A couple of years ago after watching the Victorian Kitchen Garden, we decided to look into visiting Chilton Foliat were the television series was set and discovered a shocking truth about the fate of Harry Dodson's beloved garden. To see such a loved television garden sink into obliteration was, at the time, both shocking and sickening. We wondered how many more kitchen gardens from the era had survived and the sad news was that there were only a handful, at the time we contacted them all, trying to raise awareness of part of our horticultural and growing heritage that was being lost before our eyes. We were being romantic (this was before the Wartime Garden when we realised we had to balance our own books). Back in 2012, we made contact with Emma and Monty from The Walled Nursery in Hawkhurst, Kent. It still has 13 Victorian Glasshouses, a vinery, a peach house, a fernery and a melon house. It also has two of the loveliest, friendliest gardeners you will ever meet. Over the last three years, we have corresponded by email and social media but never met face to face. A couple of years ago they sent us some chillies to trial and we asked them to write some blog posts for us on the garden. Emma wrote some wonderful posts on the walled garden at Hawkhurst, covering the history of those who had gardened there to the riveting, emotional rollercoaster of the Wartime Garden articles she wrote for us about her Father who was born in Nazi Germany and who survived starvation, in part, thanks to growing food with his grandparents. A few weeks ago, without warning (thanks in part to the chaos of the M20 and Operation Stack), we managed to get down to Hawkhurst and surprise Emma and Monty.
There is nothing in the world that can prepare you for the joy that is a working walled garden. Pulling up in the car at Hawkhurst, you are faced with an expanse of red brick, a distant clock tower of a school, banks of mature trees planted to protect the garden from wind and a doorway into what appears to be one of the old potting sheds which is now the entrance to the nursery. There is a tantalising glimpse beyond of a glasshouse festooned with a grapevine and even on a cool day you can feel the heat rising between those walls and spilling out towards you. We catch Emma with her back to us. She turns to greet us and she recognises us (no shame of explaining who we are and coming across as some sort of chainsaw maniacs). She is overjoyed to welcome us to her nursery (and confesses that she now has a real excuse to put admin on the back burner until later). She yells for Monty and after introductions all round we are asked if we'd like a cup of tea and some cake. They know us well. We are then given a guided tour of what is one of the finest, working walled gardens still in existence.
Between the glasshouses in what would have been the open borders for vegetables, Emma and Monty have created a plant hunters and floral lovers paradise. Even in what, for Kent, has been a dry summer, the garden is simply burgeoning with life. This simple reveals that Emma and Monty know plants and know what will survive in a Kent summer.
The formal borders by the cold frames stretch up to the bothy. Miraculously the old bothy is still in tact and nowadays a home to Emma and Monty. Like any walled garden, there is a fine line between running a business and conservation. Emma and Monty walk this line incredibly well, restoring what they can. Whilst we are there, Monty notices that the peach house needs work, another part of the structure has sunk in on itself, years of dereliction and lack of maintenance comes part and parcel in their bid to conserve what is there and to give it a practical use. Though the walled garden at Hawkhurst retains the trees outside the walls, wind has still damaged the thirteen glasshouses. We talk about how walled gardens like this have been lost because there is a perception that somehow they are not relevant in the modern world but as we sit outside their wonderful shepherd's hut drinking tea and eating cake, as Little D runs back and forth across a large lawn, we realise that the modern world is more in need of places like the Walled Garden in Hawkhurst than another reality television show. There is a peace and serenity here that belies the truth of what it is like to run a walled garden as a business.
Today as in Victorian times, a walled garden is a beast of a garden to run and maintain, Emma and Monty don't have the large teams that many estates had during the height of the Victorian kitchen garden. The decline of such gardens happened long before Emma and Monty were born, and though there is a romance about such gardens, we need to set aside that romance aside and see these gardens as something that should be economically viable beyond a tourist trap. These types of nurseries should be the symbol of shop local. They have local knowledge about growing conditions in Kent. Yet it is a testament to Emma and Monty that their walled garden is more than a nursery. They have embraced the very bones of the garden as a location that is inspirational. The week before we arrive they have had Two Gentlemen of Verona playing followed by the Noel Coward comedy Hayfever. The theatre picnic idea is wonderfully evocative in such a venue and the walls must have rung to laughter in a way that wouldn't have been tolerated by any Victorian head gardener. This shows rather than moth ball the garden in heritage, they are trying to write a new chapter for the garden to allow it to grow into the twenty-first century.
This is the real reason we should retain walled gardens in the UK in this century, we need to acknowledge their history but more importantly we should embrace the present to keep them living. Emma and Monty have developed their walled nursery and its location into something that walks a tightrope between nostalgia and the future.
As we sit talking with them, they tell us of things to come, plans they have and this includes - like many nurseries have done across the UK - to open a cafe and coffee shop. They're not daft, we're not daft, you're not daft and we all know that being able to browse longer often involves a slice of cake and a cup of something. The shepherd's hut they have has gone someway towards this but it is subject the vagaries of the weather. They want to get their cafe beneath one of the glasshouses, and we can't imagine a better place to eat and drink a day away.
It's important that as a community we embrace our old buildings and find new uses for them. Practical uses rather than moth ball them, saving them for future generations and calling it 'heritage' it often misses the point of the purpose of many of these buildings, which were to serve the wider community. Maybe this is why so many walled gardens have vanished because they were built to serve a master and his household. There is a sense of reverse snobbery, the walls kept us out and therefore we will stay out but Emma and Monty have challenged this through bringing the wider community into their nursery through volunteers, courses and festivals.