At the end of last year I found, tucked inside the winter issue of the Art Fund magazine, a flyer advertising a number of short breaks organised by the company Travel Editions with whom I’d previously spent a 3 night break in 2014 : Art Nouveau and Art Deco in Lille and Antwerp. The trip that particularly caught my eye was “Surrey Arts and Crafts”.
Just before my Ireland trip I read the book “Gardens of a Golden Afternoon : The Story of a Partnership, Edwin Lutyens & Gertrude Jekyll; by Jane Brown. Amongst all the house and garden descriptions od collaborations was one combination in Ireland which I knew to be very near my route through Co. Laois. The house no longer exists but Heywood Gardens survived and at the time of Jane writing was under the care of the Salesian Fathers’ Missionary College. Today the Office Public Works maintains the gardens which are now in the grounds of a school.
We arrive at Great Dixter
Our Saturday excursion in Sussex was intended to be to Sissinghurst former home of Vita Sackville-West : a kind of continuing of the Bloomsbury trail. However, word must have reached the Swiss Alps to the effect that the house and garden at Great Dixter must not be missed. Thus we wended our way across county to near the Kent border to visit this wonderful house and its almost overpowering garden.
Great Dixter recently featured in a one hour presentation on the BBC TV series British Gardens in Time.
I’d seen the programme and therefore knew a bit about Christopher Lloyd (1921-2006) whose parents moved to Great Dixter in 1910. He was born here; the youngest of 6 children. In 1954, after attending Rugby School and King’s College, Cambridge and studying and later teaching horticulture at Wye College, he moved back to Dixter to live with his mother Daisy. They shared their love gardening until 1972 when Daisy died. He lived here until his own death in 2006 gardening and writing and encouraging students of gardening to stay at the house and study. His work continues today under the stewardship of Fergus Garrett and the Great Dixter Charitable Trust. Read more about Christopher Lloyd here.
Great Dixter Nursery Garden
You can only visit the House in the afternoons between 2 and 5pm so we spent the morning in the Nursery Garden, walking in the Wild Flower Meadows and Orchard, visiting the shop and refreshment area and generally the more informal garden areas. After a (disappointing) lunch we visited the House and the more formal parts of the garden nearer to the house.
Shop and Picnic Garden
The Potting Shed
Great Dixter Seeds
Wild Flower Meadow, Topiary and House
Just three rooms in the Great Dixter House are open to the public : The Great Hall, The Solar and The Parlour. No photography is allowed inside. There were knowledgable room stewards in each room. None of these rooms were part of the Edwin Lutyens ‘extension’ as this is used still today to accommodate GD’s horticulture students. I learned that a barn had been spotted by Lutyens some miles away and bought and removed to Great Dixter beam by beam. The ‘Benenden’ House and the Lutyens features are described here :
“As you face the entrance side of Great Dixter, the porch and everything to the right is 15th or early 16th-century, while the left hand side of the house, containing service quarters below and bedrooms above, is by Edwin Lutyens.
The extraordinary sweep of the tiled roof, particularly when seen from the upper garden, punctuated by tall chimneys and small dormer windows, is the most dramatic element of Lutyens’ otherwise self-effacing work at Great Dixter.
Following the path to the right, the huge chimney breast on the end wall of the house was a substitution by Lutyens for the miserable small flues then serving the Parlour and Solar.
The ground on the garden side of the house falls away quite steeply, so a terrace was built where additions to the south side of the Great Hall were destroyed, and the reconstructed house from Benenden was erected on a high brick base (containing the Billiard Room).
As you begin to walk along the Long Border, look back at the east side of the house. On the right on the first floor is a small window on a different level from all the others. This was a characteristic touch of Lutyens’ and is a floor level window in the Day Nursery. He called it the Crawling Window. Few great architects would have bothered to ensure that the smallest inhabitant, unable to reach a conventional window sill, could also see out.
The doorway (now blocked) in the end of the Benenden house is original.” [Source]
Benenden House Wing
I was intrigued to learn that the exterior of the ‘Benenden House’ wing is reflected in the two Lutyens garden seats strategically placed at the end of the Long Border and by the Topiary Lawn.
Lutyens Garden Seat at the Long Border
It was such a beautiful day that we didn’t go into the Oast House and White Barn exhibitions. Great Dixter is not just a place to visit and although it is the gardening students who stay here there are courses for everyone.
Miniature Hurdles ‘in action’ in the garden
The only disappointment as far as we were concerned was the refreshment ‘kiosk’; I suppose it was just meant to be a place to obtain a minimal amount of sustenance and the intention was not to turn it into a destination in its own right. My advice would be – take your own picnic!
Our journey to and from Great Dixter took us through Herstmonceux and on our way we noticed the Sussex Truggery and decided to call in on our return journey. Unfortunately The Truggery closes at 1pm on Saturdays but we did stock up with fruit and vegetables at a nearby country farm shop.
The Sussex Trugggery