KING JOHN’S LODGE – EAST SUSSEX
Every once in a while you come across a place with a timeless air about it – not flashy or cutting-edge, but with a calm, gracious look of antiquity and love about it that grabs your heart. That’s King John’s Lodge in Etchingham. It’s plonk in the middle of East Sussex off the A21.
The house is a Grade II listed Jacobean manor restored by the present owners and the garden opens regularly for the National Garden Scheme. The garden with its rose walk, wild pond, meadow areas etc. is not full of ‘specimens’ – but has a lived-in, relaxed feel, with hundreds of cranesbills jostling under mature shrubs and trees, spreaders like Vinca minor are allowed to spread, and rambling roses…well they ramble.
It’s not a fussy garden, but there is a pleasing formality to the main lawn areas in front of the DDG house (drop-dead gorgeous, if you need to be told), in spite of the glorious abandonment of pretty things seeding themselves into the cracks of the flag-stones in front of the house. The immaculately-kept lawn runs down to a very satisfying formal pond, and the gentle sound of trickling water contributes to the extraordinary sense of tranquillity. No wonder that Bed and Breakfast guests staying here become enchanted by its atmosphere.
The nursery is quite small and littered with artefacts found during the renovation of the house and garden- Roman coins, musket balls and so on; it is full of healthy-looking common and less common plants, mostly hardy herbaceous perennials but also a few roses and shrubs and mostly grown on site. There is also a rather wonderful shop of garden ornaments, objets d’art, tools and the like, displayed with the barest nod towards commerciality but heaps of charm. The owner, Harry Cunningham, clearly loves his plants, knows them very well, and is happy to dispense information about their needs and care to his customers.
And then there’s the tea-room – oh, the tea-room! It looks out over the High Weald and is charm itself with quirky mismatched crockery and wooden furniture. It serves tea and delicious home-made cakes (yes OK, it was lemon drizzle cake and yes OK I ate a gigantic slice myself without sharing).
This is not an ‘out there’ garden. If you want to spend an afternoon in the peace and beauty of a true English garden with the sound of water around you, a lovely house behind you, a glorious view ahead of you, and follow that with tea and cake and a treasure or two from the nursery to take home afterwards, then King Johns Lodge is for you.
Opening Hours: Apr-Oct: 10am-5pm (closed Tues); Nov-March: 10am-4pm (closed Tues); Jan-Feb: Closed
Telephone: 01580 819220. Postcode TN19 7AZ. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
LARCH COTTAGE NURSERIES – PENRITH
If surprise and wonder are your shtick, take 13 minutes out of your M6 journey north or south and get along to Larch Cottage Nurseries just south of Penrith. I know, it sounds disarmingly underwhelming, and believe me the little terraced cottage entrance compounds the deception, for you have in fact found the horticultural equivalent of J K Rowling’s Platform 12 and three-quarters.
It was created by Peter Stott over three decades ago when he was unable to find more unusual plants for his landscaping business. His vision to create a unique visitor experience has, unequivocally, been met. The site continues for acres – a huge collection of often hard-to-source plants in tip top condition, set amongst crumbling Roman ruins, yes that’s right, Doric columns, bridges, pillars, gurgling ryhls and magnificent borders all framed by the Penines in the long distance.
As it says in its charmingly eccentric leaflet – ‘More Umbria than Cumbria’.
Its principal role is as a retail nursery. The vast stock is logically set out in alphabetic order; shrub area; climbers; shade lovers etc each has its place in what feels like the charming remains of the Colosseum. There are gardens and a chapel and they wont disappoint but were closed for the winter when we visited and are only open two afternoons a week in summer (see below). By adding a café – La Casa Verde – and gallery gift shop, you’d think the Stotts may have risked their integrity but no, they pull it off. The café is high-end hipster and the gallery and shop has stuff you actually want to keep yourself, never mind giving it to your mum.
The plants aren’t cheap but if they look this good in such challenging geography, they’re going to give you value.
If you’re seriously into plants this is a great nursery. It is the aesthet’s antidote to garden centres. And best of all – the border plants all have massively long labels – you don’t have to bend down to read them. Bravo!
Details: The centre itself is open for free seven days a week 9-5pm. Closed Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day. They do online sales from their website.
The chapel (looks amazing, created by Peter) and gardens are open on Wednesday and Sunday afternoons, (1-4pm) from May 7 to October 4, raising money for charitable causes.
Postcode CA10 2DR. Tel: 01931 712404.
HIGH DOWN GARDEN, WORTHING
Highdown Gardens isn’t your usual garden visit. When Sir Frederick Stern was looking for a safe curator for the eclectic range of plants he had successfully established in a chalk pit above Worthing on the Sussex Coast he eschewed what might have been the more natural choice of the National Trust (they must be spitting teeth), or even, given the uniqueness of his collection, Kew Gardens, and left the garden instead to the stalwart care of Worthing Borough Council.
However it’s uncommerciality is also its charm. You are spared the ritual of being funnelled through the ubiquitous gift shop/entrance booth stocking massed produced trinkets and plants that bear no relation to the garden you are visiting, and the lack of entrance fee means you can plan multiple visits over the course of the year. And you would want to come time and again as the site consists of a series of sheltered ‘garden rooms’ each with rare and in some cases sub-tropical gems, many gifted to the Sterns as seeds collected in the Victorian era of plant hunters such as George Forrest and Kingdom Ward.
Another blessing is the delightfully quaint tearoom beside the gardens serving great value breakfasts lunches and teas. It also boasts to have been awarded the Dog Friendliest Cafe for several years on the trot.
Here’s the conundrum, dogs are not allowed in Highdown Gardens, nor are you advised to leave them in the car park, part of which is exposed to the full glare of the sun, so the many doggy companions you will have in the cafe are the ones who have just returned from a lovely walk on the South Downs, not the gardens.