Garden diary

A trip to Sussex

As part of our kitchen gardening course we recently visited two very different gardens in Sussex. The first, a private garden with an old walled kitchen garden at its core and which Arne has been involved with for over ten years, and West Dean Gardens, a beautifully restored Victorian vegetable garden.

In their Victorian heyday walled gardens buzzed with industry as all powerful head gardeners manipulated and toiled to produce the earliest, biggest and tastiest food crops for their masters in the great house. These spaces were built when labour was cheap and estates were largely self-sufficient communities, much like the monasteries before them. After the two World Wars, country estates went into decline as death duties took their toll and many great houses were lost and those that remained were run on a much more modest basis. The first world war especially decimated a generation of working men and much of their knowledge was lost with them.

Many of these walled kitchen gardens have survived in various states of repair and while some of them are still used in much the same way as they were originally intended, most of them have either had to adapt to a new purpose or sit idle until a viable use can be found for them.

Our garden visits neatly covered the ways in which we are reusing and reimagining these spaces. West Dean is perhaps the most straight forward. West Dean College is nationally renowned for its craft courses so it is perhaps no surprise to find it home to an outstanding homage to the Victorian kitchen garden.  The rebirth of the kitchen garden has been masterminded by Jim Buckland and Sarah Waine who took the run down remains of a once great walled garden and reimagined how it may have functioned in its heyday. I say reimagined rather than restored because what they have done is not a straight restoration. It is more reminiscent of what a Victorian head gardener might have done with the space if they were around today, so there are concessions for mechanization within the structure for example but also a much greater range of fruit tree pruning on display. Jim has passionately recreated a plethora of fruit tree shapes which have probably never been seen before in England and they alone make West Dean a great place to visit. Sarah has a truly Victorian grasp over glasshouse production, and rattles through facts and figures relating to each crop with intimidating authority. The garden reflects the rigidity and austerity of its original function; I found it hugely impressive yet also slightly sterile.

Our visit to the private house was something entirely different. The house is Queen Anne in style with later additions and is immaculately kept by a great team of gardeners. The garden has a lake, beautiful borders, perfect topiary and a wild flower meadow so superbly balanced in the species on display that it looks slightly unreal. It was the kitchen garden that we were really there to see however. When Arne started designing this garden the walled garden had retained an original bed layout and paths, complete with aged fruit trees lining them. Arne chose to keep all of the original structure and to use it in a new way; where West Dean is a phenomenal recreation of the Victorian kitchen garden this garden is more like the evolution. Because the structure has been retained the space keeps the atmosphere of a kitchen garden without the hard formal efficiency of its Victorian predecessor. Three of the four original beds have been retained for the production of vegetables, fruit and flowers for the house but have been extensively redesigned to include much more structural and material interest while the fourth is a labyrinthine path of tall grasses leading to a small sunken grassed open space. The glass houses and gardeners bothy are all beautifully built and overseen by a head gardener of very rare talent who gardens not only with great efficiency but with a real artist's eye for detail. It really was awe inspiring to experience. His name is Ben Pope and he also writes a blog which I thoroughly recommend. It can be found at www.theworkinggarden.com 

Both of the gardens have much to be admired but I was really captivated by the private garden. It was a great reminder for me of Arne's great talent for capturing the essence of a place and somehow amplifying its beauty. The gardeners there have every reason to be proud of their efforts. I am hugely grateful that West Dean exists and it offers great inspiration for fruit tree pruning particularly, but I am also glad that the fashion in gardens these days is for softer, more romantic spaces that nurture our sense of well-being even though it is perhaps not as efficient as our Victorian heritage.

Words: Steve Lannin, Head Gardener at Allt-y-bela

Photographs: Kristy Ramage

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