Thursday, 18 October 2012

Gardens for all Seasons - West Dean, Sussex

One of West Dean's four "rustic" summer houses, flanked by autumn borders
The days are getting shorter, there's a chill in the air and most British gardens are closed for the winter. But in the next few months, I shall be visiting the few that stay open throughout the year and looking at what they have to offer through the seasons. West Dean near Chichester in Sussex is looking particularly good this month, with borders still in flower, a fine autumn vegetable collection in the walled garden and an orchard full of apples. Combine this with stunning views over the South Downs, and an arboretum where the trees are donning their autumn leaves and it's a great place to take a walk in the winter months.
Brightly-coloured chard stems in the walled garden at West Dean
West Dean has always been renowned for its walled garden - there are a total of 13 glasshouses in this section of the garden, plus three large cold frames. The majority were manufactured by Foster & Pearson at the end of the 19th century, and today they house a prodigious range of squashes, chillies, fruits, vines and hot-house plants - which make for varied viewing throughout the seasons. But particularly impressive in the autumn are the vegetables - including many types of chard with its colourful stems, huge cabbages and root crops - especially when viewed in the watery October sunshine.
Rows of immaculately-tended vegetables in the walled garden at West Dean
The Domesday Book chronicles the first Manor that stood on the estate a thousand years ago, although the Gothic mansion that stands there today was designed by James Wyatt at the beginning of the 19th century. Caroline Harcourt inherited the estate shortly after the house had been rebuilt and had the vision to plant the arboretum that is still there today, even though many trees were felled in the Great Storm of 1987. While she was hard at work in Sussex, her brother-in-law was planting the Harcourt Arboretum near Oxford. 
There is always something on show in the 19th century glasshouses
New life was breathed into West Dean in 1892 when it was purchased by William James, at the start of an era when decorative gardens were becoming fashionable. He was heir to a substantial American fortune, had a beautiful Scottish wife and moved in the same social circles as the Prince of Wales. And, in an effort to make both house and grounds suitably impressive for royal visits, he employed Harold Peto of Iford Manor and Buscot Park fame to help him. Gertrude Jekyll was also brought in to design a water garden to the west of the house, but it was Peto who really made his mark with the 300 foot pergola that remains one of the most notable features of the gardens today (below).  
Harold Peto designed the 300 foot pergola at West Dean and Gertrude Jekyll created a water garden
Although a major feature at West Dean, the pergola is somewhat incongruous in this garden, standing alone on a East-West axis at the rear of the house. It uses 62 classical columns as the central theme, with a handsome gazebo at one end, a reflecting pool in the middle and steps leading down to a Sunken Garden (currently under restoration) at the other end. It was both restored and replanted after the 1987 storm and a new border was added on the south side as part of a plan to "root the structure into the surrounding garden". It's a notable feature of the garden, whatever the season, although you rarely see its true shape except in deep mid winter when the columns are naked and exposed to the elements.
When William James died, his son, Edward inherited the estate although he spent little time in at West Dean, or in England due to an unhappy marriage and a wanderlust that took him repeatedly to Mexico. But fortunately he had a great interest in the arts and in 1964 had the foresight to set up the Edward James Foundation which survives today, and offers courses in traditional crafts, visual arts and music. Nearly half a century later, West Dean is recognised as both an outstanding college and a remarkable garden. There are also many food and gardening courses on offer throughout the year (further details here).
West Dean gardens remain open for 11 months of the year, only closing between 24 December and 31 January. Summer opening times (1 March - 31 October) are 10.30-17.00 and winter opening hours are 10.30-16.00. Admission is £9.00 for adults and £1 for children. RHS members are entitled to free entry from October to April, and Historic Houses Association (HHA) members are admitted free throughout the year. 
One of the mysteries of West Dean is the River Lavant that sometimes flows through the garden. The reason for its intermittent existence is that it's a "winterbourne" - a stream that dries up in the summer. A real case of now you see it, now you don't. But this year was the exception - the wettest summer on record meant that the Lavant was always present!


  1. Hi, Charlotte! I'm Nadezda. I love your wonderful photos. The one of an old tree is stunning!
    Saint Petersburg
    Have a nice weekend!

  2. Hi Charlotte, what beautiful photos, this one is definitely on my wish list. I have read so much about it. Thank you for gorgeous blog.
    Ursula x

  3. Beautiful and thanks so much for sharing.