Yesterday morning was happily spent in the company of Andy Lewis, The National Trust’s new head gardener at Uppark, stomping around the grounds looking at the developments he’s undertaking in the gardens there.
Set above the village of South Harting on the Hampshire/West Sussex borders, it has traditionally been ‘the house’ that’s drawn the visitors rather than the grounds. The National Trusts website describes the house as ‘A tranquil and intimate 18th century House set on the South Downs’. To my mind, it’s much more than that; the interiors are not only exquisite, they are an example of considered restoration after a fire in 1989 (Uppark’s repair was the most complicated the National trust has ever undertaken), and the complete basement servant’s quarters and tunnels offer a fascinating glimpse of ‘life below stairs’.
I have to confess that when we lived in the village the spectacular views of the wide open lawns to the front of the house were a weekend draw for our family - a place to let the children loose within full view as we slumped on the ground for a quick read of the paper and some R and R from the rigours of young children. The gardens were simply a green wrap that one walked through to get to the grass.
Happily I think that my nonchalance at the gardens in their lolloping entanglement (admittedly studded here and there with a few interesting blooms), is now a thing of the past.
I first met Andy in 2010 at the always interesting annual Alitex lecture at the Walled garden at Cowdray. He’d been newly appointed Head Gardener after several years in private estates and a long stint at the more glamorous Wimpole Estate, another National Trust property. Newly arrived in the area, and filled with the excitement of his new challenge at Uppark, he invited me to visit as soon as possible. Instantly likeable, I enthusiastically accepted his invitation.
Full of apology, a full eighteen months later, on a murky morning with drizzle in the air, I finally arrived at the garden compound to take him up on his offer. A chattery mug of hot, welcome tea was drunk in the company of Terry, one of two part time members of staff, and Joy and Liz, two of fourteen precious volunteers who assist Andy, who is the only full time member of the garden staff. Eventually we ventured out into the 54 acres that comprises Uppark’s grounds. Mist soaked the ground, swirling around tree trunks and through canopies, marring Uppark’s crowing glory, the view. Undistracted, we walked down the avenue of trees leading from the Golden Gates, through a garden compartment with paths studded with moss drenched pebble swirls laid decades ago and out to the long border running the length of the dairy.
Low heaped mounds of Hebe and Cistus are soon to reside in a widened border here as Andy plans to formalise the bed's line, widen it and replant with the billowing herbaceous perennials so loved by him, and so lacking in other areas of the garden. As the only planting at this side of the house, where lawns tumble down and out towards the distant view of the sea, this will give visitors a reason to stroll (and linger) upon the path leading to the elegant Dairy Gazebo, which lies at the edge of the woodland wrapping the house on this, its west side.
This copse of woodland was where today’s energies were concentrated, and the place where my heart leapt in excitement and anticipation. Terry and the volunteers were hard at it, clearing scrub beneath a copse of trees where once finished, Andy and his team will drive a clear, unobscured wedge to open up the views beyond. Clearance, and hefty cutting back are key jobs for Andy as he fights back hefty overgrown shelterbelts of yew, which have over time grown to gargantuan proportions, and hitting back shrubs that have grown so tall as to creep into tree canopies, obscure views and obliterate plants at ground level. As much pruning material as possible is reworked into dead hedges around the grounds; aesthetically pleasing structures in themselves, with the added bonus of providing habitat for a proliferation of wildlife.
There are plans afoot for the restoration of the magnificent ‘Gothick’ seat and its surrounding planting, a productive vegetable garden, more work within the wonderful woodland to encourage rambling visitors, possibly a cutting patch, and improvements to signage so wanderers can be encouraged to, er, wander around the grounds.
All in all, my tardiness in accepting Andy’s generous invitation has turned out to be advantageous – Uppark’s bones are once again being revealed, in readiness to be clothed by the enthusiasm of Andy’s enthusiastic eye. I shall be visiting more regularly in future to bandy around ideas and see how the garden develops. Who knows, I may even volunteer to help……
Uppark Gardens entertaining and informative blog (mostly written by Andy himself) can be found here