“How many kinds of sweet flowers grow/ In an English country garden?” asks the song. It is an irony that perhaps the most classic example of an English country garden was created by an Irishman, William Robinson, editor of The Garden and pioneer of a new style of gardening which saw Victorian bedding replaced with naturalistic borders of plants well adapted to the British climate.
On a scorching day in July, my mum and I visited Gravetye on its open day. Robinson left his garden in West Sussex and the woods that surround it to the nation, but while the woods are managed by the Forestry Commission, the house and garden are rented out on a long term lease as a luxury country house hotel and restaurant. Staying true to Robinson’s wishes, for one day each year the garden is opened up to the public for the modest fee of £15 which includes a goody bag, talks and tea and cake.
As we walked up the drive to the house, we were greeted by head gardener Tom Coward, selling some of the plants he has grown to raise funds for charity. I couldn’t resist a Helenium ‘Sahin’s Early Flowerer’ which has proved one of my favourite plants in our garden this year and is still in flower nearly three months on.
In front of the house and formal gardens, the long border overlooks a sloping meadow. The planting is informal and colourful with a range of heights and textures.
A pergola runs along the edge of the main garden, flanked by roses, lavender, geraniums, irises and clematis.
We were visiting at the height of this summer’s drought and head gardener Tom revealed that one of the main challenges was watering the garden without disturbing hotel guests seeking peace and quiet in the beautiful gardens.
Although it is not cheap, Gravetye is a wonderful place to go for a special meal – we took my mum there for her seventieth. Earlier this year, it was closed for several months while they built a new extension to the restaurant and here are the results, with a tastefully planted terrace in front.
All the earth moved in the building works had to go somewhere, so this new mound was created which was looking rather good considering it was planted up from scratch this year.
Here is a montage of our meanderings around this lovely garden including my mum with her goody bag, pinky scarlet Lychnis coronaria, my favourite Helenium ‘Sahin’s Early’ and a pond surrounded by roses and Alchemilla mollis.
One of the highlights of Gravetye is the kitchen garden which supplies the restaurant with the very freshest fruits and vegetables. It is a Victorian walled garden, built in an oval shape on a south facing slope so that it traps heat.
We rounded off our visit with a delicious light lunch from the restaurant, made with produce from the garden. Before saying goodbye I could not resist buying a new edition of William Robinson’s famous book The Wild Garden which sets out his philosophy. As the introduction by photographer and landscape consultant Rick Darke says: “The Wild Garden promoted an authentically naturalistic and genuinely low-maintenance approach… The book was ground-breaking and hugely influential in its day, and is stunningly relevant to twenty-first century gardeners and landscape stewards seeking to combine aesthetic design with dynamic biological diversity and sustainable management practices.”