My recent blog posts may suggest that I have been spending my time touring stately homes in southern England, like a character in a Jane Austen novel. First Gravetye Manor, and now Mottisfont Abbey. Rest assured that despatches from the gritty streets of London will return soon.

Mottisfont is perhaps best known for the walled rose garden planted by Graham Stuart Thomas. It’s impressive, and the roses are underplanted with lots of perennials. But there were things I liked more about Mottisfont. It’s home to lots of great art (and art exhibitions), has a racy past thanks to notorious Bloomsbury Set parties and some amazing trompe l’oeil in the drawing room. Oh, and it has a 1950s ice cream parlour, trout leaping from the river and a secondhand book shop.

It was the busiest, hottest weekend of the year when we visited but it didn’t feel overrun (although panic did ripple through the ice cream queue when rumours of a shortage circulated). The National Trust is all about being accessible and giving kids freedom to roam these days, and they’ve certainly got it right at Mottisfont. Families were picknicking, lying under trees, rolling down grassy banks and dozing in the sun. And best of all: dangling their feet in the stream. I half expected a health and safety official in a tabard tell us all to move on, but no one came. It was truly lovely.


Gravetye Manor


If I had to describe Gravetye Manor in one word, it would be: dreamy.

There’s something otherworldly about the place. In common with most grand houses (it’s now a hotel), the view is unencumbered by anything other than rolling countryside. On the day I visited, people were quietly eating lunch in the panelled restaurant rooms and sipping tea on the croquet lawn, much as they probably have done for centuries. It feels far removed from the world’s troubles.

The planting is pretty dreamy, too. Gravetye  is the former home of the legendary gardener William Robinson, who eschewed formal Victorian bedding schemes in favour of mixed borders and wilder, naturalisti planting. Tom Coward, the current head gardener, continues in the same spirit today. He formerly worked alongside Fergus Garrett at Great Dixter, and it shows – he’s not afraid to combine plants in interesting ways. I’ve never cared much for lupins or apricot foxgloves, but I loved how Tom uses them.

Even more impressively, the garden has been turned around in just three years – the previous owners of the hotel had financial difficulties and the garden became neglected. You wouldn’t know that parts of the garden are plagued by Japanese knotweed, which Tom has been working to eradicate. Other weeds, such as bracken, remain, and add to the charm – this isn’t a prim and proper garden.


Like many grand houses, Gravetye has elements that we mere mortals can only dream of, such as a peach house and a circular walled garden that catches every last ray of sun. It supplies fruit and veg to the restaurant, as well as cut flowers for the house. Tom grows lots of ladybird poppies, which supply vivid splashes of red. They’re hopeless in a vase, which ensures that they don’t get picked.


Meadows (and their loss) are big news at the moment, but William Robinson experimented with creating one 100 years ago. What goes around comes around, even in gardening – Gravetye is definitely having a moment.