Monday, 13 July 2015

The Parham Effect

I've been at it again - spending my free day off work meandering around gardens.
Yesterday, it was the turn of Parham House and Gardens between Pulborough and Storrington in West Sussex. This was my third visit to the gardens, although both my previous two visits were a year ago now.

As I turned into the white gated driveway and passed the gatehouse that sits at the entrance, the track began to feed between lines of ancient trees and swathes of ripe hay-grasses, gently dropping downhill and winding, teasing with glimpses of a view until suddenly the landscape opens out and the house is revealed at the central axis of a secluded bowl, lined with quintessential parkland, meadows and distant woods, held softly in the circling arms of the South Downs. I felt the familiar skip of excitement, anticipation and pleasure that always welcomes me over the threshold from the busy rush of normal everyday life to the magical world where Parham seems to exist slightly apart. I have never quite understood quite why or how that first view provokes such a feeling, almost akin to homecoming. Today the Downs were shrouded in drizzle, which the breeze was sending in drifts across the valley to mist across the windscreen and awaken the nerves in my skin with cold touches. The yellow-grey sandstone of the walls however, common across house, courtyard and even that initial gatehouse now behind me along the elongated drive, retained a glow of sun-kissed warmth, whilst the white clock-tower contrasted starkly with the grey massing of clouds. From the rooftop, a union flag fluttered proudly in the breeze, as if inspired by the music of the marching band, formed by musicians of a variety of ages from a local scout group, which were playing in the courtyard of the house. Last year a twittering congregation of house martins swirled around the eaves, nesting on the eastern side of the building. I did not notice them there today.

A step through a gateway led visitors into the bustle of this weekend’s main attraction, the Parham House and Garden’s Annual Open Garden Weekend, ‘always the second weekend in July’.  I joined the throng and wandered happily from stand to stand, distracted by the multitude of flowers of all shapes, colours and forms that jostled for attention and suggested themselves eagerly as candidates to be taken home and introduced into my own garden.


The dampening of the rain was becoming a little wearing on the spirit, so I retreated indoors to the calm, sanctuary like rooms of Parham House, with their whispering echoes of the past. Sometimes it feels, as you step softly around the bend in the stairs, that you have just disturbed a conversation on the landing, the participants melting back into their frames on the walls when you look over your shoulder. Light is diffused through tall windows that long-gaze over a view of countryside, a tiny church, a cricket pitch, rolling downs. A window-seat makes me wonder why I didn’t bring a book, so I could be tempted to sit awhile, and lose myself within the pages whilst waiting for the warmth of the sun to find me through the aged glass.


Outside a strengthening wind was blowing the damp morning away to the northeast. A blackbird sang, signalling a change in the weather. On first glance, the wide borders of the gardens, with its mix of herbs and edibles with herbaceous and annual flowers and formal structure with natural wild areas, may seem chaotic, random and undisciplined, but look closely and there is detail and interest in every corner. 

The dark flower stems of marjoram picked out the matching stamens of the hardy geranium that joined it in its efforts to spill across the path. The crimson centres of each flower on the spires of verbascum co-ordinated with the reclining petals of the bold helenium. Flat splays of yellow fennel and dill opposed purple sprays of buddleia. The prettiest of pink sweet-peas paired with white lace umbellifers like scented frilly knickers. Subtle, soft roses billowed around benches and blushed beside sculptures of the human form, drawing me in to see how, when observed up close, their delicate petals were adorned with raindrops. 



Bees clung to the shelter of the underside of flowers, but as the afternoon warmed, they became more active, drifting from flower to flower and bringing life to the borders. Over the long grasses that formed a three dimensional tapestry beneath the fruit trees in the orchard, brown butterflies began to dance.
Occasional glimpses over flowers or through archways to the house, and beyond to the veiled Downs reminded me that I would, at some approaching hour, have to return from my indulgent wanderings.

I made that return an hour or two later, following the signs that directed me out onto a lane past another gatehouse. A bright blue flash of a kingfisher bolted across the road as I paused and waited for oncoming traffic at a narrow bridge, and over the main road closer to home a red kite hung directly above the central white line, waiting its chance to collect any road-kill that might provide it with today’s meal. And I carried with me a sense of the uplifting of spirit from that first view of Parham, and the playful exuberance of the gardens that were such a delight.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Feverfew, Flax and Flint

Historic Gardens Weekend, Weald and Downland Open Air Museum (Singleton, West Sussex, South Downs National Park - Sunday 5th July 2015. 

July is a month made for gardens. For visiting open gardens with a notebook and borrowing their ideas, or peering over fences into neighbours gardens to compare competitive favourites, or allowing yourself a moment of imagining you are Lady of the Manor and all the manicured grounds stretched forth before the stately home who's windows you gaze curiously from, are yours to explore. For delighting in blowsy roses, heavenly scented sweet-peas and the wildflowers that crept in in the spring now rushing onto seed. For eating lunch in the garden with friends, or for tiptoeing on the damp grass in bare feet in your pyjamas with a cup if tea in the quiet hour before breakfast, or drinking deeply the ephemeral scent of fresh rain on sun-hot ground as thunder rolls across the evening sky. In the month of July, gardens are most definitely the place to be. 

So, naturally, this weekend I spent a day wandering happily from garden to garden, house to house, at the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum which is local to me in the village of Singleton, north of Chichester in West Sussex. Nestled in the South Downs, the museum today was bathed in sunshine and awash with colour. It was the museum's annual Historic Gardens Weekend, organised to entertain and inform visitors on the historic uses of plants and gardens, and celebrate their importance in our culture and heritage. This meant the gardens had been prepared to their peak, and with gates propped open and visitors welcomed, there was plenty of opportunities to immerse oneself in shape, form, colour and texture, and revel in pretty combinations, swathes of bloom and the odd unexpected appearances. 

Feverfew beamed through the fennel fronds, blowsy poppies attracted drowsy bees, dainty baby-blue eyes of flax flowers swayed in the breeze. On the fruit trees, pears and apples are swelling, their mat skins shaded bronze, tucked between the dusty leaves. The apothacary's rose was rich with delicate scent, before asked to shed its deep pink petals for scented lotions and potions. The ruby-red stems and veins of beet and chard contrasted strongly with the vigorous green in the vegetable patches, with the bulbous flowers of onions towering high above, vieing for ultimate height with the climbing frames erected for the beans and hops. Bryony clambered over stone steps. Papery-skinned garlic was laid out to dry in the sun. 




Meadow brown butterflies flickered through tall grasses beside the paths, seeking the cheerful-faced blooms of the oxeye daisy that thrust up from a sea of pink clover, yellow trefoil and violet vetch. The bright orange comma butterfly stretched its jaggedy-edged wings, that seem torn like last year's brown leaves, on grooved and lichen encrusted fence posts. Hens chased windblown scraps of straw, strictly supervised by a proud cockerel, who kept a wary eye on a green eyed cat snoozing on the top of the log pile. Swallows dived up and under the rafters of the open barns and suddenly appeared again dropping low and swooping away, out over the open fields in search of invisible flies inches above the hay. The blacksmith's fire glowed hot, sparks flying, animated in the dark. 

In the houses, behind flint, wattle and daub, beamed or whitewashed walls, candles and firelight flickered and reflected in narrow, low, lead-light windows. Artefacts and demonstrations offered a snapshot of knowledge and lives long passed. Each cool interior offered another view through window or open door, back outside onto an ordered yet chaotic, colourful yet peaceful, always productive and seductive garden. Beyond the hedges where wild roses scrambled and blackberries were beginning to form, was a background of shaded verdant woodland, and the ever comforting presence of patchwork downs, slumbering under a faded, moth-eaten sky. 




More photos can be viewed on my Flickr album:

Following the 'July gardens' theme, next weekend is the date of this year's Garden Weekend Event at Parham House and Gardens. (
I hope to be visiting on the Sunday and look forward to sharing this delightful piece of heaven-in-Sussex (which I first discovered through the same event last year), with you via the blog next week. For last year's blog post, please follow this link: