THE WINTER’S TALE
It is the evergreen structure of the garden at Sedgwick Park in West Sussex, a mix of formal and wild, that steals the show in the depths of the chilly season
With the morning frost dusting the yew topiary, the wintry garden scene at Sedgwick Park is magnificent. Built at the turn of the 20th century, the Grade Ii-listed property near Horsham, in West Sussex, was designed by architects and garden designers Harold Peto and Ernest George, a partnership that spanned 16 years, during which time they designed several country residences.
Sedgwick Park house itself echoes the Arts and Crafts movement, while the garden, designed by Peto, strongly reflects his European travels, featuring an Italian-style design with symmetrical topiary and sweeping terraces which lead on to the rectangular water garden, bordered by clipped yew arbours. The house and gardens overlook the magnificent South Downs, where the Chanctonbury Ring can be glimpsed on a clear day.
Featured in Country Life several times in the first half of the 20th century, during its heyday the garden was admired as a ‘distinguished place among the gardens of England’. Peto’s design was to a nautical theme, with areas aptly named ‘The Upper Deck’, ‘The Captain’s Bridge’, ‘The Cabin’ and ‘The Bulwarks’.
In the 1950s, Sedgwick’s then owner, Lord Rotherwick, created a stream with a series of 21 small pools interlinked by waterfalls, which culminated in a large pool towards the end of the formal gardens, to complement Peto’s design. The house overlooks a further canal pool, named ‘The White Sea’, which is bordered by yew topiary and pampas grass in perfect symmetry.
Sadly, the garden and house fell into disrepair during the latter part of the 20th century, with hedges growing misshapen, herbaceous beds overgrown, and weeds crawling up among the terraces. Now, however, under the careful guidance of current owners, John and Clare Davison, who purchased the house and grounds in 2001, working alongside gardeners Martin Meehan and Kevin Toms, the gardens have been restored to their former glory.
Sedgwick is romanticised by its slightly faded grandeur – the sweeping Horsham stone terraces aged with moss, mature box topiary and hedging punctuated by sweeping specimen trees. A hard frost sharpening the topiary shapes and statues gives an almost ethereal, wonderland quality, and by curious coincidence, Alice Liddell, the inspiration behind Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland books, honeymooned at Sedgwick in 1880. Her new husband, Reginald Henderson, was the brother of Emma Henderson, who codesigned the garden with Peto, and who owned the house between 1878 and 1931.
‘The yew hedging is cut once a year, which historically was sent off for pharmaceutical purposes,’ explains Kevin Toms. ‘Originally the land was not protected from deer and fallow, so a lot of the yew hedges became misshapen, but over the past eight years we have been able to restructure the shapes of them. We have had to be creative with the topiary, and work around what nature had created; a lot had to be taken back to the trunk to start the process again,’ he adds.
Statuary is a dominant feature in the garden’s landscape, with classic, weathered pieces dotted throughout, sitting alongside more contemporary bronze sculptures. Some are quite quirky: a hippo laying on the verge of the top pond; an old red telephone box sitting peacefully at the end of a rose walk, and many others finding their own place of rest to fit seamlessly into their surroundings. Even the garden’s natural offerings have been turned into focal points. ‘When the blue cedar that shadowed one of our ponds died about four years ago, the 20-foot stump was transformed into an Alice in Wonderland sculpture,’ explains Kevin.
Marginal planting around the water features includes marsh-marigolds with their early yellow flowers, wild garlic, hostas, primulas and an abundance of fern varieties. ‘Large gunneras are stunning ornamental features during summer by the water’s edge, while over winter, the large foliage of this giant rhubarb serves to protect the plant’s delicate crowns,’ says Kevin.
The 90-acre estate sits on the site of the 13thcentury Sedgwick Castle, of which some remains can be found in the woodland area of the 15-acre, south-facing garden, which also features a heather garden, where moss-covered rocks nestle among the spriggy heathers. Beyond lies a more recent addition – a turf labyrinth, winding its way to a central standing stone.
The gravelled drive to the front of the property is lined with wildflower meadows, now dormant in the stark frost, with silhouette trees glowing copper in the ghostly early morning light. ‘The morning mist often drifts over the grounds,’ says Kevin. ‘It really is a most magical place.’