William Robinson’s philosophy of ‘wild gardening’ broke with the artificial and contrived Victorian conventions such as planting in straight lines of greenhouse-raised carpet bedding, preferring instead to use native and non-native hardy perennials in naturalistic drifts, shrubs and climbers, bulbs and alpines in informal planting which blurred the edges between landscape and garden.

Robinson was a friend of Gertrude Jekyll (who found Gravetye Manor for him) and,  having made his fortune through his garden writing (The Wild Garden, The English Flower Garden), he bought Gravetye in 1884 and engaged the architect Ernest George (who was a teacher of Lutyens) to do the restoration (Lutyens himself did part of the work).  The manor was sympathetically restored in the Arts & Crafts style but in keeping with its Tudor origins (built in 1598 during the reign of Elizabeth I).

The garden had been somewhat neglected and has, since 2010, come under the expert guidance of Fergus Garrett (Head Gardener at Great Dixter) who recommended one of his own Dixter gardeners, Tom Coward, to the post of Head Gardener at Gravetye.

Robinson preferred drystone walling to hedges and these lend a mellow informality which blends well into the countryside beyond.  He used alpine bulbs in his meadows – considered a very radical step at the time – having got his inspiration from trips to Spain in his youth on plant-collecting expeditions for Charles Darwin.

The slopes below the garden lead down to the two lakes and are filled with wildflowers which are cut in late September after they have seeded.  Yellow rattle, with its semi-parasitic habit,  is used to weaken the grass and this has established well with the added bonus of attractive yellow flowers.

The more formal gardens next to the hotel have a loose informality as planting is re-established gradually (the weeds which took hold are a major project to control – chiefly bindweed but also Japanese Knotweed).  Until they have overcome this, annuals and bulbs are being used and permanent planting will eventually be introduced.  Angelica ‘archangelica’ and Ricinus give structure with cannas having been put in for ongoing summer colour into autumn (the planting is very reminiscent of Great Dixter, not surprisingly).

The oval, walled kitchen gardens are very unusual (not least because of their shape).  Already well-stocked: with flowers for cutting, with produce for the restaurant and with stock for the gardens, they follow the slope of the hillside (the gardens are all set into a south-facing slope).  Lupins (incl. ‘Morello cherry’ a fine rich red) and  the blue flowers of Phacelia (being grown as green’manure’) were in flower when we visited.

The Victorian glass houses (including an enormous peach house) and cold frames are undergoing restoration (Forest and Pearson – the cold frames have original sashes – two of which have already been restored).

You can visit the gardens as a hotel guest or you can arrange to go for afternoon tea (which, weather permitting, can be outside in the garden).  The staff could not be more welcoming and attentive.  Follow the link to see photographs and read the Head Gardener’s articles ‘In the garden’  www.gravetyemanor.co.uk

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