In 1870 William Robinson wrote in his book The Wild Garden:
'My object is… to show how we may, without losing the better features of the mixed bedding or any other system, follow one infinitely superior to any now practised, yet supplementing both, and exhibiting more of the varied beauty of hardy flowers than the most ardent admirer of the old style of garden ever dreams of. We may do this by naturalizing or making wild innumerable beautiful natives of many regions of the earth in our woods, wild and semi-wild places, rougher parts of pleasure grounds, etc, and in unoccupied places in almost every kind of garden.'
At the time such ideas were almost unheard of. The Victorian garden day was a place of carefully refined order, striking colours and exuberant displays that spoke of pioneering plantsmanship, power and influence.
Robinson moved to Gravetye in 1884 and started experimenting with his ideas for a more naturalistic approach to gardening. He wanted to understand plant communities better and allow naturalised colonies and a more sympathetic merging of plants. He wanted to get away from the labour-intensive maintenance of bedding displays, which saw mass plantings dug up and discarded from one season to the next.
Not that this meant an abandoned wildness, Robinson’s approach endorsed a mutual co-existence of nature and man. Areas leading up to the house were a mix of formal and semi-formal, beyond the house meadow areas were encouraged and working woodlands took on a character all of their own with drift of aconites, bluebells and narcissi.
All of which makes perfect sense to us gardeners today and pretty much describes our idea of the quintessential ‘English Garden’. Together with friends such as Gertrude Jekyll, the face of English gardening was to change from one of regimented formality to a more romantic appeal.
Gravetye Manor is now run as a luxury country house hotel, but its commitment to its heritage is key and a visit to Gravetye puts Robinson’s approach to gardening into wonderful clarity. Its beautiful location in a Sussex valley, surrounded by woodland, seems to deserve nothing less than Robinson’s naturalised approach and celebration of its setting.
What’s even more exciting is that the gardens are now being lovingly renovated and restored by the hotel’s current owners, who are keen garden enthusiasts. Under the leadership of talented head gardener Tom Coward, tangled beds of bindweed have been cleared and revitalised, the unique oval walled kitchen garden is fully productive once again and the woodland garden alive with spring flowering delights. Tom wants to reinstate much of the hard landscaping while continuing in the spirit of experimentation and progression that Robinson practiced so passionately.
Take a look at these two short films in which Tom tells you a little bit about the gardens and the work he is carrying out. They give you a hint of just what a special place Gravetye is.
If you’re interested to visit Gravetye and find out more about William Robinson join our reader day is on 23rd April. Tom will be joined by plantsman Noël Kingsbury to talk more about Robinson’s gardening legacy and the gardens at Gravetye. The day includes a guided tour of the garden, champagne reception and three-course lunch from the hotel’s award-winning restaurant. Tickets cost £150 and are limited so book now.