Spring Awakening

I managed to get lost on Monday despite having an AA Route Planner on my passenger seat. You know what it is like, driving and reading at the same time doesn’t really go. Anyway, after five minutes of driving up and down lanes with wonderful names like Gracious Lane, I found Sevenoaks Weald and Long Barn. Long Barn has a fascinating history. Part of the original hall house is thought to date back to 1390 and subsequently the house was divided up to accommodate farm workers. A dilapidated sixteenth-century barn, originally on the site of where the Dutch garden now is, was moved and added to the house to form an L shape, and in 1913 a Mrs. Gillian Gilchrist Thompson, began restoring the house itself. Her work was continued by Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson when they bought the house in 1915. At this stage they were a young couple – Vita was twenty-three and her husband, twenty-eight. They had gardened together in what was then Constantinople for about a year and Long Barn was where they developed the style that they were to take to Sissinghurst Castle in later years. Ann Scott James, in her book, Sissinghurst, The Making of a Garden, describes this time as their ‘apprenticeship’. Certainly there are very recognisable similarities between the two gardens, not only because they were both blank canvases and ‘formless’ before Vita and Harold wove their magic on both sites, but because of Harold’s distinctive design concepts and Vita’s planting schemes. 1915 saw the beginning of the formal gardens, an area of three acres on heavy clay which became the ‘product of their different tastes and temperaments’. The majority of the garden faces south and was originally on a sloping site. This was transformed by Harold’s design of parallel ragstone walled terraces, York paving and brick paths and box-edged gardens, the finer details of which he directed even whilst on Foreign Office business in Paris, Berlin and in Persia. There are grassed areas on different levels, secret gardens, box parterres, small formal ponds, hornbeam avenues, rose arbours, a classical grove and on the edge of the main lawn a series of stately Irish yews giving form and formality to this area.

During their first summer at Long Barn, Harold had the huge brick terrace built in the L of the house and onto which a series of rather beautiful doors open. From the terrace curved brick steps lead down to the main lawn and on to what is now the tennis court rose lawn. I particularly liked what I thought was a poplar walk adjacent to the kitchen garden. In fact there had been poplars here planted by Vita and Harold but they came down in the 1987 storm and were replaced with fastigiate oaks, which make a handsome avenue of trees leading down to the lower pond. From the highest levels of the garden there are far-reaching views over the adjoining fields and the Weald beyond. Down at the lower level of the garden and adjoining the kitchen garden, Sir Edwin Lutyens, a friend of Vita’s mother, is thought to have had a hand in the design of the Dutch garden. This consists of six raised brick-edged, L shaped borders in which Lutyens had planted malus and cherry trees and which were then planted up with a huge variety of perennials. The garden is intricate, with its series of gardens which are at their best at different times of the year. I was there when there were few flowers to be seen, with this season being at least a month behind. There were just the first of the crocuses and a cloud of snowdrops carpeting the area around the lower pond, once a kidney-shaped swimming pool but now home to marginal plants, and the flowers of witch-hazels glowing in the winter sun along with the long pink catkins of a particularly interesting hazel. But with all the fine structure, I’d rather forgotten that this is a garden absolutely overflowing with flowers in the summer.

Long Barn was owned by the Nicolsons for thirty years. They left in 1930, only to let the house to an eclectic series of people including the first great media ‘baron’, Sidney Bernstein, and the American aviator, Charles Lindbergh, and his wife, Ann Morrow Lindbergh, who was both a writer and a fellow aviator. The Lindberghs came to the house in 1936 through her father’s friendship with Harold Nicolson and after the kidnap and murder of their first child in the States. They found Long Barn to be a ‘healing’ house in the two years they were there and found some peace after their ordeal. When describing the house to the Lindberghs, Harold Nicolson apparently said that it just ‘comes out and jumps at you like a spaniel’. What a lovely description. And whilst Ann Morrow had another child at Long Barn, busied herself with ‘housekeeping and servant problems’ and wrote her book, Listen! The Wind There, villagers remembered their second son, Jon, being watched over by armed guards as he played in the garden.

Many other people have lived at Long Barn since this time and now the house and its garden are being looked after and loved by the current owners, Lars and Rebecca Lemonius. Their predecessors, Sir Brandon and Lady Gough, now live next door, and have provided much help and support to them since they took over. The Goughs, in their twenty year ownership of the house and garden, were very much hands on gardeners and their ‘garden book’ is a hugely valuable reference with details of all the changes and additions and plantings that have been made over the years. The Goughs planted 2,000 fritillaries alone in the orchard beyond the tennis court rose lawn and these have now been joined by wild orchids. The Lemoniuses have owned the house for three years in July, having lived locally for many years and having visited the garden at Long Barn when it was open on occasion. They fell in love with the house itself on their first visit as it has a lovely welcoming feel, and as Rebecca says, a house and garden like this is a commitment which they have willingly taken on. Soon after they became the owners, they advertised for a full-time gardener (the Nicolsons had two!) and now employ Richard Thompson, Hadlow College trained, who had spent the previous seven years working in the extensive grounds of Rotherfield Hall, Crowborough. He is assisted by a part-time hedge man whom the Lemoniuses inherited ‘with the house’. There is now a dry gravel garden to the north of the house and a beautiful new greenhouse, cold frames, potting shed and tool shed down in the kitchen garden where Rebecca is also going to allocate space for a cutting garden. She has eighty pots to fill around the garden, and lots of benches and seats to sit on and enjoy this exhilarating and historic garden - when there’s time!

In June Long Barn is hosting a private viewing to raise funds for The Hospice in the Weald at Pembury. This is the launch platform for the Hospice’s Open Gardens 2010 Programme and the Hospice is hoping to top the £25,000 raised by their successful Open Gardens programme last year. This year the programme includes a garden safari in Hawkhurst and twenty private gardens in Sissinghurst are opening for The Secret Gardens of Sissinghurst in June. These include the private gardens of some of the Sissinghurst Castle Gardens gardeners.

The Hospice in the Weald was established in 1980 and has a seventeen bed In Patient unit as well as a Day Therapy centre offering a range of treatments. They also have a team of Community Nurse Specialists offering twenty-four hour support to the community. All their activities are supported by an astonishing team of 900 volunteers! The Hospice currently serves an area of four hundred square miles and they have had a 50% growth in their services over the past five years. They have to raise £4 million a year with only 10% coming from Government funding. As well as caring for patients, the Hospice supports and cares for their families and carers with skilled counsellors offering emotional and bereavement support.

For further information about the Open Gardens or for offers of support or fundraising suggestions (maybe you would like to offer your garden for another year’s Open Garden Scheme), contact Rachel Holweger at the Hospice in the Weald, Maidstone Road, Pembury, Tunbridge Wells, Kent, TTN2 4TA, tel. 01892 820536 rachel.holweger@hospiceintheweald.org.uk www.hospiceintheweald.org.uk

Knole House in Sevenoaks, the childhood home of Vita Sackville-West, is open from 13 March to 31 October. Visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk for more information.

  • words Sue Whigham