Monday, 14 July 2014

Paradise at Parham; proud, pioneering, anything but predictable

"The most wonderful thing about Parham is that it has never changed.
It has never lost any of its charm." Lady Emma Barnard

It would be easy to rush along the busy road between Storrington and Pulborough in West Sussex, and pass by the white gateway that is the entrance of Parham House and Gardens. But you’d be missing out. I have done exactly that, time after time, however with an invite to the 21st annual Garden Weekend event, this time I turned in through the gateway and allowed myself to be drawn down the long winding driveway into another world. 


The driveway ribbons through beautiful parkland with veteran trees and roaming deer, possibly unchanged in hundreds of years. Very soon, the rushing road is left far behind, out of view and rapidly drifting out of mind. Parham House comes into view as you drop downhill into an oasis of England’s green and pleasant land. The estate is cradled by the rolling downs, and from the house no sign of the outside world is visible, giving the place an air of peace, tranquillity and timelessness.
A morning which had started with mist, was now bright, and the yellow hued stone of the house with its white painted clock tower, reflected the summer sun. House Martins flittered in the blue sky, visiting their nests under the eaves of the roof. The house seemed to fit in the landscape as if the two had grown together from the same roots over time.

I had arrived in time for the official opening of the event, this year the ribbon-cutting was undertaken by Garden Designer Joe Swift (regular presenter on Gardeners’ World) with the humour and flair that seems part of his nature.

The event was already busy, with visitors eager to discover wonderful treats from the numerous plant nurseries and stalls attending. Some had come with specific target plants in mind, others meandered between the stands seeing what took their eye; none could resist the lure and excitement of a new variety, the fun and quirky, or an old familiar favourite that brought back childhood memories.

Their exclamations, chatter and laughter mingled with the music being played by Davison Worthing Youth Concert Band, and the sound of bees and grasshoppers to create the perfect soundtrack to the day, punctuated occasionally by the distant mewling of high soaring buzzards or the clatter of dragonfly wings overhead.

And the flowers were certainly putting on a show!

The wide borders were bursting with colour; hot pinks, brooding purples, deep blues, powerful magentas, rich reds and zesty yellows. Plants jostled for attention, each shouting their joy of being alive. I was struck by unusual planting combinations, each placed with skill to highlight and complement the subtleties of the other. Yellow fennel paraded alongside purple buddleia, white sneezeweed picked out the pale base of magenta geranium petals, dark centred oranges were paired with dark foliage. 

 Between all these energetic colours is a moment of calm. The orchard, recently restored after the effects of time, and storms had taken their toll, was quiet and peaceful. Young fruit trees are accompanied by older twisted specimens, their branches adorned with ripening fruit and bracelets of mistletoe. A sea of long golden grasses shifts below, tall enough to allow tassel seed heads to be winnowed by lazy fingers. 

A bench provides an opportunity to rest and reflect, and enjoy the atmosphere. Butterflies flit along the mown paths, leading you back to the colourful world of the flower borders, the stalls and of course the house.

There is a tradition at Parham, of fresh flower arrangements in each and every room open to the public. 
All these flowers come from the gardens, which are managed organically with plants chosen to provide the most colour, structure, scent or character that a flower can, a system led by Head Gardener Tom Brown. 

Each arrangement is beautiful; full and varied, with care taken to ensure the colour scheme perfectly fits the display’s location. By bringing a little of the garden inside the house, each room is filled with life and scent, and linked back to the view through the window. 

It was these window-views that most caught my eye, as each window was large and let sunlight stream into the room. 
Beyond was a quintessentially English landscape, each angle offering a picturesque satisfaction to the eye. 

(Speaking of eyes, I could not help but notice that each portrait appeared to have perfected the art of letting its gaze follow you around the room. I suppose after years of hanging around they’ve had plenty of time to practice!)  

Back outside in the sunshine, I was able to meet and chat with Lady Emma Barnard who lives at Parham with her family. It was Lady Emma’s Great-Grandparents who first opened the house to the public in 1948. As one of the first private houses to open its doors, this was a brave and pioneering move by the Pearson family, one considered at very least ‘odd’ by many of their peers. Lady Emma explained how her Great Grandparents had fallen in love with the place and brought it, not to gain the prestige of owning an estate, but simply because it made them happy.  The main drive behind the public opening, was a desire to share what they loved with other people, and that spirit continues today at Parham, through the efforts of Lady Emma. Wherever you go in the gardens, or in the house, it feels like a family home. Parham has a unique charm, partly due to being lived in and not a museum, partly to its timelessness, but mostly due to the feeling that a lot of love has been poured into every corner, petal and stone over the years. It is a happy place; not a place that makes you feel happy, but is happy.

As I left, the event was still bustling. I never made it to the tiny church to the south of the house, or to gaze over the lake in the pleasure grounds. I heard that on Sundays cricket matches play out on the pitch in the meadowland beyond the house. I get the impression that with these few hot summer hours, I may have only scratched the surface of what this House, Gardens and wider estate has to offer. A slow, long winding drive through the parkland prepared me to re-emerge into the outside world again, but I think perhaps I will carry a little of the Parham spirit with me. Until the next time I turn into that white gateway and follow the winding driveway down the hill, into one of the best-kept secrets of West Sussex.

Tom Brown (left), Joe Swift (Right Centre) and Lady Emma Barnard (right) with myself

To find out more about this quintessential English country house and its history, 
visit the Parham House and Garden website:
Parham House and Gardens is open to the public: every Sunday & Bank Holiday Monday in April and October, and from May to September on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Sunday and Bank Holidays.
You can now even keep up to date on social media: twitter @Parhaminsussex and

The next event is Sunday 17th August – Grow Your Own Festival

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