It was daffodil season on a sparkling spring morning at Blithewold Mansion in Bristol, Rhode Island, an enchanting 33-acre estate on Narragansett Bay, just over the beautiful Mount Hope Bridge. A little girl in a pink tutu twirled along the woodland path, thousands of daffodils nodding in approval, and looked up at us. “This is my favorite place in the whole world,” she enthused, before exiting stage left into the bamboo grove.
Blithewold can have that effect on people. Built as a summer place in the 1890s by Augustus and Bessie Van Wickle, the couple purposely placed themselves at a distance from the Newport Bellevue Avenue mansions scene with its gold-leaf this and marble that. They moved into their estate, country-casual by the standards of their peers, with their 10-year old daughter Marjorie in 1896. Augustus died two years later at the age of 42 in a skeet-shooting accident when his gun accidentally fired, mortally wounding him in the chest. Five months later his second daughter and namesake, Augustine, was born.
The mansion Augustus and Bessie built was destroyed by fire in 1906, and Bessie and her second husband, William McKee, replaced it with the 45-room English Country Manor-style home that stands today. Along the way, gardening continued at a steady clip. The wide-open spaces of Bristol allowed Bessie and landscape architect John DeWolf to plan and put in place the 10-acre Great Lawn, along with garden room upon garden room—the rose garden, the rock garden, the water garden, and more.
DeWolf’s vision included not just perennial borders, specimen trees, and shrubs, but a general air of informality that comes through to this day. “The Bosquet” (French for “woodland”), for example, boasts not only thousands of daffodils, but remnants of last fall’s leaves and a gravel pathway that is left un-edged. The landscaping crew has not been permitted to aim their leaf blowers into every corner of the property and aggressively tidy it within an inch of its life. The woods are left to feel like the woods, and the land is all the better for it. Beneficial insects remain tucked into the leaf litter, which in turn breaks down and feeds the woodland, all without compromising the beauty of the spring scene.
And what a scene. Under the tree canopy look for a wide variety of daffodils such as Little Gem, Ice Follies, King Alfred, Rijnveld’s Early Sensation, and more. In all, there are over 50k daffs blooming throughout the property in a 6-week succession. Grape hyacinths are everywhere also, as are fritillaries, and squill, all having their moment before they give way to the wildflowers and ferns of summer.
“Blithewold” is Old English for Happy Wood, and the name is apt. There is a distinct lack of “no” around the place. Signs don’t demand that visitors keep to the path and not stomp through the daffodil clumps. One is trusted to know this and comport oneself accordingly. Even (or especially) the high-spirited children visiting this family-friendly place fall under Blithewold’s spell, its magic rendering them unable and unwilling to traipse through the beds or step on a single flower.
If there are docents around and about, they are busy tending to their tour groups, not casting side-eye at those who chose a free-range experience. Picnicking is encouraged, and stern signs about cleaning up afterwards simply don’t exist. Of course you’re going to clean up afterwards. This is Blithewold, darling, a place where everyone does the right thing and a good time is had by all.
Not to be missed: the stroll along the bay with its sweeping views, the rose garden with its stone archway, and the specimen trees, especially the giant 100+ year-old Sequoia. Give yourself a couple of hours to tour the gardens. Unfortunately, the mansion and the greenhouses are currently closed to the public due to the pandemic, but you can visit the small gift shop, and the indoor restrooms are open.
Special programs and activities such as nature sketchbook journaling; garden design classes; and the popular tea and scones seatings on Blithewold’s expansive porches with views of the bay are starting to resume. Check the website for more information.
101 Ferry Rd, Bristol, RI 02809
Tuesday to Sat., 10am-4pm & Sun., 10am-3pm. Visit www.blithewold.org for tickets and info.
Distance from Natick Center: approximately 65 miles
Drive time: about 1 hour, 15 minutes
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