Hailsham, in East Sussex, has like most English market towns, seen a number of changes to its building stock over the centuries, but the 15th century St. Mary's Church still rises above all other newcomers and seems to draw the visitor to itself. Just within its shadow is a late 20th century shopping precinct named Vicarage Fields that gives a hint of the formerly large estate that belonged to the parish church. Although a new vicarage was constructed in the 1950s, the Georgian version has thankfully survived and can still be found tucked behind high brick walls just a short walk from the busy High Street.
Built between 1701 and 1705 for the Rev. Thomas Hooper, the grey and red brick house was designed in the 'Mary-Anne' style, and combines the formality of the Queen Anne period with the Dutch influence of William and Mary. Handsome and impressive without being at all showy, it possesses an almost effortless elegance. The gravelled front drive forms a semi-circle and leads the visitor past neatly clipped box hedging and deep mauve dahlias to a glossy white front door with Ionic pilasters and pediment above. First to greet me is Wendy, the housekeeper, who leads the way to the garden at the rear where she makes me very comfortable in the gorgeously pretty summerhouse while I wait to meet the owner. As I sit, taking in the scents and sounds, I know that we are in the centre of the town, but the setting is so peaceful and I can hear cows lowing so that it almost seems like a much larger country manor. Looking across the garden and back at the house it is not hard to see why its present owner, Noel Thompson rushed to view the property when it was advertised for sale.
"I was living in Kent and I saw this place advertised in the paper. I'd always loved this part of Sussex and once I saw the house I quickly made up my mind to buy it," recalls Noel. "That was in 1987, just after the terrible hurricane and actually, the garden lost a few trees, but nothing very significant. In fact there was nothing really here except grass, so in a way I was lucky because I started off with a blank canvas. I knew that being tucked behind the Downs here I'd have the benefit of a kind of microclimate, so I could grow all kinds of things. I lived in New Zealand originally and my parents both loved plants - my mother is especially keen on propagating things, so I had grown up with an interest in gardens and I had lots of ideas that I wanted to implement. Relatively speaking, by English standards anyway, this is a fairly small garden at around an acre, and it's in an urban environment, so I needed to create something that would suit the location and the house. It took about five years to get it established. I always think that the first year in any garden's life should be spent planning and planting, then the second year is when you correct all the mistakes you've made in the first, then in the third year you plant it as you really want it and after that you just keep it in order and replenish every so often. After just four years here I opened it up for the NGS and I've been doing so ever since, twice a year for 21 years. I also open it for a few local charities, but I'm considering having a rest from the regular open days. It's such a lot of work, but then on the other hand, it does give one a useful deadline that really makes you focus and get jobs done that you might otherwise be tempted to let slide.
"Anyway, in design terms, I took my cue from the house. The front is very formal. So the front garden reflects that, with its lawn and box hedging. I've also used box hedging at the rear, but the planting is quite profuse and informal. I suppose I've been influenced by places like Sissinghurst - and I have a little white garden, but I'm also interested in the style of the colonial gardens in America and New Zealand. The first thing I did was to build this summerhouse, to give the garden a focal point to draw the eye when you step out of the garden door at the rear of the house. Then the next thing was to obscure the view of the backs of the shops behind the property that could be seen from the upper storeys of the house. I pinched an idea from David Hicks' garden for that and planted a hedge on 'stilts'. That is, a line of pleached hornbeams with their trunks exposed. Just in front of them I planted another hedge and left a 12 inch gap between the top of the lower hedge and the greenery of the second, so that other parts of the garden can be glimpsed through it, but the whole garden is not revealed at once and the idea is that the visitor is then tempted to move around and explore. Close to the house, I kept the colours quite conventional so that the borders are filled with blue, pink and mauve flowers, but beyond the hornbeam, and either side of the summerhouse, the borders are in yellows, golds and oranges. No more than three colours per border is Vita Sackville-West's rule, and generally, I stick to it, except for the rainbow border along the church wall, where the blooms start off at one end in indigo and move through all the colours of the rainbow to finish at orange at the other. It sounds awful, but in fact, each colour gradually blends into the next, rather like a rainbow, so it seems to work without everything clashing and shouting at one another."
Noel then turns his attention to the house: "It's had a number of alterations made to it over the centuries, and in the 1830s the vicar needed more bedroom accommodation as he had ten children, so he added the mansard roof and a new service wing, though that was truncated by the 1970s owner, because a large cedar tree had undermined the foundations of it. So now what's left of it is where we have the kitchen and the space left behind is filled by the white garden." I offer bed and breakfast accommodation here so I've made a few adjustments to the living space too. There are two double bedrooms with their own bathrooms as well as a morning room for guests in the main house, and then in the coach house which was built just after the house in about 1720, we have two suites of rooms available too."
Noel begins our tour in what was originally the large reception hall. A wall had been constructed to create a separate room, but Noel wanted to reinstate the original dimensions, so he took it out, but added pilaster columns to provide a psychological divide. "It means that it has the generous proportions of a formal entrance, but I can also use it as a dining room for my guests." There is an oval table in the centre of the room with Regency chairs arranged around it. Two shuttered windows overlook the front garden and are dressed with swags of Colefax & Fowler's fuchsia chintz. There is a handsome marble fire surround, a marble bust on a tall plinth and a pair of marble-topped tables. "I was a lawyer in New Zealand, but when I came to England I had an antiques business in Tunbridge Wells with an interior design consultancy alongside, so I managed to collect quite a few things over the years that have fitted in here very well. I used Amtico black and white floor tiles on the diagonal to keep the sense of an entrance hall but the colour of the walls is a welcoming one. It's Pink Ground by Farrow & Ball and it takes on quite a different hue according to the light and time of day, but it's one that people always look good against. It gives them a kind of rosy glow perhaps."
From here we move into Noel's private space. His drawing room was originally two rooms, that were made into one in the 1830s when the same rather energetic vicar moved the fireplace along the wall to accommodate a door that opened onto the garden and through which parishioners could come and go without disturbing the other occupants of the house. The same vicar then also had a bow shaped wall added to the rear end of the room and incorporated two hidden cupboards within its curves. Today, the curved walls have bookshelves with hidden doors that silently open when pressed in the right spot. The walls of the room are a soft golden yellow, and papered in Zoffany 'Damask Design', whilst the curtains are Colefax & Fowler 'Tree Paeony'. "It's a slightly awkward space to furnish actually," says Noel, "because the fireplace was moved, everything's slightly askew. I'm fond of the marble fireplace though, it's a Robert Adam one that came from Derby House in London in 1775 and features the goddess Diana at the centre." Along the rear hallway, I glimpse Noel's aptly named 'snug', where judging by the bookshelves heaving with gardening and plant books, he plans his seasonal planting schemes. There is a sofa along one wall, several armchairs, a desk overlooking the garden and a tightly packed collection of colourful paintings and drawings on the walls.
Climbing the elegantly curving staircase, we pass framed prints of Piranesi's classic engravings of Rome and an arched window that affords a sweeping view of the garden and church tower beyond. The morning room on the first floor is where guests can settle into the sofa and chairs against plump, feathered cushions to browse the books and periodicals from the shelves, or to chat by the fire. The walls have been covered in a warm yellow Colefax & Fowler stripe and the heavy herringbone patterned linen curtains reinforce the sense of discreet luxury. Further along the landing is the Blue Room, with its slate blue French wallpaper, taken from an original early 18th century design and its impressive four-poster bed that looks reminiscent of a Colonial American style. There are well-chosen pieces of walnut and mahogany furniture and a number of gilt mirrors and pictures including a modern oil, but everything has been carefully arranged, so each object provokes interest, but complements the rest to produce a harmonious whole. Windows with their original panelled shutters overlook the front garden and another door opens onto a smart Savoy Hotel-style bathroom of pale grey and white marble with walls covered in a fresh delft blue and white toile. The second guest room known as the East Room is decorated in a soothing combination of teal blue and soft ochre - its scheme perhaps taken from the GP & J Baker fabric that covers the bed. It is connected to its prettily decorated bathroom by a small corridor where Noel has taken the Colefax & Fowler wallpaper right up the walls and over the ceiling to minimise its height and therefore make it seem less tall and narrow.
Back down the stairs to the rear hallway, the garden seems to irresistibly draw the visitor out. "Having paying guests means that I have the opportunity to meet so many interesting people, not just from Britain but from around the world. I have a lot of visitors from Scandinavia, Germany, Hong Kong and Japan and the Japanese especially are fascinated by English gardens. Lots of my guests stay here as part of garden tours that they do, but the Japanese particularly seem to love the garden, perhaps because it's so different to their own style. They are such polite people and very often leave me with a present. One lady gave me a book on Japanese gardens when she left which was so kind. I have some part-time help in the garden, but really, it's so well established now that there's little space for weeds. I'm glad that other people can come and enjoy the garden too though."
With that, Noel leaves me to explore the garden for myself and so I have the chance to take note of some of the plants that he has used so successfully. Around the flagstone terrace immediately outside the rear of the house, he has arranged pots of hydrangeas, their pink-mauve flowers perfectly echoing the colours that he has used in the formal borders on either side of the central path. Being late summer, I can only guess at the shades of the paeonies and poppies that have long since finished flowering, but the roses are still blooming in profusion and include deep crimson Falstaff and the magenta striped Ferdinand Pichard. Around them, pale blue scabious, lavender, deep blue violas as well as dark purple flowering marjoram, candy coloured pinks and masses of lilac coloured Michaelmas daisies fill almost every space.
Through the gap in the hornbeam hedge, the bell-shaped summerhouse with its delicate trellis sides is beautifully framed by pale apricot Buff Beauty roses. The plants in these citrus coloured borders have grown to almost jungle-like proportions, with giant rudbeckias, lilies, and buttery yellow mophead hydrangeas punctuated by dark bronze foliage and splashes of egg-yolk yellow Pilgrim roses and tangerine cactus form dahlias. It's hard to decide whether to turn left or right alongside the border, but opting for right first takes the visitor towards a white painted Lutyens bench and another shrub rose that has reached at least six feet in height. This one is studded with delicately cupped, pale apricot blooms that have such a distinctive fruity scent that it has to be David Austin's 'Jude the Obscure'. It's hard to leave behind such an intoxicating fragrance, but my eye is caught by a glimpse of the white garden. Tall yew hedges surround it and it is strongly reminiscent of the larger version at Sissinghurst, but it has been cleverly designed so that all is in proportion and with its central rose and everlasting sweetpea-covered iron pagoda, still pool of water and box-edged beds, it offers a pleasingly tranquil place to pause. Noel has chosen only white flowering plants such as philadelphus, dahlias, lilies, roses, iris and hydrangeas and has rejected any new-fangled ideas of including silver coloured foliage with the result that the white blooms have tremendous impact and almost sparkle against the dark, deep green of the foliage and the yew hedging.
Finally, I walk to the other side of the garden via a woodland path behind the summerhouse that is planted with hazel and camellias and must be a delight in the spring. I then follow the rainbow border and pass another formal area, rather like a knot garden with low box borders filled with vividly coloured pink and red begonias. Noel comes out to bid me goodbye and gratifyingly, I find that I was right about the headily scented rose - it is 'Jude the Obscure'. "A rather obscure name in fact," says Noel. "I suppose fashions come and go, but like most beautiful things, a lovely plant doesn't need a strange moniker or extra adornment. It should be appreciated for itself."