Gravetye Manor evokes the ethos of a forgotten horticultural talent

Located at the edge of Ashdown Forest in West Sussex, Gravetye Manor’s most famous resident was William Robinson, an extremely talented horticulturist and journalist. Most people even with a gardening background or interest in gardening have not heard of him.

William Robinson was born in 1838 in Ireland into extreme poverty but became wealthy from his botanical and horticultural writing, buying Gravetye Manor in 1884 with its 1000 acres. He was a gifted botanist, travelled widely in order to study plants, by the age of 26 had already been elected to the Linnean Society and was regularly conversing with the likes of Charles Darwin and Gertrude Jekyll. He was particularly interested in enhancing the natural beauty of the landscape and the replication of natural habitats in gardens, a very different approach to the highly manicured gardens of Victorian times. Of his many writings, his two books The Wild Garden and The English Flower Garden greatly influenced gardening styles in England.


A new lease of life for the Manor

After a period of neglect following Robinson’s death in 1935, Peter Herbert rescued the Manor in 1958 and turned it into one of the finest country hotels in the country until his retirement. Unfortunately in 2010 the estate went into administration, but in that same year Jeremy Hosking became the new owner and set about transforming the hotel and derelict gardens. There was a major injection of funds into the gardens including projects to restore the glasshouses and both the flower and kitchen gardens. The vision was to reinstate the gardens by restoration works but also to inject new life into it in keeping with William Robinson’s experimental garden design principles. Over the last 5 years the gardens of Gravetye have undergone an impressive transformation under head gardener Tom Coward.

Tom elaborated on the pleasures of working at Gravetye, “I have worked at a variety of gardens; some public gardens where you feel like you are on display to private gardens where most of the time the client is often away overseas. Gravetye is different because the guests at the hotel really use and experience the garden.”

The gardens themselves are situated perfectly to enhance conditions for plants, gently sloping, south facing with spectacular views and a special microclimate. Luckily for the garden team, there is an extensive amount of archive material to refer to for restoration purposes. For instance, William Robinson always had an artist in residence at the Manor, and these paintings have proven invaluable as often they provide a better impression of the planting aesthetic rather than photographs.


Photo Credi: Gravetye Manor

Photo Credi: Gravetye Manor

The Wild Flower Meadow

The gardens are extensive but one of the most eye-catching parts of the gardens is the remarkable Wild Flower Meadow, it acts as an everlasting tribute to Robinson’s advanced horticultural ideas. Robinson was always experimenting with the meadows, continually adding new species including exotics but still maintaining a natural aesthetic through deliberate use of colour and form. Today’s current design trend of meadow planting is not a new idea here, William Robinson was doing it during the Victorian era and very successfully. The meadow provides unparalleled beauty throughout the year from the first blankets of snowdrops and crocus in February, through the flower ‘explosion’ in June to the delicate show of autumn crocus.

“Most of the 6 acres of meadows are cut by hand usually in October, raked and all the hay is removed. It’s better to leave it as late as possible as this allows species to self sow, provides habitat and a food source for birds and invertebrates and means that there is less cutting later on,” explained Tom.

Incredible edibles from the restored kitchen garden 

Located quite far from the main house to the north, this 2-acre elliptical garden is bounded by a spectacular sandstone wall that holds the warmth in, keeps animals out and has a good light tillable soil.

Photo Credit: Gravetye Manor

Photo Credit: Gravetye Manor

“Back in 2010, the kitchen garden was a jungle of weeds, overgrown and derelict. The kitchen garden after a year of weed control and clearance was essentially a blank canvas. The beds were split up into differing parts using perennial crops with a path following the ellipse and a central path down the centre,” said Tom.

The kitchen garden is an integral part of the restaurant at Gravetye. It provides nearly all the fruit, vegetables and edible flowers for the hotel’s kitchens. The crops grown are those that taste best when picked straight from the garden. One such example is the delectable asparagus, both the white and green forms being cultivated. By far the most anticipated first crop is that of forced rhubarb grown in original pots from the restored peach house. Fresh fruit and vegetables are not the only prize to come out of the kitchen garden though, the hotel florists cut flowers every day from it too.

Sowing and cropping runs to a tight schedule and in December, the garden and kitchen teams meet to discuss seed orders with planning of the sowing and cropping calendars. Over the busy spring and summer months, sowing occurs in 2-week intervals and this is carried out way into October. Cloches and cold frames are used extensively to get early crops of salad greens and micro herbs for the kitchens. Managing the kitchen garden is a labour intensive process, rotavators are rarely used, just the good old fashioned fork and hoe but the rewards are well worth it.

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