Last weekend was spent with a friend near Frant in East Sussex, relaxing, walking in the woods, deer-spotting and cheese-eating. All much-loved pastimes, but not complete without a garden visit.
To round off the perfect getaway, we drove the country route back to London via Penshurst Place in Kent, between Sevenoaks and Royal Tunbridge Wells, an hour from London if the traffic’s kind. The setting is idyllic: perched on a hillside in a historic village, reached via narrow, winding lanes, the verges billowing with cow parsley and blackberry flowers in June.
The approach to the house itself is through 11 acres of Grade I listed gardens (the grounds cover 48 acres in total), so it’s a while before you get a good look at it. Used as a hunting lodge for Henry VIII and his entourage, it’s easy to imagine the royal intrigue that went on, in and outside the handsome walls: the fervent whispering behind high yew hedges, the political machinations along the grand gravelled walkways.
Penshurst is a 14th century marvel, much of it in its original state. The fabulous Baron’s Hall was built in 1341 as a rural getaway for London’s Lord Mayor, Sir John de Pulteney, when he would visit for relaxing, hunting and, without a shadow of a doubt, indulging in a little cheese.
Henry VIII visited in 1519, invited by Edward Stafford, the third Duke of Buckingham. The influential Duke, with his old Plantagenet blood, was seen as a threat by the Tudor King Henry, and he had disappointed the King the year before by failing to keep order in the Welsh Marches. Worst of all for Stafford, the King had his porcine eyes on his sister, Anne Boleyn, and certainly didn't want to empower Stafford further by marrying her. Unimpressed by the paltry £2,500 welcome laid on for his arrival, Henry used the opportunity to "bawl out" (throwing one of his tantrums), which was the beginning of the end for Stafford: he was tried for treason in April 1521 and beheaded the next month. To compensate himself for all the bother, the King posthumously attainted the former Duke, thus claiming the deceased's property from his heirs, and used Penshurst as his little pied-à-terre while secretly pursuing Anne Boleyn, who was down the road at Hever Castle.
Still, glorious as the house and its history are, we came to see the gardens, which have been looked after by generations of the Sidney family since they were passed to Sir William Sidney by Henry VIII’s son, King Edward VI, in 1552. Everything was surging into life and colour on this hot early-June day, making up for lost time after a chilly May followed by rain and sun. A series of outdoor rooms is laid out on a classical grid, divided by over a mile of yew hedging: a sublime combination of accurate historical representation and contemporary gardening flair.
A huge draw at this time of year is the peony garden, an indulgent addition designed in the 1980s. A 100-metre-long bed, enclosed within low box hedges and painstakingly equipped with a network of supporting wires, is dedicated to four pink shades of this fabulous, fleeting glory. When we visited, the first handful of shell-pink buds were starting to pop all the way to the horizon. What a luxury for us to visit right on time, and what a job for those who serve these acres of garden!
Another highlight was the Jubilee Walk, 72 breathtaking metres of double herbaceous borders designed by Chelsea Gold medallist George Carter, a specialist in 17th century geometric design. Another relative newcomer, it begins by the house at the Paved Garden, a rich spectacle of towering ruby lupins underpinned by burgundy astrantias, and segues breezily through stately bearded irises in two-tone plum with glowing golden centres to a sea of quivering Californian poppies and more irises, this time in dazzling tangerine. The colour wheel of perennials rolls by, punctuated occasionally by low bars of clipped box, finishing with the cool blues of catmint, delphiniums and lupins with white tipped flower spikes: a throng of ice lollies for bees and butterflies only.
In complete contrast is the Orchard, set in the middle of the garden room grid. It’s a productive space with apple trees pruned to open centres for better crops and ease of harvest. Some of them are heavy with mistletoe. In June, all stand amid waist-high meadow grasses spangled with buttercups, wide walkways mown through for access. There’s been evidence of apples at Penshurst since the 1340s, and you can sample the produce at the Garden Restaurant or Porcupine Pantry, where they’re made into pies, cakes and crumbles.
The last word goes to the Grey & White Garden. Tucked between the Orchard and Diana’s Bath, a charming waterlily pond made from an old mediaeval stock pond, it’s an understated, contemplative space filled with hebe hummocks, mature lavender, santolina and the like. The chequerboard design was by John Codrington in the 1970s, making use of silver and white flowers and foliage to create a drought-tolerant scheme, back when such a thing was quite a novelty.
If you’re a gardener with an interest in histrionic kings, or a historian with a fondness for well guarded gardens, Penshurst will deliver delight without disappointment. I even bagged a little piece of it for myself. I was so excited by these two-tone plum irises that a gardener came over to chat. The name of the variety, he said, was lost in the mists of time, and he just so happened to have a few pieces to spare (perhaps he says that to all the lovely ladies; if you happen to know, better not give the game away in the comments below). I’m giving them the royal treatment back home to make sure that they’ll be happy in my London garden.
Written by: Francesca Clarke