Anyone local who's ever ridden a chugging double decker bus — or, heaven forbid, cycled — up Riverhill, can vouch for the Himalayan-esque heights it reaches. At the very top, as wheezing bus engines are at the point of gasping their last breath, a sign indicates the Riverhill Himalayan Gardens, luring explorers around a sharp bend, behind an intriguing hedge and into a gardener's paradise.
Located in Sevenoaks, Kent, we're not quite in authentic Himalayan territory. The 12-acre gardens take their name from the 'Little Everest' viewpoint located at the top of the hillside property, as well as the yeti which roams the grounds.
Despite the name, there is no river at Riverhill. The name comes from ‘rither’, a Saxon term for hill, effectively meaning that the name, somewhat aptly, translates as 'hill hill'.
The lack of river is more than compensated by the quality, quantity and gradient of hill. Set among one of the most dramatic landscapes in Kent, the incline is at times more suited to cheese-rolling than gentle ambling, and even the fittest of visitors would do well to clear their calendars for the following 48 hours, the approximate duration of the resulting calf burn.
The inclined walk from the car park only hints at the sheer steepness a day at Riverhill Himalayan Gardens entails. Before you enter, glance up at the trees which tower impossibly high on the hillside above — if you explore the gardens to their full extent, you'll soon be high enough to see over the tops of those same trees, to the county beyond.
At the entrance, take a pitstop at Otto's cafe, and get a coffee or sugar hit to see you through your adventures (trust us, you'll need it). Otto's has taken the risky but entirely commendable decision to stop using disposable coffee cups completely. Bring your own, if you want to take your drink around the gardens, or enjoy it at the seating area, or inside the cafe when restrictions are lifted.
You'd do well to use the facilities at this point too — they are the only toilets in the gardens, and it's a fair old trek back down the hill if someone decides they need to go while you're ogling the view from the top.
The toilet location is the only flaw in the otherwise extremely family-oriented set-up of the gardens. The mascot, a friendly Himalayan yeti, roams the forest at weekends and in school holidays, greeting young visitors and showing them his den. We've been fortunate enough to spot the hairy chap once or twice, in what we can only assume was yeti moulting season, his white fur coat looking a little worse for wear. An adventure playground, school holiday activities and an annual pumpkin festival all contribute to the appeal for families.
Beyond yeti-bothering, there's a wealth to see. Riverhill House itself is closed to the public, though you can get a taste of the (literal) high-life by visiting the adjoining summer house. Located in what is usually a quieter part of the gardens, it's an ideal spot for a peaceful sit down, and as with everywhere on the premises, the views to the south are pretty impressive.
Though located right next to each other, the Rose Walk and Walled Garden could be from two opposing landscapes in two different centuries. The Rose Walk is a typical English country garden, and looks at its best in summer when a rainbow of roses is in full bloom, scenting the air against a brick wall backdrop.
Adjacent, the perfectly manicured lawn of the Walled Garden boasts a modern, metallic water feature, eye catching in its own way.
Such juxtapositions are prevalent throughout Riverhill; just as you're imagining yourself in the pages of Frances Hodgson Burnett's Secret Garden, you turn a corner to be confronted by the most modern of sculptures. For the green-fingered, most plants are labelled with handwritten signs, while the more whimsically-minded can enjoy benches carved with quotes and lines of poetry.
Memorial plaques, sculptures and statues are dotted about, often without explanation, which serves as a reminder that this is first and foremost a family home, with secrets and history that the general public will never be privy to.
The property wasn't open to the public at all until a few years ago, following a restoration project to return the gardens to the glory they'd held under the stewardship of botanist John Rogers, one of the founding members of the Royal Horticultural Society and a friend of Charles Darwin. The Rogers family still owns Riverhill today.
For our money, the best time to visit Riverhill Himalayan Gardens is during April's Bluebell Festival, when the flowers are out in full force. For a few precious days, the woodland floor becomes a carpet of colour, a purple wave to rival the best of lavender farms, drawing in flower fans from near and far, and earning a regular slot in guides to the best places to see bluebells in Kent and the south-east.
The bluebells are best seen in the Chestnut Wood, home to that yeti, where they're dappled in sunlight streaming through the tree canopy, but it's also worth following the path around the back of the Camellia Glade to see more of the purple plants.
Duck through a green archway to the Tortoise Walk (no reptiles, but a handy bench from which to enjoy the gorgeous Primrose Meadow in spring). It's worth wandering all the way down to the hidden rock gardens, but from here, the only way is up, whichever route you decide to take. Manicured gardens give way to mature bushes and trees, which hint at age and longevity. Up, up, up and away, all the way to the Himalayan hedge maze.
The field looming beyond the maze is the literal and metaphorical peak of a visit to Riverhill, home to the Little Everest viewpoint. A Union Jack flag upon a stone plinth marks the spot, and tempting though it is to sneak a peek over your shoulder, for the full effect wait until you reach the summit before turning to admire the south-facing view. Kent, the whole of Kent, laid out before you like a tiny toy town, disappearing off into various undulations.
On a sunny day, you'd be forgiven for thinking you spy a river at the bottom of the valley. In reality, glinting cars and vans follow the twists and curves of the A21, whose noise can be heard when the wind is in the right direction.
An information board beyond the viewpoint pinpoints sights that even locals may not recognise from this angle. To the far left, Hadlow Tower, the tallest folly of its kind in the UK, can be seen on a clear day.
In front of you, the neighbouring town of Tonbridge. The huge white building in the centre is part of West Kent College.
To the right, Crowborough hill in East Sussex and Penshurst in Kent, with infinite other sights and shapes to be spotted in between.
It is, in our opinion, the best picnic spot in Kent, and on a quiet afternoon, you might just have the whole thing to yourself. Well, you and the yeti, of course.
Riverhill Himalayan Gardens, Riverhill, Sevenoaks, Kent, TN15 0RR. The gardens are usually open March-October, check website for details. Currently, tickets must be booked in advance.
- You're just down the road from the town of Sevenoaks, with beautiful architecture, independent cafes, and sprawling space of Knole Park.
- In the opposite direction is Tonbridge, with an impressive castle, historic buildings and blue plaques aplenty.
- Several castles including Tonbridge, Hever, Chiddingstone and Lullingstone are all a short drive away, if you want to make a day of sightseeing.