Brought up in the tropics, I have never lost my awe of the beautiful chameleon landscape in which I now find myself nor have I lost my admiration for those who work within this landscape to create gardens so at one with the skies, fields and forests that surround them. Yet it was not always so. Both Tudors and Stuarts were obsessed by Italianate and French formal gardens - gardens that had little to do with the natural landscape other than to demonstrate the gardener's control over it and his ability to tame and bend it to his geometric will. The later work of William Kent and Capability Brown moved away from the formal but still kept the real world of hedgerows and pastures, wood and farmland firmly out of sight and mind. In fact, it wasn't until the Victorians that a gardening journalist, one William Robinson, published The Wild Garden and a new respect for nature was born. No more would Euclid rule the English country garden. "The gardener must follow the true artist, however modestly, in his respect for things as they are, in delight in natural form and beauty of flower and tree, if we are to be free from barren geometry," said Robinson.
Which brings us, rambling though horticultural history and across the High Weald, to a very special garden on the side of a hill just on the East Sussex side of the Kent/Sussex border. A wood climbs above. Below, hedges and farmland roll away to the far horizon. The garden weaves seamlessly into both allowing nature to flow down the hillside and away to meeting of land and sky. "We wanted a garden at peace with its landscape - a garden that evolved from the fields and woodland," says Patricia. She - and husband Alex - also wanted a big garden and that is what she ultimately found - four-and-a-half acres in which stands both the main house and The Cottage in the Garden - an idyllic retreat which the couple now offer as a holiday cottage and which attracts visitors from around the world. The garden falls broadly into five sections. Above the house is a woodland walk and vegetable garden, below that is upper lawn, greenhouse and the cutting garden where Patricia grows a spectacular array of flowers which she uses to decorate both the cottage and her own house. Her favourite sources are Simply Sweet Peas, Seeds of Distinction, Kings Seeds, David Austin Roses, Haycroft plants, Rapkyns Nurseries and Sarah Raven. "I trawl seed catalogues every autumn making copious lists and also use much saved seed from here and friends' gardens," she says. The next feature is the wild flower banks which flank steps up to the cottage.
We now have a wonderful range of native wild flowers including orchids," says Patricia. Further along is the long border - a truly breathtaking array between the cottage and the main lawn - and before Patricia has even named a tenth of the species here my head is spinning. Below the main lawn is the lower lawn, rhododendron plantation, orchard and fish pond. Asked how many species now call these wonderful four-and-a-half acres home, Patricia says she couldn't even hazard a guess but says there are at least a hundred kinds of roses alone. The cottage itself stands some way from the house in its own little romantic world. Just a single pretty storey which today offers its guests a living room, bedroom, bathroom and kitchen. Appropriately, its origins are a mystery. It was built before the house, probably in the mid-1800s, alone on a secluded hillside. But why, no-one knows. Was it an artist's studio? A love nest? Who first sat on its stoop with a glass of summer wine and lost themselves in its magical view? It keeps its secrets well. When the couple first moved into the main house, the cottage was in need of serious TLC and Patricia's younger son spent a summer holiday redecorating. Her elder son then decided he'd like to move in and use the cottage as a vac retreat from university. He lived there for a year after uni and continued to use it at weekends. "He then married and ultimately moved to the Far East," says Patricia, "and we were left wondering what to do with it. We finally decided to take the bold step of completely renovating it and offering it as a holiday cottage." However, there were to be no structural changes or additions.
The challenge was to retain and enhance the cottage's existing romance. The only 'building' work, was in the hands of highly respected joiner and artist Phil Shaw "The rest was down to us," says Patricia. The style she chose was broadly Gustavian/shabby chic with the scene set by those exceptional scene setters, Messrs Farrow & Ball. "I love Farrow & Ball," she says. "I love the way that shades change with the light and time of day - but that does mean that you really do have to get a sample pot, try it on every wall you plan to paint and look at it in different lights at different times of day." She chose Wimbourne White for the living room walls and subtle dove grey, Skimming Stone, for the floorboards. In the bay window is an intimate table for two she found at Mark Maynard in Tunbridge Wells. "It was just an old pine table - I painted the legs and sanded and lime waxed the top and put Danish oil on it." Patricia, it quickly emerges, doesn't just have a talent for interior design but the practical skills to back it up which means that a renovation project like the cottage can be brought in on a modest budget and that each piece of furniture is restyled exactly the way she wants it. Another example of her own work is the chest of drawers near the table, its light distressing counterpointed by elegant porcelain handles. By the open fireplace and woodburner is a big wicker basket of logs - despite its elegance, the cottage has a natural warmth that makes it truly a retreat for all seasons. The sofa, which, of course, looks as if it just came off the back of a Heal's lorry, is courtesy of Futon Company in The Pantiles, Tunbridge Wells. The striped blinds are a Laura Ashley fabric but made by Patricia. "I'd never made blinds before but the maths actually worked out," she says. "I was ecstatic." Everywhere there are beautiful objects - glassware, china, a vintage oil lamp - the like of which are rarely found in a property to be entrusted, even briefly, to Joe Public. "We decided from the start that this would be the kind of retreat we ourselves would like to enjoy and that meant a few of our own treasures.
My son was appalled but I felt that if we furnished it to the highest standard, people would respect it - and that proved the case." Particularly admired by guests are the teacups in which Patricia serves arrivals their welcome cuppa. "Everyone mentions them," says Patricia, "so I've found out where they can be bought locally - they're by PiP Studio and they now sell them in John Lewis." The bedroom, directly off the living room, is in a blue Laura Ashley print that "looks like Nina Campbell but is a tenth of the price". At the windows are romantic cascades of snow-white muslin from Ikea. The bedroom suite was from the Friday Ad, its mouldings picked out in an attractive gold. It quickly received the F&B Elephant's Breath treatment, an extra glaze of watered PVA with a touch of Wimbourne White and now looks a zillion dollars. At the foot of the bed is a chic ottoman. "I needed somewhere to store the White Company linen," she says. "So I found an old chest at a local dump, painted it in Skimming Stone and upholstered the lid in blue watered silk." The silk came from The Fabric Shop in Horam which Patricia seriously recommends for both value and service.
The kitchen is surprisingly large for a small cottage and has been beautifully kitted out with pride of place going to a dresser from Mark Maynard. The piece has been largely painted in F&B Light Blue but the worktop is still glowing old pine. The bathroom is predictably lovely but the separate loo is where I should like to closet myself for a while to fully appreciate its glorious Gothic wrought-iron window. Outside, the lovely tessellated stoop is graced by another Mark Maynard find, a delicate wrought-iron bench, the perfect place to share a sundowner, the view and sleepy humming of the bees on their bedtime visit to the carpet of wild flowers at your feet. It is an idyllic cottage and garden, totally at peace with their landscape. Patricia and Alex have obviously taken Robinson's advice. "Be kind to your plot," he once said, "and let the flowers tell their story to the heart."
For further information on The Cottage in the Garden, visit www.cottageinthegarden.co.uk