On a number of much-anticipated summer days, the pretty town of Winchelsea in East Sussex opens its gardens to hundreds of visitors, many of whom come back year after year to enjoy the delights on offer
Winchelsea’s private gardens have turned the town into a horticultural hotspot
On an average weekday, the little East Sussex town of Winchelsea can seem quiet and sleepy, but all that changes for the NGS Open Garden days, when its ancient streets – arranged in a grid around St Thomas’ Church and its large churchyard – are thronged with people criss-crossing this way and that to enter the gates of many usually unseen gardens.
“It’s the biggest event on our calendar,” says organiser David Page, “and everyone plays their part, whether they are helping to serve the teas, sitting at a table to collect entrance money or directing traffic to the parking places.”
Billed as Winchelsea’s Secret Gardens and inaugurated over 20 years ago, it attracts around 800 visitors, with a record of 1,000 on one occasion. “The thing is with Winchelsea, you never know what you are going to find behind the houses,” says Howard Norton, who helps David co-ordinate the event. “The gardens are carved up in unexpected ways, so you might discover a huge one behind a cottage and a much smaller one behind a large house. It is very intriguing for visitors to see what lies beyond those lovely old garden walls.”
Gilly and Tony Tugman have been opening their quirky garden at 2 Strand Plat for seven years. Tucked behind their long white Georgian house, with its bubblegum-pink front door and even pinker climbing roses, is a garden that perfectly reflects Gilly’s generous, welcoming personality. From the narrow courtyard, the space opens up onto a lawn that weaves through borders filled with typically English country-garden perennials and roses, and offers a tantalising glimpse of Winchelsea church at its end.
Gilly has changed the garden completely since she arrived, putting in 40 clematis, 30 to 40 different roses and a Kentucky coffee tree (Gymnocladus dioica), which always attracts comment. The house even has its own tiny chapel, which Tony now uses as a studio. Two moon gates, one wreathed in goldenyellow ‘Gardener’s Glory’ roses, frame the church and there are long views right over to the sea at Dungeness.
At Cleveland Place, Sally and Graham Rhodda like the fact that many visitors return year after year, keen to see what the latest
“It’s the high spot of the year and an overwhelmingly positive experience”
developments are in their courtyard garden. “We have quite a following,” Sally says. “They come with notebooks in hand, so we label our plants, which people seem to find helpful.” It is one of the smallest to open, but nevertheless is packed with inspirational ideas that draw admiration and questions. The colour scheming is particularly harmonious, with a preponderance of plum and magenta offset with silver and the occasional vivid orange, including Geum ‘Prinses Juliana’. Staking is vital here, as the garden is exposed to strong south-westerly winds.
At Periteau House, Felicity and Lawrence Youlten have 124 roses in their garden, including the exuberant pink floribunda ‘Sexy Rexy’, which catches visitors’ eyes as soon as they walk through the gate. Periteau House is Tudor, dating to about 1450, and it is estimated that the enormous yew tree that towers over one side of their garden is about 250-300 years old. “People always ask us how we prune it,” say Felicity, who has opened for 17 years, “so we now provide a set of photographs that show the whole process.” The garden is completely encircled by other properties and is one of the surprises in size as it is impossible to see how large it might be until you are in it. Visitors tend to linger here under a shady pergola covered in wisteria, appreciating stone urns filled with colourful pelargoniums.
Stone features in Lis and Tony Jasper’s garden, too, a labyrinthine one-acre site that is an adventure in itself. It is set behind one of Winchelsea’s most historic houses, The Armoury, which dates back to the 13th century. Divided into ten garden rooms with different themes, including a seaside garden, rock garden and a fern-filled grotto, it has serpentine paths that weave between huge crenellated yew hedges and topiarised trees, revealing itself little by little. There is even a giant chess set, which Tony lays out mid-game to tempt visitors to finish it. There are trees grown from seed and a wonderful fallen
eucalyptus. The Jaspers’ garden has the great advantage of accommodating many people at the same time.
At Cleveland House, Sarah and Jonathan Jempson’s garden looks out over National Trust fields towards the sea. It has evolved over 40 years, with a manicured lawn and formal water feature complete with stone obelisk on one side and a romantic, pictorial meadow and summerhouse on the other, with a covered walkway in between. Again, this is a garden to linger in, enjoying the sight of a stunning white wisteria and the many colourful perennials.
Howard Norton, who runs the thriving Winchelsea Gardens Society, is hugely enthusiastic about the open days. He and David Page open their own garden, Rye View, down the hill from the main grid of streets, on the banks of the river. They are avid plant collectors – they have a striking array of bamboos, for instance – and enjoy the affirmation they get from knowledgeable plant-lovers.
“It is the high spot of the year and an overwhelmingly positive experience for everyone,” Howard says. “Importantly, it is such an easy and relatively painless way of raising quite a lot of money for good causes. We have the gardens, and would maintain them anyway because we love them, so it’s no trouble for us to open them for other people to enjoy.”
Eleven of Winchelsea’s secret gardens are opening for the NGS on 16 June, 11am-5pm, admission £6, children free. Visit ngs.org.uk to see which will be open on that date and for details of a further opening on 22 September, 1pm-5pm.
ABOVE, CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT At 2 Strand Plat, Nemesia ‘Vanilla’ and Bacopa ‘Snowflake’, grown from plug plants, tumble down an old ladder under a willow; visitors enjoy characterful touches, including urns and statues; pink ‘High Hopes’ and...
OPPOSITE Towering topiarised trees and crenellated yew hedges create a dramatic backdrop to planting at the historic Armoury THIS PAGE The L-shaped plot at Cleveland Place includes a charming pink seating area and colourful planting, with bright blue...
TOP The gravel terrace behind Rye View features a variety of sun-loving plants ABOVE AND BELOW Visitors often linger in Felicity and Lawrence’s garden at Periteau House, where a venerable wisteria and pink ‘Agatha Christie’ rose scramble over a shady...