Saturday, 25 August 2012

Gravetye Manor Pt. 2

William Robinson died in 1935, bequeathing his home and estate to the Forestry Commission. They rented it out and allowed it to lay derelict for many years, before in 1958 Gravetye Manor became one of the first country house hotels in England when it was purchased by hotelier Peter Herbert. He opened the place up as a private country club, but thankfully followed Robinson’s work and ideas studiously in his restoration and maintenance of the garden. Many happy years passed by until the place was sold to two members of the hotel and restaurant staff, but in 2010 having stretched out too far on a financial limb these courageous coves were sunk by the money men and forced into administration! Happily, this small blip was quickly recovered when a bigwig capitalist chappie from London acquired the property; credentials firmly in order having previously been a guest at the hotel for some thirty-odd years. He has set out a five year restoration plan to return the place to Wild Garden glory, but not keep it as a museum piece. With this in mind he employed a gardener and plantsman called Tom Coward to run the garden and head the restoration. Tom, once a student of the Kew Diploma, was in his previous role the deputy to Fergus Garrett at Great Dixter, who the new owners sought as a consultant after their purchase. All historically important restoration projects are a challenge, but particularly so when you are following in the footsteps of such a great pioneer!

Two years into the project the planting inevitably shows strong influences from Great Dixter, but does already seem to be developing its own unique character out of this style. The sheer quality of this planting makes it a worthy starting point, and out of the modern styles in use today this clearly embodies the experimental and naturalistic nature of William Robinson’s work. The one obvious issue in the Flower Garden is the high proportion of tender plants that make up the current display, but although the great man was apparently resolute on this point he did make some rather interesting comments! Quite early on in The Wild Garden Robinson makes it clear that the garden in his mind is formed of two distinct parts, the flower beds by the house and the wild edges around and beyond. This sensibly sees the flimsy, delicate eggs being mothered and kept an eye on near to the house, while a ragtag bunch of hooligans that like to creep and elbow each other around are turned loose into the surrounding copses and meadows. Confusion arises in this template with rants about carpet bedding, ‘wretched winter-nursed flowers.. set out in their patterns’, in the same paragraph during which he actually encourages the use of tender plants; ‘Wild gardening should go hand in hand with the thorough cultivation of the essential beds of the flower-garden around the house, and to their being filled with plants quite different from those we entrust to the crowded chances of turf or hedgerow:- to rare or tender plants or choice garden flowers like the Tea Rose and Carnation – plants which often depend for their beauty on their double states, and for which rich soil and care and often protection are essential.’ One can only presume that the old scoundrel sought to put the considerable hothouse skills of the day to better use, releasing these exciting exotics from the staleness of the bedding arrangements. What would Robinson be up to at Gravetye if he were alive today, I think it is impossible to say, but to my mind the current display is an absolutely splendid interpretation of the ‘wild garden’!

At the centre of the Flower Garden panels of lawn provide a breathing space amongst the mayhem of the planting. Originally, Robinson had his rose bushes here underplanted with saxifrage

Inevitably there is a case to be made for putting the roses back and restoring the space to how Robinson had it, but with the needs of the property having now changed this area is a well-used seating area and sun trap for hotel guests

Verbascum olympicum leads the eye up the banks that slope from the Flower Garden

The stone paths in the Flower Garden were completely overgrown in the 1950s when the hoteliers moved in!

The wonderful Meadowsweet, Filipendula ulmaria, bridging the terrace between Flower Garden and Alpine Meadow

The seed heads of Angelica archangelica, with Erigeron annua and the crisp blue of Salvia uliginosa

The froth of Ammi visnaga mingling through the hazy wands of Pennisetum macrourum

A glorious evening to enjoy one of the many meadow areas that surround the garden

Quite probably my favourite Salvia, the red S. confertiflora, with a spent head of Allium christophii and more of the Foenicium vulgare behind

The arresting Echinacea purpurea ‘Fatal Attraction’ and a charming annual known as the Jamaican Forget-me-not, Browallia americana

Achillea sibirica and the glowing embers of the Foenicium vulgare foliage

More heads of Ammi majus, the tassels of Persicaria orientalis and Eryngium yuccifolium

Bidens aurea ‘Hannay's Lemon Drop’, this plant likes to run and is planted right on the outskirts of the Flower Garden

The recently reclassified Digitalis canariensis, the fading blue of my favourite Echium vulgare, and the fuzzy Foxtail Barely, Hordeum jubatum

Two ancient yews provide a shady corner in the Flower Garden

More cut flowers in the sloping Kitchen Garden, with a streak of mixed Antirrhinum majus

And more startling colour for cutting, Gladiolus ‘Amsterdam’ and G. ‘Black Jack’

That is all from Gravetye!


patientgardener said...

Wonderful, thanks for sharing.

It must be hard to find the balance when restoring a garden but also to keep it fresh and not a museum piece.

Prue said...

Thanks for that Bertie. I'm not a great fan of Echinacea but I'd give those Fatal Attraction a home, along with the Ammi majus.

They have some lovely paths at the manor too.

Anonymous said...

I would definitely have to be dragged from the shade of the ancient yews at end of day - sublime!

James Golden said...

An enlightening (and enjoyable) post. Proof that one should read the book, and not just read about it.

Prue said...

Hi Bertie,

I don't know how to contact you other than this blog, so I hope you get the link.

Thought you might find it interesting.

Wife, Mother, Gardener said...

Great photos! That Foxtail Barley is quite a wild thing in with the flowers... definitely a Dixter feel, which I do not mind at all. It will be exciting to see which way this garden goes in the future.

Share my Garden said...

What a riot of planting. I'm going to have to buy some 'Fatal Attraction'!

Anonymous said...

The Tweed Pig would like to get in touch with you directly. Please could you email us at This is a genuine request. Thanks, and we look forward to hearing from you!

Prue said...

Hiya Bertie,

How are you getting on? Have you started another blog yet?

Lovely autumn colours starting here. Hope you're enjoying yourself!


Anonymous said...

Bertie I hope you are coming back . Would miss your posts too much if you stopped. And your delightful sense of humor. Your blog is a treat.

Wife, Mother, Gardener said...

What ho Bertie!
I will join the ranks of stalking garden bloggers to tell you that my husband & I finally saw the Hidcote BBC special on Youtube last evening and were surprised and delighted by your performance! How fun. Hidcote is a truly amazing garden.

I hope you are getting on as well at Kew!

Bertie Bainbridge said...

Greetings all! I’m sorry to call time on the Hidcote joy but I hope you will have the time to peruse my new blog. Best wishes, Bertie

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