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.




My ideal man


I think I may have found my ideal man. Too bad he died 54 years ago.

I’ve never really known much about E. A. Bowles, the legendary plantsman, except that he used to garden at Myddelton House in Enfield and has 40 varieties named after him.

Turns out there was much more to him than that. He held ‘tulip teas’ for the community and friends on his birthday in May, was a talented artist, taught literacy to local children and was a mean ice skater. If a member of staff was having family troubles he’d slip an extra ten shillings into their pay packet.

You get a real sense of the man at Myddelton House, thanks to the swish new visitor centre and helpful signposting around the garden. This isn’t a place with manicured herbaceous borders and neat rows of bedding – it all feels on the verge of being slightly out of control. Mr Bowles wasn’t an aesthete – he was more interested in acquiring plants and giving them the right conditions in which to grow. Many of those plants are familiar to us now but they must have been very unusual at the time. I saw quite a few things that I didn’t recognise.

It’s a really nice place to spend a couple of hours. Be sure to see the clump of Japanese knotweed, its leaves as big as dinner plates and stems as thick as bamboo, now contained by an iron ring to stop it spreading. Edward Augustus planted it for its architectural qualities, not knowing then, as we do now, that this plant is horribly invasive. But nobody’s perfect.