Down a Quiet Lane: The Secrets of The Walled Nursery

Set down a quiet country lane in Hawkhurst in the High Weald of Kent, is The Walled Nursery, a plant nursery set within a Victorian kitchen garden boasting thirteen Victorian glasshouses. I first came across this beauty twenty years ago and immediately fell in love with the place. Now, along with my husband Monty we own The Walled Nursery. We always knew it was special, rare and important, Kent’s best kept secret! One of the first things we did was invite English Heritage and The Walled Kitchen Garden Network to take a look, they agreed with us and have confirmed that we are within the top five of the most intact Victorian kitchen gardens left in the country today.

Walled Nursery, Kent

We have been here for four years now; it is home for us and our young sons. After hitting the ground running, only now do we feel that we’ve had enough time to process and place the vast history of the Estate, originally known as Tongswood, in the correct order. We’re ready to tell this amazing story of knights, clothiers, smugglers and Sheriffs. Things have not always been as peaceful at the Walled Nursery as they are today but the first 600 years were a time of flourishing growth for Tongswood.

Sir Thomas Dunk takes on the walled nursery, who will win?

The first mention of the Estate was in the Kent Hundred Rolls: 'Simon held land in Kent in 1273 - Simon de Tonge'. However, it was the birth of the English Cloth Trade in the 14th Century that really put Tongs on the map. A Flemish Clothier by the name of Dunk was invited over to England to share his skills and he settled in Kent. It was the early generations of the Dunk family who built the first house on what became known as Tongswood, it passed through generations of Dunks, who expanded from cloth to ironworking. The Estate grew to 1200 acres under the watch of Sir Thomas Dunk Kt., (Sheriff of London, 1711) who died in 1718.

The executor of Sir Thomas’ will, William Richards, inherited the Estate in 1733 on condition he change his name to Dunk. This condition passed down to future heirs and when his daughter Anne inherited the Estate, she therefore became Anne Dunk. In 1741, Anne married the Hon. George Montagu (2nd Earl of Halifax), bringing with her the princely sum of £110,000.  Montagu, in keeping with the condition of the will, changed his name to Montagu-Dunk. George conveyed Tongs to be leased to Mr. Jeremiah Curteis of Rye for 1000 years at the yearly rate of sixpence. Curteis was rumoured to be one of the leaders of the Hawkhurst Gang – the notorious smugglers terrorising southeast England at the time. Curteis, in turn, then conveyed his interest to William Jenkin (d.1784). From this point until 1841, Tongswood passed through numerous families, but was already becoming noted for her beauty. The first glasshouses were built by Foster and Pearson Limited of Nottingham during the mid to late 1800’s. There are no records of the exact year that they were built, but research suggests it may have been around 1870. In 1865 a tea broker named William Cotterill bought the main house and surrounding land for £8750. From this time until 1874, Cotterill carried out extensive work on the house and gardens on a scale not seen before, so it is most likely during this period that the glasshouses were built.

Charles Gunther comes to the Walled Nursery.

The Estate continued changing hands quite rapidly until 1903 when it was bought by Mr Charles Gunther. Gunther was High Sheriff of Kent from 1926-1927 and a distinguished businessman. He was Chairman of the Liebig’s Extract of Meat Company (founded by his father) as well as Director of OXO.
When Gunther took over the Tongswood Estate, he built more glasshouses. He also added cold frames and made adjustments to the Vinery by adding the Fernery and raising the roofs. Determined to make his mark, he then raised the walls of the gardens.
Tongswood Gardens, as the Walled Nursery was then known, required nine men to tend to the two acre garden and its glasshouses. There were now 13 glasshouses in total, including a vinery, peach house, melon house, fruit house and carnation house, (these are all still standing today). The garden produced beautiful flowers, fruit and vegetables, providing for the main house, their house in London and every week of the year, produce was sent to the Hawkhurst Cottage Hospital.

Mr Ernest Hardcastle, Head Gardener at Tongswood1914 - 1945

It took a fine man to manage such a large concern and that man was Mr Ernest Hardcastle, Head Gardener 1914-45. Mr Hardcastle also worked alongside renowned Quaker botanist, James Backhouse, in designing and building an acre of spectacular rock gardens for Mr Gunther.

Norman Gunther

While Tongswood was thriving, tragedy was not to spare the Gunther family. In 1910, Charles’ first wife, Leonie, died of an illness and in 1914 The Great War darkened their doors. In 1917, Charles and Leonie’s son, Norman, died in Northern France aged just 19 and was awarded the Military Cross. Norman’s brother, Charles, died only a year later also in the fields of Northern France, aged 28. 12 other men from the Estate did not return from the War and the Gunthers erected a memorial in honour of those they had lost.

One year later, Charles’ two sons went off to fight in The Great War and did not return. Norman Gunther was killed in 1917 just east of Arras, he was in the Buffs and was awarded the Military Cross posthumously.

Great War family going to war, lost in the battlefield, RIP.

Mr Gunther re-married in 1912. His new wife, Helen Bell, took a great interest in the gardens of the Estate and brought them great acclaim. In 1925, their sub-tropical gardens appeared in Gardeners’ Chronicle. By 1927, Tongswood Gardens were considered among the top 50 in the country and in 1930, their Rockery was featured in Country Life Magazine.

Charles Gunther with Helen Gunther, his second wife and his two sons from his second marriage, James and William

Unfortunately tragedy was to strike again when Charles Gunther died of a heart attack at his shooting lodge at Paper Mill House in 1931. He was 68 years old. Helen then auctioned 670 acres of the outlying portions of the Estate.

In 1939, war returned and the house at Tongswood was requisitioned by the army. Helen moved to a new house, Little Tongs, at the end of Water Lane. After the war in 1945 the estate was sold to St Ronan’s School and as for many estates at that time, it was the end of an era.

Emma Davies will return before the New Year with further history and the future of one the premier walled gardens left in England. Life on Pig Row would like to thank Emma, Monty and the Gunther family for supplying the content for this guest post.