Parham’s Garden Weekend

Parham’s Head Gardener, Tom Brown, in the greenhouses at Parham
Parham’s Head Gardener, Tom Brown, in the greenhouses at Parham

Parham’s Garden Weekend is becoming Chelsea by the Sussex Downs thanks to its long gardening tradition and the growing national reputation of Head Gardener, Tom Brown. For me this quintessential celebration of our passion for gardening is one of the highlights of the Sussex summer calendar.

I come across Tom Brown preparing for the weekend in the greenhouse. The light, perspective and abundance of flowers in the greenhouse is reminiscent of Eric Ravilious’ famous watercolours of greenhouses painted in Sussex in the 1930s.

It’s a measure of Tom Brown’s growing stature that many of the country’s leading horticulturalists, gardeners and designers choose to congregate at Parham for the Garden Weekend year after year.

The new White Border against the ancient walls of Parham’s gardens
The new White Border against the ancient walls of Parham’s gardens

Amongst those coming to celebrate gardening at Parham is former Chelsea Physic Head Gardener and BBC Gardener’s World presenter, Nick Bailey, who will be holding a book signing event. Society garden designer, author and Chelsea Flower Show Gold Medallist, Jinny Blom, leading plants woman, Marina Christopher, and doyen of cut flowers and designer of one of BBC Radio 2’s 2017 Chelsea sensory gardens, Sarah Raven, all have Parham’s Garden Weekend on their calendars.

In between the talks and workshops Tom Brown, his garden team and volunteers, will be out in force to offer advice and to interpret the garden for visitors. It is rare for the public to have such unmediated, direct access to horticulturalists like Tom and his team.

This generous and outward facing spirit pervades all that Parham does which allows Tom to put a spot light on the best that Sussex has to offer. Many of our county’s most talented plants men and women, growers, specialist nurseries and local talent will be exhibiting at Parham, giving the discerning gardening public access to top quality plants and advice. It is this authenticity which makes Parham’s Garden Weekend so unique. This and Tom’s vision and integrity is attracting increasing attention from across the country.

The upward trajectory of Tom Brown and the gardens at Parham is set to continue. There is a sense of long-term patronage at Parham. Tom is quick to celebrate Lady Emma Barnard’s role in this. Her love of Parham and her patronage continues to bless this place with such life and creativity.

The restored Blue Border at Parham
The restored Blue Border at Parham

In recent years there has been significant investment in the borders with experimental trials in planting. The palette of plants is very important to the opulent, artistic borders at Parham. The restored Blue Border and the new White Border give expression to the natural informality of the ‘Parham Way’ and delight the senses. There is much in the old and the new to enchant the visitor.

I am looking forward to Parham House and Garden’s ‘Garden Weekend’ this coming Saturday and Sunday, 8th and 9th July 2017, 10.30am to 5.00pm. For more information go to or telephone 01903 742021. I look forward to seeing you there!

By Rupert Toovey, a senior director of Toovey’s, the leading fine art auction house in West Sussex, based on the A24 at Washington. Originally published in the West Sussex Gazette.

Celebrating our Quintessential Affair with the Garden

Sweet peas in the cut flower beds at Parham
Sweet peas in the cut flower beds at Parham

This week I am visiting Parham House in West Sussex as preparations for their 22nd annual Garden Weekend are in full swing. For me this quintessential celebration of our passion for gardening is one of the highlights of the Sussex summer calendar. This year’s event will be opened by the celebrity gardener and broadcaster, Rachel de Thame.

Head Gardener, Tom Brown, at Parham House

As I arrive at Parham the scene is one of great activity. An enormous cherry picker fills the courtyard, they have been tending the ancient roses on the walls of the house. Lady Emma Barnard greets me with a wave from the far side of the fountain as Head Gardener, Tom Brown, welcomes me. Tom and I walk through an ancient wooden archway and door, its russet paint complimenting the silver grey of the stone buildings. On the other side the stillness which gathers you at Parham is immediately apparent.

As we walk towards the walled garden Tom begins to talk about the gardens and his role as Parham’s Head Gardener. His face is alive with enthusiasm as he says “The garden is bigger than all of us. It’s humbling to look at how this garden behaves and its needs.” I remark on how I have always loved the naturalistic planting at Parham. Its swathes of colour and textures interact with the movement of light and a gentle breeze in the walled gardens. Tom responds “The palette of the plants is very important to the ‘Parham way’, as are the big opulent artistic borders. But this is underpinned by a rigour in the way we approach our work in the garden.” It quickly becomes apparent that I am in the company of an accomplished and sensitive horticulturist who has the rare gift of observing well. He describes how he is attentive to the way that plants respond to the garden and also people’s reactions to it. There is a quality of the relational, a deep sense of stewardship, in Tom’s approach. It is also clear that he has an awareness of his place in the ongoing story of this ancient house and garden and an understanding of the responsibilities of his position.

The Greenhouse at Parham being tended by Peta and Henry
The Greenhouse at Parham being tended by Peta and Henry

Our conversation turns to Tom’s team and the creativity it embodies. He talks with obvious respect and pride as he describes how Peta, Henry, Max, Jake and Sam bring different gifts and experience. He remarks “There is a sense of ownership for all of us with belonging to a team.” This is a team defined by respectful dialogue. There is respect both for the members of the team and the garden.

As we talk a visitor approaches us. She expresses her pleasure in the garden and Tom is clearly delighted. He stands and listens carefully to her question about planting in the shade of her garden. He responds generously and with expert advice.

Tom is clearly grateful for the time he spent at Wisley but his pleasure in the ‘canvas’ of these gardens, that Lady Emma’s patronage has given him to work on, is unmistakeable. Tom brings his generosity of spirit and depth of expertise to his role as he facilitates and leads the ongoing vision for these gardens. He loves the domestic qualities of his position too. He always ensures that there is a basket of fresh vegetables for Emma and her family when they return home and wonderful cut flowers for the house. That the gardens bless the family is very important to him. His generous care for the gardens, his team, the visitors, Lady Emma and her family is underpinned by the relational in all that he does. Tom is richly deserving of our thanks.

Parham House and Garden’s ‘Garden Weekend’ is on this coming Saturday and Sunday, 11th and 12th July 2015, 10.30am to 5.00pm. For more information go to or telephone 01903 742021. Tickets include the wonderful gardens and entry to the house and its superb collections. There will be a number of specialist nurseries and the opportunity to be inspired and take home some wonderful stock for your gardens. Don’t miss out on the marvellous cut summer flower arrangements in the house and the flower festival in St Peter’s church. I hope to see you there!

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 8th July 2015 in the West Sussex Gazette.

Parham House and Gardens’ Annual Garden Weekend

Parham House and Garden
Gardener and patron, Peta Ashton and Lady Emma Barnard, in conversation in the Tudor herb garden at Parham House and Gardens

This week I am visiting the walled gardens in the lead up to one of the highlights of the Sussex summer calendar: Parham House and Gardens’ famous ‘Garden Weekend’. This year’s celebration of gardening at Parham will be opened on Saturday by the BBC Gardeners’ World presenter Joe Swift.

I love the stillness that gathers you in the walled gardens at Parham. It transports you, separating you from the business of life. To create a garden of this subtlety, depth and beauty requires a sensitivity to place, light, the elements and the seasons.

Tom Brown, Head Gardener at Parham, leads a team of gifted people, whose creativity allows this sublime garden to honour the past while remaining forward-looking. I am excited to be meeting Peta Ashton, a gardener and member of this team, whose individuality and talent is apparent in her work in the Parham gardens.

Lady Emma Barnard and I walk from her wonderful house to the gardens and she leaves me in the path between the long borders as she goes off to find Peta. If you have ever dared to still yourself and stand in a landscape, you will know that out of the silence your senses become heightened. You become more alive. Sounds, colours and movement reveal themselves to you. As I stand between these borders with the warmth of the sun upon my face, the wind and shadows cause the soft planting to dance. I become aware of the swathes of colour and their relationships to one another, which, together with the textures of flowers and foliage, form complex compositions. The gentle breeze plays upon the leaves. There is a rhythm and wholeness, born out of this rich canvas. Lady Emma appears with Peta, the sound of their voices and feet on the gravel paths marking their approach.

Borders at Parham House and Gardens
Peta Ashton’s sublime borders at Parham

The borders which have just captured my imagination and gathered me are the work and inspiration of Peta Ashton. I remark on my experience of this particular part of the garden. She listens thoughtfully. Her face breaks into a gentle smile beneath her broad-brimmed hat, evidently pleased by my unexpected response to her work. I ask her what has influenced the garden layout. She replies, “The gardens are laid out in the ‘Old Parham Way’ with secret and open spaces.” There is much talk today of garden rooms but it would seem that this is nothing new at Parham.

Together the three of us walk towards another of Peta’s creations, the restored herb garden, which is bordered by a tall yew hedge of dark green hue. Entering through an arch cut into the hedge, we find ourselves in a secret, sunny garden. A circular stone pond with a lead putto is framed by tall herbs. Excitedly Peta leads Emma and me around the herb garden, delighting in the names, the foliage and the characters of each individual plant. It is apparent that we are in the company of a generous and passionate plantswoman, who expresses her hopes and fears for each of them in turn.

In Tudor times, when Parham was built, herbs were used for their culinary, medicinal and strewing properties. Herbs would be strewn on the floors and surfaces of homes to deter insects and to disinfect, as well as for their fragrant qualities. In this enclosed garden, I am reminded that herbs were associated with the monastic tradition in medicine. It is these influences which are expressed in the disciplined, balanced planting. Peta explains that this would be defeated if it was too ornamental. There is a sense of working with nature and history.

The Gardens at Parham House
A view from the gardens looking towards the house and Sussex Downs

I ask Peta how she comes to imagine and create these remarkable borders and gardens. She pauses for a moment, considering her reply, and then says, “The borders come out of being in this space in silence. It is the combination of this inner criterion and influences from outside which I try to work with.” Being attentive to nature, colour, form and movement requires a particular quality of engagement and a generous discipline – a combination of relationship with our environment and an attempt to shut out the white noise of our lives and be truly present, undistracted in the given moment. It is a form of meditation, of prayer. Peta clearly understands this and it gifts her creativity and remarkable vision with depth and subtlety. She is both artist and gardener.

Calling and vocation can be expressed in infinite ways. Peta Ashton’s sense of vocation towards her work, like her gardens, is inspiring. It is bound up with her very personhood. Like so much at Parham House and Gardens, Peta’s tremendously personal expression of creativity is possible thanks to the patronage and involvement of Lady Emma.

Sheltered by the warm hues of the old brick garden walls covered in lichen, these gardens have a remarkable ability to gather and engage people. Families find a gentle place to wander in conversation, their time in the garden informed by the beauty around them. Keen horticulturists will pause to explore the subtleties and effects of the planting and compositions before them. Whatever your approach, though, you cannot fail to wander in this beautiful place without being moved by it.

I am looking forward to the Parham House and Gardens’ ‘Garden Weekend’ this Saturday and Sunday, 12th and 13th July 2014, 10.30am to 5.00pm. For more information go to or telephone 01903 742021. Tickets include the wonderful gardens and entry to the house and its superb collections. There are Parham plants for sale too – wonderful stock – so don’t forget to treat yourselves!

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 9th July 2014 in the West Sussex Gazette.

English Arts & Crafts ~ Inspired by the Garden

Archibald Knox for Liberty & Co
A red earthenware jardinière on stand, designed by Archibald Knox for Liberty & Co

As September progresses, we look to the change of seasons and we have been blessed by a last and precious glimpse of summer before autumn comes. Many of us will be out in our gardens this weekend preparing for autumn, pruning back shrubs and tidying borders. As the ground lies fallow, the structure and design of our gardens holds its own delights. At the heart of these designs architectural features are often to be found: jardinières, sundials and pots. In the late nineteenth and early part of the twentieth centuries a very British expression was given to the Art Nouveau through the Arts and Crafts movement.

Among the leading exponents of the Arts and Crafts taste was Liberty & Co. Its founder, Arthur Lasenby Liberty, built the Liberty brand by employing some of the country’s leading designers, though he insisted that they work anonymously. One of these designers was Archibald Knox, who joined Liberty & Co in 1899. Knox was the creative force behind Liberty’s Celtic Cymric and Tudric designs, worked in silver and pewter. In addition to metalwork and jewellery, Knox designed terracotta garden ornaments, carpets, wallpaper and fabrics for Liberty & Co, displaying virtuosity across all of these disciplines.

A pot of typical Compton design
A pot of typical Compton design

Another notable designer of garden pottery in the Celtic style was Mary Seton Watts. In 1900 she founded The Compton Potters’ Arts Guild. Inspired by the thinking of John Ruskin and William Morris, the Guild sought to celebrate and enable craftsmen through their creative handiwork. Mary’s Compton Pottery quickly became a successful business and it continued to prosper until 1955. The Arts and Crafts gallery, designed specifically to house the work of her husband, George Frederic Watts, was designed by Christopher Turnor and opened in 1904. It also served as a hostel for Mary Seton Watts’ potters. The Watts Gallery in Compton, Surrey, remains open to visitors today and, as well as exhibiting examples of G.F. Watts’ art, it houses over two hundred examples of Compton pottery.

My first single-owner collection and country house sale at Toovey’s was held at Little Thakeham, the exquisite Arts and Crafts home designed by the renowned architect Sir Edwin Lutyens in 1902. The contents of the sale reflected the exceptional eye, particular taste and sensitivity to the stylistic quality and period of this important house of its then custodians, my late friend Tim Ractliff and his wife Pauline. Tim and Pauline loved the house and its gardens, preserving and sharing their home as one of the country’s leading country house hotels. Once sold, Little Thakeham retired again from the public gaze and it remains a very private family home.

A Compton Pottery sundial
A Compton Pottery sundial

The garden effects in the auction included the Liberty & Co pottery jardinière illustrated here, which was designed by Archibald Knox. It added focus to the formal garden. The bowl and stem were typically decorated in relief with a Celtic knot design. Today a jardinière of this quality and design would potentially realise in excess of £5000. The lavender-filled pot also shown is a famous Compton design and one which is still reproduced today. Displaying Mary Seton Watts’ use of Art Nouveau design is the terracotta sundial. Although at the time there was no record of this design being from the Compton Pottery, it can be attributed to Compton by comparing the decorative motif on its stem with a similar one used on a known birdbath from the pottery. Today, an example like this would carry a pre-auction estimate of £3000-5000.

We British remain pots about pots, as illustrated by their values. They provide form and focus to a garden. Charming examples can be bought for a few hundred pounds, while the finest collectors’ pieces achieve thousands at auction. As you tidy your garden for the onset of autumn and winter, perhaps take time to stop and stare and imagine if a pot might work for you!

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 11th September 2013 in the West Sussex Gazette.