Sunday, 30 October 2011

Magic in the walls

The entrance to the walled gardens
To the splendidly formal but entirely accessible gardens of Penshurst Place this week, which closed for the winter today. The building itself is the closest we have to Hogwarts around here (they recorded the sound of the creaking floorboards in the long gallery here for the Harry Potter soundtrack), but to my mind it’s in the gardens that the real wizardry occurs.

While it’s undoubtedly the magnificence of the house, the hundreds of metres of beautifully clipped yew hedging, the topiary shapes, pools and fountains which create such a sense of history and grandeur, one thing that really touches me about this garden is the superabundance of tree fruit. Not very posh at all. Apple, pear and plum trees are literally everywhere, confined not to an orchard beyond the garden walls or kept in check in a dedicated kitchen garden, but given pride of place – not least along the recently replanted herbaceous border which runs across the centre of the garden. I think it’s this aspect which somehow relates the garden to the land on which it sits; there’s a sense of storybook charm here, with doors cut into hedges leading to wondrous and unexpected garden rooms (one with its own grass amphitheatre and stage!), but it retains a deeply grounded and earthy quality which makes you feel welcome, inviting you to linger.

I’ve always felt there was something enchanting about a walled garden. I think it must be from reading stories as a child of characters pushing through barriers of impenetrable briers, sneaking through ramshackle, heavy wooden doors, and scaling crumbling walls to discover another world beyond. Whatever the cause, I can see myself easily losing hours here gazing at the contrasting textures of the old, red bricks, the fresh leaves of the mature pears trained against them, and the gnarly old trunks of the same trees.

So it seemed appropriate today that we arrived at the height of the Hallowe’en Pumpkin Hunt, the garden full of little people dressed ready for trick or treating this evening – pumpkin number three proving a stinker to find but eventually being located at the foot of a tree in the Stage Garden. There is, slightly incongruously, an adventure playground just inside the gates, but I thought this activity was a great way to get the younger visitors engaged with this magical place at an early age.

The Stage Garden, with the elusive pumpkin number three beneath the tree
The gardens reopen in February 2012, when the new border will be officially unveiled. You can sign up on their website here to be notified of special events, including when the amazing Peony Border will be in full flower. Well worth a visit, and plenty to keep both adults and children spellbound at any time of year.

RHS members get in free.

Steps leading up to the Garden Tower, where interpretation boards
tell the history of the gardens

To the side of the Lime Walk, with the outside of the garden wall on the left