Gravetye Manor


The following article by Gillian Vine is from the Otago Daily Times online edition – 17 January 2016 – on the history of Gravetye Manor, home of William Robinson, one of the early progenitors of the naturalistic tradition in gardening. (Thanks to Facebook gardening friend Scott Nickerson of Queenstown, New Zealand, for posting it there.)

I’m re-posting the text and a link to the ODT article, but using photos I took while on a garden tour with Carolyn Mullet’s Carex Tours last May. We visited Gravetye and, because we stopped for an exceptional lunch there, had free run of the garden. Tom Coward, the head gardener, has done some remarkable work at Gravetye Manor since arriving from Great Dixter three years ago.

These are large photo files, so click two times to see lots of detail.

from the Otago Daily Times …

“Gillian Vine continues her occasional series on garden history with a look at a man credited with changing English gardening.

In one of fate’s odd quirks, one of the most influential men in English gardening history was Irish.

Born in 1838, William Robinson went as a youngster to work at a grand garden in Waterford, then at the estate of an Irish peer, before moving to London in 1861.

There, employment at Regent’s Park looking after hardy plants, including wildflowers, must have had a long-term influence.


He was to turn his back on the rigidity of flower-gardening at the time which had, he noted, “many thousands of plants set out … in formal and geometrical array, the result a bad carpet”.

His ideas about growing hardy perennials in mixed borders to create a more natural look ran up against the Victorian practices of planting numerous annuals or raising tropical plants in greenhouses for bedding displays.


Robinson was not the first to argue for a more natural approach but his success was largely because of his talent as a writer. At 29, he began working for the influential magazine, The Gardener’s Chronicle, then in 1871, he launched his own magazine, The Garden, pulling in friends like Gertrude Jekyll to contribute.

He wrote 18 books, of which The Wild Garden (1871) and The English Flower Garden were the most successful. First published in 1883, The English Flower Garden became one of the top-selling gardening books of all time with 15 editions printed, the last in 1933. However, The Wild Garden is now considered the more influential.


Income from the magazine and his books, plus a series of shrewd property deals in London enabled Robinson, in 1884, to buy an Elizabethan house and farmland at East Grinstead in Sussex.

The property was Gravetye Manor and Robinson was to live there until his death in 1935, experimenting, planting, writing and buying more land so he eventually owned more than 400ha.


When he commuted to his London office, Robinson used the Bluebell Railway, a branch line that ran through the estate and connected to the main London service.


He is credited with scattering the bluebell seed which grew and gave the railway its name. The line is now a popular tourist attraction, especially in May when the bluebells are in bloom.



Robinson extended the house in 1890, an extension in keeping with its 1597 Elizabethan core. He added stone walls, perfect backing for perennial beds, a formal garden and below the house a wildflower meadow.



Cut annually in October, this is not one of the highly coloured creations full of non-English flowers that are grown elsewhere, but the real thing, where endemic orchids pop up among the grasses, hawkweeds and other less flamboyant British natives.



Among the many notable trees at Gravetye is a handkerchief tree (Davidia involucrata), the oldest and one of the largest in Britain.


Under the trees and by the lake, thousands of daffodils bloom in spring, again a Robinson legacy, as he was lavish with bulbs: for instance, in 1897, he planted 100,000 narcissi.


One of his projects was the creation of a walled vegetable garden.


Covering an area of almost 1ha, it is an unusual oval shape and was built to Robinson’s design in his chosen spot. Facing south towards the sun and on a slope to ensure good drainage, it is noted for excellent soil.

Walled gardens are invariably warmer than the ground outside and at Gravetye, the difference is 3-4 degC.


Robinson kept records of what he grew and wrote extensively about what worked and what didn’t, culminating in his 1911 book,Gravetye Manor, or Twenty Years of the Work Around an old Manor House, a copy of which is displayed at his former home, now a boutique hotel.


After Robinson’s death, the garden was neglected until the 1950s, when it was opened as a hotel by Peter Herbert, who worked on renovating the garden until his retirement in 2004.


Subsequently, the garden suffered but now, thanks to the backing of new owners, major restoration is under way.

Robinson’s enthusiasm for trees is reflected in the names chosen for the hotel’s 17 bedrooms, so guests sleep in the likes of Holly or Beech.


Head gardener Tom Coward is committed to presenting the gardens in a way Robinson would have loved, ensuring colour in the formal and informal flower beds from late March until the end of October, and overseeing restoration projects.

The latest has been working on the Victorian peach house, where an African hardwood, iroka, was used to replace rotted frames and young trees planted in the Victorian manner, arching under the glass as espaliers.

As a boutique hotel featuring a renowned restaurant, produce gluts are preserved whenever possible.


“We have some wonderful strawberry jam now,” says marketing manager Sam Woolmore, explaining that it is the result of a bumper crop in early summer.


When I visited in mid-August, the gooseberries were in full swing (the gooseberry fool at lunch was sheer delight), the first apples were due to be picked that week and there were so many vegetables, the chef must have found it a challenge deciding which to offer diners.


Appealing to many guests is hearing that the eggs in the restaurant are from Gravetye’s flock of 60 chooks, while other visitors appreciate knowing that gardening is based on organic principles.


As Woolmore, who lives on the estate says: “It’s a beautiful place to work and live. It’s a way of life.”

Those words could have been William Robinson’s.”


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19 thoughts on “Gravetye Manor

  1. I love the photo that has the unlikely combo of Echium pininana a yellow tree peony with an Australian Bottlebrush in the front. And who would have thought that “chooks” the antipodean slang for chickens would show up on Federal Twist?

    1. How true. I was thinking the same. But then remembered the garish annual bedding, geometric patterns, etc., of the Victorians that Robinson was reacting to. In comparison, this looks very relaxed. I’m sure Tom Coward also has to make sure the hotel’s customers get an eyefull of color.

  2. Wonderful pictures & article. Totally unknown to me. Thank you, James. And how terrific to learn about the touring organization that you used last May. I will be looking them up.
    Wishing you and yours a happy New Year.

  3. A garden on my list to visit on a trip to the South East one day. I wish I had time to get out more! Never been to Hidcote or Beth Chatto’s garden, haven’t been to Sissinghurst or Inverewe in 20 years. So many good gardens out there!

  4. Bonjour,

    I’d like to know the name of the strange plant I don’t know, the one on the picture (with tree peony and Callistemon) with high spires of long leaves and blue flowers. Seems to be like an Echium but !!!???
    Thanks in advance

  5. The gardeners there work work work! If I could be teleported anywhere for a meal on someone else’s dime, Gravetye would be my pick — for the chance to wander through the gardens. I’d want to do dinner in September — another moment when the chef is spoiled for choice, and the borders are overflowing.

    James, your photos are especially impressive considering the bright midday sun.

  6. It’s only because of a garden trip to Seattle many years ago that I know the blue-flowered plant in the next-to-last image: Cerinthe major. Linda Cochran had a big clump of it in front of a blue wall; electric.

    The last photo in the post has me stumped for the moment, though.

    1. Nell, I’ll answer here. I’d love to join you for dinner some September evening at Gravetye. Thanks for the name Cerinthe major; I couldn’t call it to mind. Such extraordinary color. Wish I could grow it. Yes, Asphodeline lutea, another plant I lust to grow. I need another house in a Mediterranean climate.

  7. Very nice pictures, James. You always take the big shot, the most useful. Bees in blossoms are pretty but tell me nothing about the size and form of plants, or of the garden. Your pictures do. Thanks.

    1. Tom, I always want to show the garden, which isn’t always easy. There are far too many pictures of pretty blossoms. Show me the plant growing in its garden setting, or even better, in the wild.

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