A sunny swathe of Kent and Sussex, so little changed over the centuries, harbours some of the country’s finest gardens
Picture a quintessentially English landscape and it probably looks much like the slice of southeastern England known as the High Weald. This Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty presents a timeless ensemble of wooded hills, sunken country lanes and magical villages dotted with Tudor manors, medieval churches and the red-brick oast houses that once held kilns for drying hops.
It was Henry VIII who first crowned Kent ‘the Garden of England’. The High Weald, spanning 560 square miles across Kent and neighbouring Sussex, has long been renowned for its horticultural wonders. Nurtured by a warm and sunny microclimate and fertile soil, an extraordinary number of beautiful gardens bloom here, tucked away down ancient country lanes.
First stop for any dedicated garden enthusiast should be Sissinghurst. When the author Vita Sackville-West and her husband Sir Harold Nicolson bought this plot in the heart of the Weald in 1930, it was “a garden crying out for rescue”, a weed-strewn wasteland filled with “old bedsteads, old cabbage stalks…and mountains of old sardine tins”. Over the course of thirty years they turned this derelict five-acre plot into one of the finest gardens in England. A tall tower of pale-pink brick at the garden’s heart is all that remains of a grand Tudor mansion fit for a queen (Elizabeth I was a former guest).
At first sight, Vita was captivated by the structure – which had, centuries earlier, held captive thousands of French sailors, prisoners of the British in the Seven Years War (1756-63). A harsh place, it was grimly nicknamed ‘le chateau’. The name stuck and the garden that, little by little, grew around it became Sissinghurst Castle Garden.
Laid out as a series of diverse ‘rooms’, the garden marries Vita’s love of tumbling, romantic displays with her husband’s fondness for order and geometry. The celebrated Rose Garden, which Vita envisaged “foaming” with blooms, is all delicate romance, while the magical White Garden, with its frothy Queen Anne’s lace and silvery weeping pear, is a cool contrast to the fiery hues of the Cottage Garden.
From Sissinghurst, make the short detour to Cranbrook, a tiny town that is improbably known as ‘the Capital of the Weald’; its parish church, St Dunstan’s, is ‘the Cathedral of the Weald’. The town’s pretty streets hold listed buildings, quaint shops and the Union Windmill, open to the public on summer afternoons.
From here it’s a few miles to romantic Scotney Castle, whose medieval ruin encircled by a moat stands at the heart of a rambling garden. It is the essence of a fairytale castle tower, especially when veiled in white wisteria in springtime. A priest hole hidden within its walls dates back to the 16th century, when the castle was owned by the Catholic Darrell family, who secretly harboured a priest here for seven years when anti-Catholic feeling was at its height.
In 1778 Edward Hussey bought Scotney from the Darrells and reimagined the garden in the newly fashionable ‘picturesque’ style. He even carefully ‘ruined’ the dilapidated castle even further to fulfil his dreamily romantic vision. This might seem like sacrilege, but glimpse its crumbling turret through cloud-like masses of rhododendrons and azaleas and you might just forgive him.
A few miles drive south, passing through the crossroads village of Hawkhurst – once ruled by the notorious Hawkhurst Gang, who ran a thuggish trade in black-market tea and rum in the mid-18th century – you arrive at one of England’s most famous gardens.
Serious gardeners speak about Great Dixter in tones of hushed reverence. It is the creation – and life’s work – of the late gardener and journalist Christopher Lloyd, who returned to the house, his childhood home, in 1950 after studying horticulture. Keen to question the sometimes precious world of gardening, he eschewed long-held ‘rules’ and practices in favour of experimental pairings and unexpected twists.