Today the Wealden Times has been granted a special preview of the gardens at Godinton Park House, one of Kent's most important and fascinating ancient estates. Viv Hunt, the Head Gardener, has been at Godinton for nine years and is preparing the gardens for the start of the new season when they will be open to the public once more. The last owner of the estate, Alan Wyndham Green, created the Godinton House Preservation Trust in order to keep the estate going after his death. He insisted that the house should not simply become a museum, however, and stipulated that at least one of the private apartments should be let to a family. Even outside of the "tourist season" the place seems full of activity, with cleaners, conservators, gardeners, administrators and workmen all industriously occupied.
We begin our tour on the terrace overlooking the Pan Garden with its statue of the diminutive Greek god. The outer boundary of the garden is marked by a famously long yew hedge that has been clipped to echo the shape of the brick gables of the house. "This is all part of Sir Reginald Blomfield's design of the late 1890s," explains Viv. Blomfield was a celebrated architect and garden writer who was commissioned to impose a more formal style upon the 18th century naturalistic scheme and although some alterations have been made since, Blomfield's design still forms the basic framework of the gardens. The borders around the terrace are filled with lavender, alchemilla, white phlox and golden Graham Thomas standard roses. At one end of the lawn is a pair of weeping pear trees. Their twisting branches and aged trunks are now discreetly propped up, but as Viv says, their beauty and character justifies such intervention.
Long herbaceous borders are planted with tulips for the spring and then late-summer flowering plants such as verbascums, lavender and penstemons. Broad stone steps lead down to the elegant lily pond. Originally installed as an Edwardian swimming pool, it is fed by a natural spring. It has recently been cleaned and Viv is looking forward to the delivery of a new collection of waterlilies. Just to one side is the stone balcony belvedere, where visitors can look across the parkland towards the parish church of Great Chart. "When I first came here, there was a flowerbed in front of it," recalls Viv, "but it seemed to defeat the purpose of the belvedere, which is, of course, somewhere to contemplate the wider landscape. So we got rid of the bed so that people can stand here. I then planted some Felicite Perpetue climbing roses on the lower ground so that they will grow up through the stone pillars and soften the lines of the wall." Across to the right is the wild garden, which in spring is carpeted in snowdrops, then aconites, crocus, daffodils, scillas, violets, primroses, fritillaries and even wild strawberries.
Closer to the house in the rose garden the original beds have been expanded and now accommodate not just roses such as Comte de Chambord, Penelope and Felicia, but also spring hellebores and supporting plants such as Philadelphus and Buddleia. It is sheltered by beech and yew hedges and a huge London plane tree seems to stand guard above. "Most plane trees are found in cities where they are pollarded," explains Viv, "so people never have the opportunity to observe their natural, weeping form." Beneath the tree I notice a handsome wooden bench and Viv tells me that it was made by the estate's carpenters and is based on one seen in a photograph from a 1903 Country Life article about Godinton. "It's a lovely Edwardian design, but it's also important to get the scale of things right in a place like this. We're so fortunate to have both intimate garden spaces here and the broader sweep of the parkland beyond."
We walk on past the old tennis lawn and through a Japanese wisteria-covered neoclassical colonnade. This leads into the famous Italian garden. The design had been proposed by Blomfield but it wasn't constructed until the 1930s when the Hon Mrs Bruce Ward (Wyndham Green's mother) took charge. The still, narrow rill of water has a fountain in its centre and beyond, at the end of the garden, is a stone bench that is a memorial to Alan Wyndham Green. It features a design showing the good men of Kent carrying out their musket drill and echoes a 17th century wooden frieze in the Great Chamber in the house. Behind it a large Trachelospermum jasminoides (star jasmine) creates an evergreen and highly fragrant backdrop.
We enter the walled garden through a door in the brick gazebo that discreetly links the two spaces. It is still mainly organised as a kitchen garden, with a mix of display borders, flowers for cutting and nursery beds. Exotics and tender plants such as orchids and streptocarpus are nurtured in the large glasshouse. Against the north wall an older glasshouse will soon be home to a collection of ferns, another tiny one has been restored for alpines and there are plans to build a summerhouse. Viv grows squashes and pumpkins for the annual Pumpkin Day in October, and she would love to plant a herb garden here too. New espaliered apples and pears have joined the old surviving fruit trees. "These old ones are not terribly productive, but their gnarled trunks and branches are so full of character, we just had to keep them," says Viv. Two walls shelter Godinton's famous collection of delphiniums. The Delphinium Society help to care for them and Godinton holds a week-long Delphinium Festival every June. There are workshops and events throughout the year, but the first full public event this year will be in March for the NGS (National Gardens Scheme). The daffodil meadow should be in full bloom and the tea rooms will be serving home-made cake. It seems that Alan Wyndham Green's wish has been fulfilled. Godinton Park House is not simply a museum, but a living treasure.
Godinton Lane, Ashford TN23 3BP,
Godinton House Preservation Trust
Tel: 01233 632652 Web: www.godintonhouse-gardens.co.uk
Adm £7 (House & garden) £4 (Gdn only), children under 16 free
The 13-acre gardens are open daily from 1st March 2–5.30pm
House open Friday to Sunday from 10th April 2–5.30pm
Garden open for the NGS: Sunday 22nd March & Sunday 29th March (2–5.30pm)