Hatley Park Gardens:  A Balance of Beauty and Heritage

Among Victoria’s least known gardens, yet one of the area’s most beautiful, are the gardens found at Hatley Park National Historic Site home to Royal Roads University. Situated on the shores of Esquimalt Lagoon with a spectacular view of the Olympic Mountains across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, these gardens have been in existence for almost a century.  Built by James Dunsmuir, son of coal baron Robert Dunsmuir, they are among the finest surviving Edwardian gardens in Canada. “I don’t care what it costs, just build it”, were James Dunsmuir’s famous words in the early part of the last century.  In 1910, the Dunsmuir family moved into their grand castle. Set in a farm nestled in a 565-acre forest of Douglas firs, there was also a dairy operation, sheep, a tannery and a sawmill.

Between 1913 and 1914 the Dunsmuir family hired landscape architects Brett and Hall from Boston to design the grounds, in keeping with their status as one of Victoria’s premier families.  Today those gardens remain largely intact. The Italian garden is laid out in a formal symmetrical style with boxwood hedges defining beds and paths.  A wisteria-covered loggia rounds off the west end, filling the garden with its scent in May. Considered the favourite garden of James Dunsmuir’s wife Laura, she was known to wander along the brick pathways, past Italianate statues representing the four seasons, and by beds filled with colourful annuals in the summer. Japanese anemones extend the season into autumn, and even in winter there can be found a melancholy grace to the leafless trees and the classical lines of the structure surrounding the Italian garden.

After taking in the spectacular view of the snow-covered Olympic Mountains to the south, visitors can descend the granite staircase to the croquet lawn and admire the long herbaceous borders backed by a Castlewellan hedge. With hot colours on the west and a cooler colour palette on the east, they are at their most colourful in July and August. Exiting through a small gate, you will pass from an open, sunny, bright garden to dark mysterious woodland. The century-old trees have achieved a mature grandeur and provide a canopy of shade.

Across a small arched bridge you will enter the Japanese garden, which was built in two parts. The original Japanese Garden, or Upper Garden, built in 1910 was designed by Isaburo Kishida, who had arrived from Japan in 1908 to help his son build a tea garden in the modern-day Gorge Park area. Word of his presence in the region soon meant more commissions, not the least of which came from Butchart Garden founder, Jenny Butchart, and Hatley Park’s Laura Dunsmuir. The Upper Garden is built on a slope, with several stone-lined streams making their way to the lake below. Cherries and Azaleas imported from the Yokohama Nurseries in Japan nearly a century ago bloom in profusion in April and May. The Lower Japanese Garden, constructed circa 1913-17 by an unknown designer, encircles a lake fed by natural springs. Shirotae cherries line  the east side, carefully pruned, and displaying snowy double blooms in April. A narrow pathway hugs the shores of the lake and takes visitors under their twisted branches. These are followed by the massive Pink Pearl Rhododendrons in May, hanging their giant trusses gently over the water. A small island, reached by a curved wooden bridge, represents a tortoise, which is a symbol of longevity in Japan. This peaceful and restful garden is a beautiful place to sit and relax with a picnic or book while watching the antics of the water fowl.

Continuing around the pond and up the east side of the gardens you can walk through the heritage rose garden and out the other side to the 1910 glasshouse, the site of the former Dunsmuir conservatory, a requirement of any grand estate of the time. Huge boilers fed by coal and wood heated the glasshouse and provided a touch of the tropics in the middle of winter. The Conservatory was dismantled in the 1950s after winter winds damaged it beyond repair. Nevertheless, the glasshouse still survives after it was restored with a substantial endowment from the Fisher Foundation in 2006. There you will find, among other things, an original Black Hamburg grapevine.

Often referred to as the jewel of the WestShore, Hatley Park Gardens offer a nice blend of horticultural and historical interests. A well- informed guided tour will provide our visitors with a serene hour of walking with a peppering of interesting facts and details about this historic place on Southern Vancouver Island, so often overlooked by the tourists that flood the region every year.