The English Garden

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At Gravetye Manor the painstaking restoration is underway of one of the most historically important English gardens of all time. Alex Oxborough met the man tasked with the transformation, Head Gardener Tom Coward.

Many of the essential ingredients of the much-loved English garden, we owe to William Robinson (1838-1935). From the densely packed drift of the herbaceous border to the sweep of naturalised spring bulbs, the Irish writer, journalist and gardener was the architect of the English garden style. Though his contribution is largely forgotten today, he was the inspiration for many of the greats of garden design, among them his long-term friend and collaborator Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932).

Robinson put many of his ideas into practice at Gravetye Manor.  Built in 1590, the Elizabethan house and 1,000-acre estate was his home for over 50 years and a constant source of inspiration. He said of Gravetye in 1918 that “beauty was never lost sight of; nothing was done without considering its effect on the landscape from every point of view”.

A country house hotel since 1958, the changing fortunes of the hotel had seen the gardens fall into a state of disrepair. Current owner Jeremy Hosking, co-founder of the London hedge fund Marathon Asset Management and a frequent guest, bought Gravetye in 2010 and immediately pledged to restore the historic gardens.

Head Gardener, Tom Coward has been given the job of bringing the gardens back to life. Undaunted by their history, Tom is determined they should not become a museum piece.  He says “ Gardens are always changing, they are dynamic, and if Robinson was alive today he wouldn’t look for planting plans from 1590 to copy, so we try and be progressive and experiment. It doesn’t need to be the exact same plants, but it needs to be the right atmosphere.”

Robinson’s most influential works were his books The Wild Garden, written in 1870, and The English Flower Garden, written in 1883. In them he rejected the lurid formal bedding schemes popular at the time and advocated the use of naturalistic plantings, withbulbs and perennials self-seeding to create communities that evolve into flowing drifts of blooms, albeit carefully stage-managed.

There is a lot of work to be done at Gravetye before this ideal is restored as weeds still choke much of the garden. Tom says, “I am not obsessed by weeds, but where you have got a mass of bindweed you just can’t work.” To combat the problem a team of seven full-time gardeners are kept busy clearing the beds and planting annuals where gaps appear. As the hotel is open year-round he and his team do not have the luxury of a closed season like many other great gardens.

Becoming Head Gardener at Gravetye is the fulfilment of a dream for Tom. He says, “I applied to be the Head Gardener here when I was about 22 and turned it down. I always regretted it, so when the opportunity came up here again I thought ‘I have to go for it this time’.” At the time he was working at Great Dixter under Head Gardener Fergus Garrett. While he is grateful for learning from someone he calls, “one of the cutting edge gardeners of the century,” he says, “I don’t want people coming out the house and thinking, ‘Oh. A Dixter garden’.”

Tom estimates the renewal of the gardens will take at least five years but, he says, “The more intimate you get with a place and the more you understand it, then that can change.” Major structural changes already underway include the recent restoration of a pergola to the flower garden and the reduction of one of the pavilions on the croquet lawn to improve the visual flow of the gardens. Behind the scenes the installation of a deer fence and irrigation system, and the complete restoration of the Foster and Pearson-made Edwardian glasshouses are planned.

It is the rejuvenation of the magnificent Edwardian circular walled kitchen garden that most delights Tom because, he says, “before, you were lucky if you got a guest this far”. After just over a year of the ministrations of Tom and his team, it is once more what he calls “the engine room of the garden”. He says, “To have a walled kitchen garden that is still productive is unusual; it’s special. In June, it’s the most incredible place in the world.”

Growing forgotten treasures like Tayberries, Loganberries and Mulberries, as well as numerous varieties of seasonal fruit and vegetables, the kitchen garden remains as central to the garden as it was in Robinson’s day. It provides the hotel with fresh produce year-round, and, via its resident flock of rare-breed Legbar chickens, beautiful blue-green eggs.

Assistant Head Gardener, Helena Whibley, 31, is equally bewitched. She says,  “Sometimes you are in the walled garden and you are digging away and all you can hear is the Bluebell Railway going along in the background, and you think ‘it was 100 years ago when this was created and not an awful lot has changed’. The basis of it is exactly what it was intended to be.”

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Joan Jarvis, 63, the Hotel Secretary, has been at Gravetye for ten years and witnessed the sad decline of the gardens. She says, “They had lapsed into weeds and decay and we had quite a few complaints from guests that noticed, but Tom and his team have been fantastic.”

“When we get time in summer to pop out for a quick walk in our busy day it’s quite uplifting to see and smell the flowers, and looking down on the meadow and the lake with the swans, its beautiful, like nowhere else on earth.” Tom is modest about his achievements at the garden so far. For him, it is a shared enterprise. He says, “I’m lucky that I’ve got the backing, I couldn’t do it without the owner; he’s an amazing man to see the value in a garden.”

Whoever can be credited for the rehabilitation of Gravetye Manor’s gardens, their restoration is a triumph for English gardens, and a triumph for Sussex. As Tom says, “Gardens make people look outside at the world around them. The more people that enjoy gardens, the better.”

Gravetye Manor Hotel and Restaurant is open year-round

Vowels Lane

West Hoathly

Nr East Grindstead

Sussex

RH19 4LJ

Tel: (01342) 810 567

Fax: (01342) 810 080

Email: info@gravetyemanor.co.uk

Web: www.gravetyemanor.co.uk

Previously published in the May 2012 issue of Sussex Life

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