One of my favourite gardens in the UK is a bit of a hidden gem: Compton Acres gardens near Poole, in Dorset.
Nestled into the hillside overlooking Poole Harbour, Compton Acres is spread over 10 acres. There’s a huge variety of things to discover here, from formal ornamental gardens to woodland walks.
Compton Acres is beautiful to visit in all seasons but I prefer it in the spring when there’s a huge variety of plants and trees in bloom. And the highlight, the Japanese garden, is at its best.
What to see at Compton Acres Gardens
Compton Acres was designed in the 1920s by Thomas Simpson. The garden is split into five areas, all with their own theme, and all are very different. You probably need a good couple of hours here to see everything, and more if you want to eat here too.
You can pick up a map at the entrance so you don’t miss anything, although the gardens are signposted and easy to find your way around. It’s fabulous place for kids as they can explore the twisting paths and look for statues hidden amongst the plants. There’s often a treasure hunt of some sort on (just ask when you buy your tickets).
The Italian Garden
Once you’ve arrived and walked past the cafe and shop to the entrance, the first part of the garden you’ll find is the ornamental Italian garden.
A large pond is surrounded by planted beds and pergolas and the garden is overlooked by the beautiful Italian Villa (which, sadly, you can’t go inside unless you’re having your wedding here). Statues complete the Italian feel to the space.
There’s a lovely feeling of calm here. I loved the clematis draped between the yew trees; the kids were tempted to get close to the water by the fountains and the fish in the pond.
The beds are re-planted through the year and can look quite different depending on the season.
The Wooded Valley
The Wooded Valley provides a contrast to the formality of the Italian Garden. While the Italian garden is all precision and tended to within an inch of its life, the Wooded Valley is much wilder and has a more untamed appearance.
Much more enclosed and shaded by enormous Scots pine trees, this was our kids’ favourite area at Compton Acres. Follow the shade-dappled paths up and down the hillside past the waterfalls, and let the kids run free.
If you visit in the spring you’ll be treated to huge rhododendrons and camellias in bloom. Other things to look out for include tropical plants like bananas, and the kids liked searching for statues hidden in the greenery.
My kids were huge fans of the waterfalls, hidden ponds and the rustic play area, which is found right at the far end of the Wooded Valley. It took us some time to coax them away!
Rock and Water Gardens
The Rock and Water garden is one of the largest rockeries in the UK. This garden isn’t as manicured as the Italian Garden but there’s a very different feel to it when compared to the Wooded Valley. It’s full of carefully chosen plants and well looked- after pools, and it’s pretty much all artificially landscaped although you can’t tell. In spring an abundance of tulips, daffodils, bluebells and hyacinths cover the flowerbeds.
Several bridges cross the streams which the kids will enjoy crossing, and they can hunt for animal sculptures in the flowerbeds. The Cub thought that the little waterfalls and ponds gave this garden a fairytale feel.
Bright yellows contrast with the purple and whites of the heather in this part of the garden. The Heather Garden is in bloom all year round, not just in spring, and is supposed to be best in winter and late summer. But it looked pretty good in spring! It’s also a haven for bees – the heather garden was buzzing with them.
Winding pathways are fun for kids to run through, and yet more statues are hidden amongst the plants.
On your way to the Heather Garden you could stop for a rest at the Harbour View cafe which, as you would expect, has a great location and view down to the sea. You can get drinks, cakes and sandwiches here, and treat the kids to an ice cream.
If you don’t want to pause, or the cafe is closed as it was when we visited, make sure you don’t miss the view.
To a Japanophile like me, this garden is heaven – it’s about the closest you can get to Japan in the UK! This garden is based on traditional Japanese water gardens, rather than the famous Zen gardens. So instead of minimalism and carefully swept stones, everything has been laid out around a large pond, with a crimson tea house taking centre stage.
The garden has some gorgeous Japanese plants from acers to azaleas and cherry trees which make it especially colourful in spring. We managed to catch the cherry tree in full bloom and many of the azaleas were out too, although another week or two after our visit they would have been even more stunning. The tea house is covered in a wisteria which blooms in May.
Hidden paths lead you on trails through the shrubbery where you’ll find authentic Japanese statues and decorations, including a torii gateway, and of course, a Japanese bridge.
Stepping stones allow you to cross the pond for great views over the flower beds and the Japanese tea house. Look out for the koi carp in the pond – fish are always fascinating for small children, who will love the stepping stones too.
Just make sure they don’t fall in – we carried Bee and helped the Cub across!
At the back of the garden there’s a gentle waterfall and you can walk up the hill behind to see a tiered pagoda.
I imagine the Japanese Garden is as colourful in autumn too.
For me, the Japanese Garden is the star of Compton Acres.
Once you leave the Japanese Garden you’re back at the main entrance where you could grab some lunch if you didn’t stop at the Harbour View Cafe.
Which part of Compton Acres gardens would you want to explore first?
Know before you go
Getting there and away
It’s easiest to drive to Compton Acres (postcode BH13 7ES) and you just need to follow the brown signs once you reach Sandbanks. Parking is free. If you’re getting the chain ferry from Studland then be aware that the traffic can really build up on Sandbanks so avoid peak hours if you can.
The bus route 52 between Poole and Sandbanks stops just outside.
Tickets and entry
You can buy your tickets upon arrival. An adult ticket costs £8.45 and kids 5+ cost £4.25. You can also buy family tickets for £19.50. There are more ticket options available; see the website for more details.
Eating and drinking
There are two cafes at Compton Acres – one near the shop and the entrance and the other halfway round the garden, between the Rock and Water garden and the Heather garden. The Harbour View cafe is open in the spring and summer only, and was closed when we visited.
We had coffee and cake in the cafe by the entrance. This cafe is really a restaurant as they serve hot and cold breakfasts and lunches, Sunday roasts, and afternoon teas (which include a vegan option). You can also buy alcoholic drinks. It all sounds very good!
More things to do in the area
Dorset is a fantastic area in the UK to visit with your family, especially in spring and summer. We love staying on the Isle of Purbeck near Swanage, where some of the best things to include visiting Corfe Castle and the Jurassic Coast.
Pin this post for later!