Into the Secret Gardens

Behind a row of Victorian terrace houses in the East Sussex town of Lewes where we live, is a large and hidden secret garden. It is privately owned, but opens each summer as part of the National Garden Scheme and Southover Open Gardens, a garden trail to raise funds for the Southover Bonfire Society (Lewes is famous for its annual bonfire celebrations and the different bonfire societies raise funds throughout the year to put on their spectacular fireworks displays on 5th November).

My two oldest Little Weeds accompanied me on the garden trail yesterday and we started off at the Secret Garden, which is accessed by going down a flight of steps and along a narrow brick and flint corridor until you suddenly emerge into a garden the size of a small park, which is completely invisible from the street.

The garden was laid out in the 1930s by the Martin sisters, Olive and Winifred, who bought it in two parts in 1925 and 1937 – it had originally been the orchard of nearby Southover Grange. They lived with their widowed mother in two of the adjoining terraced houses overlooking the eastern part of the garden, and they purchased the western part from their aunt who owned two houses further up the road.

Today it is a genteel space which has changed little since the 1930s, despite two floods and the 1987 hurricane. There are gently curving lawns, yew topiary and brick paths leading between the different areas of the garden including a pond covered in an ingenious dome-shaped frame, hidden seating nooks, romantic flower beds and bold borders. We enjoyed a cream tea on the lawn, to give us energy for the rest of the garden trail.

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Next stop was a beautiful, rambling family garden where my girls used to come to a Diversity playgroup when they were little. Rabbits and guinea pigs have ingenious runs on the lawn, a hidden path leads behind the flower beds and venturing down to the bottom of the garden we found chickens with new chicks and a veg patch big enough to feed a large family.

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As a keen amateur gardener who never has enough time to get my own garden looking just the way I want it to, I am always impressed by the bravery and generosity of other amateurs who open their gardens to the public. People’s gardens are their refuge and their sanctuary, so there can be something very intimate about visiting them.

We loved a delightful courtyard garden which made great use of space with little paths revealing surprises such as a stone head filled with purple asters, with lavender growing behind to look like a wild head of hair.

IMG_2818This garden also boasted an inviting shed come garden room which gave me inspiration for our own shed (no I haven’t got round to clearing it out yet…).

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The tiniest garden on the trail had made good use of space by working upwards, planting an abundance of tall plants in raised borders around a small decking area.

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Some of the gardens reflected the fact that here in Lewes we are practically up on the South Downs and the soil can be very thin, but can still host some wonderful wild flowers such as this pyramid orchid.

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Others were filled with personal treasures, such as the garden which housed a collection of egg cups in a summer house at the end of the garden, as well as an old stone plinth bearing the legend ‘Boys’ which was rescued when building work was carried out at our local secondary school.

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We each had our favourite gardens. I could easily imagine myself whiling away an afternoon lying in this hammock surrounded by alliums and roses:

IMG_2822Or growing vegetables at the end of this deceptively large garden which also contained a covetable garden studio and plunge pool:

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The Little Weeds favourite was definitely the ‘Play Garden’, a small garden behind a modern semi which has been completely astro-turfed and filled with children’s play equipment, including a climbing wall – a brilliant idea for adding extra all-year round space for a family.

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