Sussex Prairie Gardens Wins Prestigious Architectural Awards

The Sussex Prairie Gardens in full bloom

This week I am in the company of Pauline and Paul McBride at their Sussex Prairie Gardens.

Pauline can barely contain her excitement “The garden is special at the moment – full of flowers, the wonderful mass planting with swathes of grasses, Echinacea and Rudbeckia. It’s beautiful to walk through the borders and get up close with the plants. The gentle breeze gives movement to the garden. It’s a visual spectacle, a sensory overload with the sound of the insects, the scent and touch of the plants. I walk the garden every morning and it still takes my breath away.”

Their home, Morlands Farm Dutch Barn and the Tower have just been celebrated taking home South East Award Winner, Small Project of the Year and Client of the Year in RIBA’s 2022 South East Regional Awards, and a coveted Sussex Heritage Trust Award.

Sandy Rendel Architects converted a Dutch Barn into a new home for Pauline and Paul. Pauline is full of praise for Sandy Rendel and Robert Longley of Cranbrook Iron in Kent.

Pauline explains “Paul and Rob built the tower over the period of a week – a true labour of love – handmade!” Reminiscent of an agricultural grain silo the viewing tower encapsulates the joyful nature of this architectural project and the gardens.

Paul and Pauline share their Sussex Prairie Gardens abundantly. Pauline says “The students who come to the gardens are fabulous. This year they’ve come from all over including France, China and India. I continue to be amazed by these young people and the boundless possibilities of their lives. We love working with them. We try to reach out and connect people.”

The RIBA and Sussex Heritage Award winning Morlands Farm Dutch Barn and Tower

Pauline talks about The Indian Bazaar which is at the heart of a month long festival which runs until the 4th September. She describes the scene “The marquees are overflowing with ethically commissioned and sourced decorative objects and clothing for sale – all delicious, gorgeous, shinning, and glittering.”

Friendships like communities are bound together by shared stories. It is the vision and gentle patronage of Pauline and Paul McBride, and their desire to share the joy of the garden they have created, which has brought such beauty to our built and natural landscape and a community together.

Gardens are places of blessing, invitation, hospitality and encounter, and none more so than the Sussex Prairie Gardens, Morlands Farm, Wheatsheaf Road, Henfield, West Sussex, BN5 9AT. To find out more and to plan your visit sussexprairies.co.uk

A Gardener’s Delight at Arundel

Arundel Castle

It is a perfect English spring morning, bright and crisp, as supporters of the Sussex Heritage Trust gather in the Collector Earl’s garden at Arundel Castle.
We are greeted by Castle Manager, Andrew Lewis, and Arundel Castle gardeners Rose Philpot and Izzy McKinley.

Arundel Castle gardener, Rose Philpot, The Collector Earl’s Garden

We set out in the company of Rose Philpot and are met by lines of apple trees covered in soft pink blossom amongst a carpet of blue camassia and tulips. The naturalistic planting frames the views of the castle. Rose explains “We lift the tulips in the borders and the pots but leave them in the grass areas. We’ve planted tens of thousands of bulbs and tulips!” The spectacle is breathtaking. It is apparent that this talented young gardener is also a gifted plants woman as she effortlessly guides us through the planting. She constantly refers to Head Gardner, Martin Duncan, and her respect for him quickly becomes apparent.

We pass a stumpery and box cloud hedge which leads us gently downhill to the award winning Stew Ponds. About four years ago Martin Duncan redesigned the historic stew ponds at Arundel Castle. Using the original framework of ponds, in which the Castle and Friars would have kept fish for eating in stews, it has been given new life with a naturalistic quality. The emphasis is on wildlife attracting insects, butterflies, bees and wildfowl. The Duke of Norfolk and Arundel Castle were delighted to receive the Sussex Heritage Trust Award for Gardens and Landscape in 2020. As we arrive at the stew ponds Rose points out the award which is proudly on display.

The award winning Stew Ponds at Arundel Castle

Rose explains how the boathouse you see in the distance was designed by Martin. The timbers were sourced sustainability, mostly from the Estate’s woodland. In the gentle breeze the dance of light on the ripples of the pond is reflected in the naturalistic planting as a Swan glides across the water.

Returning to the Collector Earl’s gardens we come across the water feature which is exotic and unexpected. Rose points out a series of pots overflowing with tulips as she recites the varieties – “Tulipa Angelique, Mount Tacoma and Blue Diamond”.

Rose’s story is hope-filled. She discovered her passion for gardening on work experience in the castle gardens. She volunteered and worked in the gardens whilst she trained at Plumpton and was eventually offered a full-time job. Her career is progressing at Arundel and she has been given responsibility for looking after the stumpery, herbaceous, Round House and cut flower gardens which she speaks about with a real sense of ownership and a gardener’s delight.
The Sussex Heritage Trust’s work is important in promoting best practice in our county’s built environment and landscape whilst encouraging and supporting talented young people into careers in conservation, building and horticulture. To find out more about the work of the Sussex Heritage Trust and Arundel Castle’s extraordinary gardens visit sussexheritagetrust.org.uk and arundelcastle.org.

Robert Hill-Snook and the Royal Pavilion Gardens

Robert Hill-Snook, Head Gardener at the Royal Pavilion Brighton

Robert Hill-Snook’s passion for gardening as Head Gardener at the Royal Pavilion is matched by his passion for people. When you meet him it quickly becomes apparent that gardening is not a job but a vocation, a way of life.

I remark that I cannot imagine that there would have been any peace without answering his sense of calling and vocation to be a gardener. Robert smiles and agrees.

As we walk in the gardens people approach him to talk about their lives and how this space at the heart of a city affects and blesses their lives. The most creative and exciting things are born out of relationship. It is clear that Robert’s care for and relationship with the gardens, his professional team, volunteers and those who come here has been transformative. A friend and colleague describes Robert as an “Anima Naturaliter Christiana”, a naturally Christian soul, and his work is a natural expression of faith.

Robert explains that John Nash’s Regency designs and the Royal Head Gardener William Aiton’s planting reflected the British taste for landscape gardens and the creation of picturesque views. Nash’s restored serpentine drive and the naturalistic beds of mixed flowers and shrubs reveals a series of vignettes of the Pavilion framed by the planting.

Robert remarks “The planting is all about textures, different shades of green – not dense so you can see through. The effects change with the light throughout the day. We’ve introduced succession planting so there is always something of interest to see as we move through the seasons. But we’re late this year because of the weather. There is a wholeness to the gardens and the building bringing together the English countryside and exotic plants from China and around the world.”

The Royal Pavilion Gardens at the heart of a city

The bird song rises in an anthem amongst the beautiful Elm trees alongside the bustle and noise of the city as Robert bends to pick a weed he’s spotted. He continues “We’re still bringing nature into the town. It’s really blessed people, especially during Covid.” I am pleased to hear this. I have been concerned for people deprived of an adequate outside space during these times.

I ask Robert about his legacy as he retires after almost twenty-five years at the Pavilion. He pauses and says “Every gardener uses one’s own expression because it is a living thing. And things will continue to change. The gardens gather and it’s a beacon, a great source of well-being for people and nature.”

I comment on his remarkable achievements in the gardens. Robert with his usual humility responds by talking about the importance of his team and the volunteers. Accompanying and enabling people, his individual friendships and the chance encounters with people in the gardens are clearly very important to him. Gardens provide a wonderful place for conversation and relationship. Robert explains that these encounters are built on mutual respect.

Robert’s care for the gardens and people, his sense of servant leadership, of putting the needs of others before his own is refreshing. For a busy chap there is a rooted stillness to his spirituality which blesses him with a wholeness of life. His stewardship has blessed these precious gardens and the community of people who share them.

Stewardship and Renewal in the Gardens at Parham

Lady Emma and James Barnard in the greenhouse at Parham

This week I am returning to Parham to meet Lady Emma and her husband James Barnard as they embark on a major restoration of their celebrated walled gardens at Parham.

The history of the garden has only been recorded since the 1920s when Lady Emma’s great-grandparents came to Parham.

James is keen to show me a series of old framed sketches and plans for the clematis in the gardens drawn by Lady Emma’s great aunt, Mrs Tritton, during her time at Parham. He remarks “Amongst my most striking memories of my first encounter with the gardens at Parham were the clematis.” He continues enthusiastically “Gardens have to change and evolve to have life. We are so glad that Andrew Humphris has joined us as Head Gardener with his wife Jo. Collaborating with them and the garden team on this restoration is very exciting.”

We find Andrew working in the borders and I ask him how it is going. He replies “Well, we’ve had the rain, it will all take off as soon as the sun comes.”
Lady Emma says “The gardens here have been worked for hundreds of years. Our only ‘rule’ has been to work with and not against this ancient place sensitively accepting and preserving its spirit.” Andrew agrees “We’re enhancing what is a fantastic place already.”

I remark that we are a processional people – that we have an ability to confidently embrace change and the new but always with one eye fixed on the past. Lady Emma responds “It’s so nice that long process with a generosity of spirit, like the changing seasons. I love the changing seasons in the garden, there is always something to look forward to whether it’s the spring tulips or the seed heads in winter.”

Parham’s Head Gardener, Andrew Humphris, and his team working on the restoration of the gardens

To me this bodes well. Parham has always given voice to our nation’s quintessential celebration and passion for gardening. All gardens, like nature and the seasons, have a cycle to them and evolve. There is a real sense of renewal, a gardening renaissance at Parham as the restoration gets underway.
At the heart of the generous and outward facing spirit which pervades all that Parham does are Lady Emma and her husband James who, together with their sons, bring such life and vitality to this timeless place. The family’s long-term, generous stewardship blesses us all.

The 18th century garden walls, the paths and borders still enfold you against the backdrop of the house and Sussex Downs. We are all in need of a fresh horizon and a generous place to gather us as we begin to meet and walk in conversation with friends and loved ones. Parham, with its new, delicious Naked Food Company café, is the perfect place for a day’s holiday! Visit www.parhaminsussex.co.uk to book your visit to the gardens.

In an English Country Garden

Alfred William Parsons (1847-1929) – Garden Scene with Figure and Dogs, early 20th century oil on canvas, signed recto

Like so many of us I was blessed to spend the weekend in my English Country Garden. The purple Alliums that line the borders have been joined by brilliant orange Geums and an array of abundant, scented Roses whose colours and texture soothes the heart. They are complimented by violet Geraniums and the blue of the Salvia, their hues evolving in the light and heat of the day. As you process up the gravel path between the beds on either side the plants enfold and hold you.

It has once again caused me to reflect on how it must been for those who do not have a garden or access to a green space during the Covid-19 lockdown. I hope they will be blessed by the easing of restrictions with good social distancing allowing them to see some loved ones and keep safe.

Being in my garden brings to mind a Garden Scene we sold recently at Toovey’s for £2000. It was painted by Alfred William Parsons (1847-1920) in the early 20th century. Parsons was a Royal Academician. A very English artist, he worked as an illustrator, landscape artist and garden designer. He was recognised for giving voice to an ‘Englishness’ in his work which resonated with the American imagination.

Alfred Parsons brought art to the garden and his designs. He would produce ‘portraits’ of gardens and precise illustrations of botanical specimens. Parsons worked with the famous gardener, William Robinson, on several books. Alfred Parsons would design gardens in Britain and the United States. His transatlantic connections were strengthened through his membership of the Anglo-American ‘Broadway Group’. It was made up of artists and writers that included the author Henry James and artist John Singer Sargent. Broadway in the Cotswolds drew composers too, like Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

The painting, Garden Scene, depicts that moment where spring turns to summer.

A black terrier lies panting, cooling herself on the stone flags beneath the scented Jasmine. The striking blue Agapanthus line the path and invite us into the scene as a young woman, carrying a wicker basket, catches the attention of a Jack Russell with a treat. At the back of the border a climbing rose holds our eye.

I am excited by how strong the demand is for a wide range of collectors’ items, antiques and art like this Alfred Parsons oil at the moment, and by the number of people booking appointments for auction valuations.