Ashridge Nurseries Blog & Recipes

A jewel in the English Heritage crown

The fabulous gardens of Walmer Castle

We spent a few days in and around Broadstairs in Kent a few weekends ago, including an afternoon at Walmer Castle. It’s slap bang on the coast, between Deal and Dover, looking out over the North Sea across to France, canons trained menacingly on the horizon. The squat, round castle was built as an artillery fort in 1540, during the reign of Henry VIII, and in the 18th century it became one of the perks of the job of Lord Warden of the Cinque ports. It’s been used by both the Duke of Wellington and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.

An artillery fort on the Kent coast

Although the interior is fascinating (there’s even a pair of Wellington’s boots on display in a glass case), it was the gardens we were most interested in. Laid out originally by William Pitt the Younger in the early 19th century, they’re now a glorious combination of formal gardens, grand herbaceous borders, lyrical meadowland, bountiful kitchen gardens and bosky walkways. Utterly magical on a warm June day.

From the drawbridge of the castle, you cross the grassed moat to a shaded walkway. Then through a wrought iron gate to The Queen Mother’s Garden. Designed by garden designer and historian Penelope Hobhouse as a gift for her 95th birthday, it’s constructed around a handsome rectangular pool, 28 metres long and studded with water lilies, an arched pavilion reflected in the still water. Deep borders surround the garden and the planting is fabulous: all sculptural silhouettes – agapanthus, euphorbias, cardoons, alliums – with roses at every turn. A safe bet they were popular with the Queen Mum.

Penelope Hobhouse's formal pool, designed for the Queen Mother's 95th birthday

Cardoons and roses in the Queen Mother’s Garden

Beyond and through a woodland glade, dazzling under the vivid green canopy of beech, a gap in a hedge opens up to a huge expanse of meadow, a wide emerald walkway mown poker straight through the middle. The path climbs gently from the castle, here and there flanked by stately horse chestnuts and holm oaks. The design is a masterclass in surprise. One moment we’re cool and shaded, cosseted among ferns and dewy fronds, the next we’re thrown into a bright, open space, delicate blue butterflies flitting above rippling waves of meadow grass.

Looking back at the castle from the Paddock Meadow

The meadow planting is heaven for butterflies

Right at the end, a twisting flight of steps drops steeply into an old chalk pit. This part of the garden was recently rebuilt from an overgrown glen dating from the 19th century that had become an impenetrable tangle of gorse, bramble and fallen trees. From head-high brambles it’s been brought back to life as William Pitt the Younger had imagined it, drawing on a plan from 1859 and letters from 1805 that mention ‘fir trees, broom, creepers and evergreens’. Secluded and utterly serene, the result is a peaceful hideaway cocooned in greenery.

One of the most arresting parts of this fabulous garden has to be the Broadwalk. On either side of a generous gravel path, a breathtaking 80-metre double border is enclosed by yew hedges sculpted into billowing clouds. Like mounds of thick whipped cream. The hedges themselves were once straight and meticulously clipped, but the story goes that they fell into disrepair during World War Two with neglect and heavy snow, so a pragmatic approach gave rise to a looser, more naturalistic look. They’re the perfect backdrop to some seriously elegant, billowy perennial planting, in early June majoring in zesty Alchemilla mollis, Acanthus, Sisyrinchium, pale blue iris and golden yarrow.

The fabulous double borders and cloud hedging

It’s impossible to say which is the best part of the garden; everything knits together perfectly to create spaces showcasing so many different and distinct styles. In summer, the kitchen garden is particularly Insta-worthy, however. It’s probably been a productive space for more than 300 years, providing fruit, vegetables and flowers for the Lord Wardens and their guests. One of the glasshouses dates back to 1898. Of course, the fruit and veg are laid out impeccably. Espaliered fruit trees and low box hedges enclose planting beds overflowing with tasty-looking produce. A feast for both eyes and stomach.

The Kitchen Garden

A final word for the moat of the castle, which is now a sunken garden with a wide grassed walkway, handsome trees and herbaceous bedding. Softening the grand stone walls, self-seeded among the cracks, hundreds of Mexican fleabane plants create a magical pink and white haze. It’s an unforgettable sight.

Erigeron karvanskianus in the moat walls

Whenever you visit a garden and are inspired to make a difference to your own garden, just start planning now and order plants early.

Francesca Clarke, Journalist and Garden Designer

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