design of its planting, its size – be it tiny or grand, the use of certain flower species or simply for its informal and wild nature. However, I have never come across anywhere quite like The World Garden at Lullingstone Castle in Kent. This unique garden features plants from every corner of the planet, and today I was going to be given a personal tour by its creator, Tom Hart Dyke.

How to Find Lullingstone Castle

Lullingstone Directions

Opening Hours 12 – 5 pm every Friday, Saturday, Sunday, including Bank Holiday Mondays. Assistance dogs only.

Admission Adult £9.00 / Child (3-16) £4.50

The historic house remains closed until 2022.

Free parking on-site is available.

This article may contain affiliate links – Please read the full disclaimer here.

Lullingstone Castle Estate

Dating back to the 15th-century, Lullingstone is one of England’s oldest historic family houses. Nestled in the rolling Kent countryside and comprising a Grade ll manor house, Grade l gatehouse and a vast lake, the 120-acre estate has been in the Hart Dyke family for over 600 years. Descendants of Edward lll, King of England in the 14th century, the Hart Dyke family have entertained royal visitors including Henry VIII, Queen Anne, and The Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall.

Tom is the 20th generation of the Hart Dyke family and is heir to Lullingstone Castle.

In the 1930s, the manor house at Lullingstone was home to a silk farm run by Tom’s paternal grandmother, Lady Zoe Hart Dyke. Royal dressmakers used reams of silk produced here for the Queen Mother’s coronation gown and the wedding dress of Elizabeth Il. A section of Princess Diana’s wedding dress also contained Lullingstone silk.

Sadly, the silk farm is no longer at Lullingstone; however, Tom sometimes meets guests to the World Garden who remember his grandmother. They often have small momentos to show Tom (silkworms were handed out to children in matchboxes as souvenirs).

Plant Hunters, Bandits and Tom’s World Garden

In 2005 Tom established “The World Garden” at Lullingstone Castle.

Its origin arises from a unique story that filmmakers could easily transform into a movie.

I had read of Tom’s kidnap ordeal in the depths of the Colombian Jungle in 2000 while hunting for orchids. Held for 9 months by bandits, it was a harrowing time, to say the least, especially halfway through the ordeal when Tom was given 5 hours to live before being executed.

While some may have sat and cried, Tom took strength from happy memories of his childhood, his love of plants and his wanderlust for travelling the globe as a plant hunter searching for new species.

Out of Despair Comes Hope and Ideas

In these last hours, Tom came up with an idea to create a garden featuring plants from all around the world. Indigenous species from around the globe would be grown in areas that depicted their countries position on a world globe. He would transform the families herb garden back at Lullingstone Castle into a wonderful space where people could see plants from around the world without ever having to leave England.

Of course, with no chance of escape, this was just a pipe dream, and as the fifth hour approached, he knew he wouldn’t be returning to his ancestral home. But his fate was not yet sealed, and he was allowed to live for several more months until being released by his captors on Christmas Day 2000 and was given the advice not to return (no chance of that happening!)

Tom made his way back to Lullingstone with his plan to build his World Garden still as strong as ever and as they say – the rest is history!

Sixteen years later, the garden is thriving with a superb selection of flowers and plants mostly donated by keen gardeners and friends eager to support Tom’s dream and be part of this exceptional garden featuring over 8000 plant species.

Tom has written books on his capture, the World Garden and life as the heir to a 600-year-old estate! Find them here:

The Cloud Garden and An Englishman’s Home

A scaled version of the World Garden – perfect for children to see the continents and oceans

The World Garden Plant Hunter Extraordinaire

Standing outside Lullingstone Castle’s gatehouse, I call Tom to let him know I have arrived. I don’t usually meet British aristocracy first thing in the morning (or indeed ever), and I’m not sure what to expect. Still, I am excited to have been invited along for a private tour of The World Garden on the grounds of Tom’s ancestral home in Eynsford, Kent.

Tom arrives with a cheery smile and is surprised I didn’t get lost finding my way here. There are not many signs for Lullingstone, several postcodes attached to the estate, and entry is along a long narrow gravel track. Thankfully my sat nav found Lullingstone without any trouble but make sure if you are coming that you use the postcode DA4 0JA, or you may be in for a mystery tour of the Garden of England, as Kent is known, rather than the World Garden!

Exploring Lullingstone and The World Garden

We head across the formal garden after chatting about how nature has kept us all sane during the past months and how gardens have been our sanctuaries. Tom points out trees planted by him and his dad, Guy Hart Dyke, when he was 10. They now stand tall and majestic, overlooking any activity in the garden.

We continue through the wildflower walk to the stream where the River Darent runs through Lullingstone. The area is peaceful, and Tom tells me that visitors find it a great place to play “Pooh Sticks”, a traditional game of throwing sticks into flowing water to see whose stick will reach the other side first.

Check out my post: 13 Most Beautiful Botanical Gardens in Europe

Mary Hart Dyke

We return across the well-manicured lawn and pass flower borders which lead to “The World Garden”. As we walk and talk, Tom’s passion for horticulture radiates from him, as does the love of his family, particularly his granny Mary Hart Dyke or ‘Crac’ as he fondly called her.

Tom’s granny inspired his love for gardening when she gave him a packet of seeds to grow when he was three. The two of them were always together in the garden, digging and planting.

Tom recalls that after school when his friends were heading off to play football, he would be heading off to the local garden centre with his granny to buy plants. Not something his friends could understand but something that Tom much preferred. Little did he know that one day he would cultivate a World Garden in the 18th-century walled herb garden of his ancestral home.

Discovering ‘Crac’s Delight’

A great discovery was made In 1999. Tom was on a plant hunting mission when he came across a rare flower that was yet to be discovered or named. In 2005 it was officially named ‘Penstemon Crac’s Delight’ after his granny and can be seen today in the World Garden. A loving and fitting tribute to Mary Hart Dyke.

The World Garden in All Its Glory

Entering the walled garden through the 19th-century moon gate, I spot an information board highlighting plant hunters, including Francis Masson, the first plant hunter at Kew Gardens. These hunters spent their lives journeying to foreign lands, making it their mission to discover and bring plant species back to the UK. So many of the plants and flowers we now grow in our gardens have their origins in faraway continents, and now 80% of the plants we grow in the UK are not native to our shores.

moon gate

As I look towards the sky, I notice flagpoles bearing national flags of Mexico, Australia, South Africa, Japan, and Colombia (Tom says that is a solemn reminder of his days at the hands of bandits). A painted tree trunk and North American totem pole also catch my eye.

Check out my post: 13 Most Beautiful Botanical Gardens in Asia

Every pathway we take reveals plants normally seen in other countries, yet they grow side-by-side and thrive in the Kent countryside. Plants such as Eucalyptus from Australia, Agaves from South America, Agapanthus and Proteas from South Africa and Maples from Japan grow happily together in the World Garden.

Eyecatching Plants and Sculptures

As we wander along pathways depicting the sea and oceans that circle the world’s continents, we pass the Oceania continent, including Tasmania, a destination that I have visited and loved and one where Tom spent time studying.

It brings a smile to my face when I spot a toy koala high up in the branches of a eucalyptus tree. In keeping with Tom’s playful personality, he has positioned whimsical objects such as butterflies, snakes, and a wire baobab tree in each continent for fun. Adults and children alike will enjoy spotting them as they explore the World Garden.

Check out my post : 50 of the World’s Most Beautiful Botanical Gardens

Coffee time calls, and we take a break at the potting shed, where plants are sold. Visitors can take a small piece of the World Garden home and watch it grow in their own garden. We chat about Tom’s plans for the future of the World Garden.

A children’s paper trail may be in the pipeline to encourage the little ones to get close to nature, and more events throughout the year will bring visitors to Lullingstone.

Potting Shed at the World Garden

Hot and Spikey and The Cloud Garden

My last stop of the day is the polytunnels. The “Hot and Spikey” is where Tom grows a plethora of cacti and succulents, from tall spiky varieties to small round ones, some as old as 100 years!

The “Cloud Garden” is the place that displays tender plants that would not cope with harsh English winters. It is also home to “the World’s Most Dangerous Plant” called the Queensland Stinger.

It was caged for safety reasons, and when I got closer, I read that it could sting you and leave you in pain for 9 months. I have to wonder how many visitors have touched it to prove its claim!

We conclude the tour by walking along the flower borders. Tom tells me their growth this year is better than ever with the extreme heat and rain we have experienced.

I am really pleased that I have had the chance to visit the World Garden and been shown around by its creator. It is a great place for all the family to visit and fun to spot a flower or plant you may have come across on overseas travels.

Tom hopes his garden inspires others to develop a love of gardening just as he did, and I am sure Granny “Crac” would be extremely proud of Tom’s achievements.

Thank you to Tom Hart Dyke for showing me around the World Garden at Lullingstone.

Days Out in Kent – Places in the Area to Visit after The World Garden

Lullingstone Country Park

Lullingstone Roman Villa (English Heritage)

Eagle Heights

Castle Farm Lavender

Shoreham Aircraft Museum – Shoreham

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About Author

Angela Price

Angie is a full-time travel writer with over 30 years of travel experience. She has always had a passion for travel, and after a 3-month world trip with her 18-year-old son, she created her popular travel blog to share her adventures with a wider audience. When Angie is at home in the UK, she enjoys exploring the English countryside, visiting castles and gardens and planning her next big adventure. Her motto is "Live Life Wandering not Wondering".

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Linda (LD Holland)
1 month ago

I can understand why photographing and writing about gardens brings you joy. Colours and smells and sunshine does it for me every time. The World Garden at Lullingstone Castle looks like a great spot for a garden wander. And a great castle too! The gate looks like it takes you through a portal to another world. 

WhereAngieWanders
Reply to  Linda (LD Holland)
1 month ago

Yes the moon gate reminded me of one I had seen in Hong Kong.

Renee
Renee
1 month ago

What a lovely day trip this would make! I adore visiting gardens, and this one looks idyllic with the castle setting in the background. Thankfully Tom’s passion has turned this into an attraction worth learning about and enjoying its peaceful surroundings.

Teja
1 month ago

He must be a phenomenal gardener to be able to cultivate such a diversity of species from different climates, in one English garden!

WhereAngieWanders
Reply to  Teja
1 month ago

yes Tom is very skilled in what he does.

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