Gravetye Manor. The Wild Gardener.

William Robinson was a pioneer in gardening and introduced so much that we now take for granted.  For some reason, he is not remembered in the same way as innovators such as Gertrude Jekyll, but he was just as influential. He was  a vociferous advocate for the overthrow of the bedding out system and the adoption of a naturalistic method of planting. He was not unique in his views, in fact he jumped on a bandwagon that had alreay been going for several years. But he popularised them through the medium of his books and his gardening journals.  He started several journals, including The Garden and Gardens Illustrated. In the latter, he included an advice column and must have startled his readers, when his suggestion for dealing with cats in the garden was to trap them and drown them

He was incredibly opinionated and he had a talent for stirring up controversy and making enemies. At different times he attacked ‘ landscape architects’, (his particular bugbear), botanists, topiarists as well as advocates of carpet bedding. He particularly hated botanists: ‘ The stock of bad Latin which  we owe botanists leads to some people to cut capers with that language with fearful results- the terms which issuing from the mouths of botanists are bad enough, when descending into those of gardeners are grotesque indeed’. In fact, Robinson’ s insistence on using English names causes confusion in his book, not only did he use English names, but he made them up too. One of his last books was called: The Virgin’ s Bower, which baffled me, coming from a confirmed bachelor, who presumably had no interest in virgins. The book is actually about clematis, one of his passions. The texensis hybrid, ‘ Gravetye Beauty’ is still popular today, as is Clematis montana ‘‘Earnest Markham’  named after his head gardener.

When Canon Ellacombe, a noted gardener of the time, mildly suggested that gardens are a matter of taste and everyone should please himself, his outraged response was: ‘the old notion of tamely acquiescing in the belief that all things are ‘a matter of taste’ will not do. The future of our gardens depends on calling ugly things by their names... That it is a matter of taste is the expression of hopeless and blind weakness’. That was telling him. 

 I love the description of him by Edward Lutyens: ‘ Been for a long walk with W.R. I left him because he bores so. He starts for a walk, never says where he is going and then stops here and there and goes off at tangents- his conversation wayward and he contradicts himself every two minutes until one feels inclined to explode.’ Despite his irritating ways, he had a wide circle of illustrious gardening friends, although they were mainly confined to letters and short visits.

His contradictory nature lead him to make odd claims.  He had firm ideas about what he called ‘wasted effort’ and wrote scathingly about moving earth as being a total waste of time. But on another occasion, he explained how to make a beautiful lawn by removing the’ top foot of the soil, draining 12-18 inches with the addition of burnt ballast, digging to a further foot depth, then adding a foot of good soil… on this the turf to be laid and top-dressed with fine ballast, wood ash and the top 2 inches of soil from the woods, all sifted and mixed up well’. Right, now I know where I was going wrong, I’ll give that a try tomorrow.

One of his  other bugbears was what he called ‘book learning’. He hated it, which is odd as he wrote so many books himself. He also hated greenhouses and the whole business of growing bedding plants. Robinson grew up in Ireland where he progressed from being a garden boy to the position of foreman. There is a story, probably apocryphal, that he argued with his boss and walked out, but not without damping down the fire and leaving all the windows open in the greenhouse and so killing all the plants. If true, how neat that with one fell swoop he could attack greenhouses, bedding plants and someone who had the temerity to disagree with him.

His two most well-known books are The Wild Garden and  The English Garden which was extremely popular and went into many editions. Later editions had illustrations by Alfred Parsons.  Several contributors wrote articles on various subjects for the book and in later editions, when the authors were conveniently dead, he claimed the articles for his own.  There is a long list of desirable plants in the book (the names are in alphabetical order, in the despised Latin.) I know he loved dramatic foliage, but I was surprised to see him recommending  Japanese Knotweed, Fallopia japonica. He  probably helped to popularise this scourge of the countryside. He also admired the viciously dangerous Giant Hogweed, Heracleum mantegazzianum for its stature.  He called it Giant Parsnip, which makes it sound rather endearing and possibly edible. I hope nobody tried it. Another decorative plant I was surprised to see him mention is Cannabis sativa, as being a fine, graceful plant for the back of the border.  It would certainly have to be right at the back of the border these days.

For a former garden boy from Ireland he did very well for himself. From his writing and some canny investments he was able to buy the beautiful Tudor Gravetye Manor when he was 46. He devoted the rest of his life to restoring the house and creating the most beautiful grounds.

Today, Gravetye Manor in Surrey is a luxurious hotel with a Michelin star restaurant. The head gardener, Tom Coward used to work at Great Dixter with Fergus Garrett. The gardens have been brought back to their former glory and are staggeringly beautiful.
A great feature is Robinson’s walled kitchen garden. This is elliptical and I believe this shape for a walled garden is unique. It means that there are no frost corners. The sandstone for the 12 foot walls was all quarried from the estate. Here vegetables and flowers for the hotel are grown.It is beautifully maintained.
A visit to Gravetye manor has been on my bucket list for years. On our recent jaunt to Brighton, we stopped here on the way home. We enjoyed Sunday lunch in the beautiful wood-panelled dining room and spent the afternoon strolling round the fabulous garden. I now want to come back here for afternoon tea, the tables are dotted around the garden and look very inviting.
Spending time here is like going back in time and being on an Edwardian weekend house party. I felt as if I had stepped into a P.G. Wodehouse story and quite expected to see Gussie Fink-Nottle looking for newts in the the pond.
Actually, never mind afternoon tea, I want to spend a weekend here. In fact I want to live here.

The title for this blog post came from a great book about William Robinson. It is written by Richard Bisgrove and is called: William Robinson: The Wild Gardener. The book is sumptuously illustrated. It was published in 2008 and is out of print now. It is sometimes offered for silly prices, but if you look around you can still find it for quite reasonable prices. William Robinson still remains an enigmatic figure because not much seems to be known about his private life. I know that has nothing to do with his gardening work, but I am nosy and love biographies about writers and gardeners that reveal all. You don’t get that here, but  it is still an interesting book.


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57 Responses to Gravetye Manor. The Wild Gardener.

  1. How fascinating, I love your reviews – so well written with many interesting details plus a good book to hunt out too. Just perfect. Thank you!

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you kate, I am glad you enjoyed it. And I must tell you how I enjoyed seeing your wonderful garden on Gardener’ s World on Friday. It looked stunning and you and Hitesh carried the whole thing off with great aplomb. You should have your own gardening programme, you are naturals!

      • What a lovely thing to say , but oh how I laugh to think of such a thing. The fantastic BBC production crew and post-editors deserve the credit for making it look/sound so smooth.

  2. Cathy says:

    A lovely post and what a gorgeous garden. That beautiful pink Persicaria caught my eye. Love the planting. 🙂

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you Cathy. Persicaria orientalis is an annual. It is gorgeous. I have grown it in the past and it is well worth it. If you try it is worth remembering that snails adore it the seedlings.

  3. Kris P says:

    I enjoyed the garden Robinson created – much more than I expect I’d have enjoyed the gardener himself had I encountered him, but it was still fun to read his back-story.

  4. I think i would like to join you for tea, maybe followed by cocktails in the garden.

  5. rusty duck says:

    It does look rather pleasant. As, indeed, would have been the lunch?

    • Chloris says:

      Gosh yes, amazing food. Very expensive though. Next time we will go for afternoon tea, it is easier on the pocket and you can sit outside in the fabulous garden.

  6. Steve says:

    I shall start working on my lawn straight away!!

    • Chloris says:

      Indeed, now we know how to do it, there is no excuse not to have a perfect lawn. Actually, I am not that bothered about a perfect lawn. I just require mine to be green. The odd daisy is quite nice. To me, this definitely come under the heading of ‘Wasted Effort’.

  7. How beautiful! Thank you for sharing.

  8. snowbird says:

    My eyes are on stalks!!! Struth, what a guy! The trapping and drowning of cats put me off him straightaway, and the lawn remedy has rendered me speechless!!
    But… I would love to sit and wander around there! Gorgeous… never fail to fascinate!xx

    • Chloris says:

      I knew that cat drowning tip would enrage you. I think it was his heavy- handed attempt at humour. Or maybe not, he was a peculiar man. But what about the lawn care? I think you should definitely try that Dina. I remember you complaining about your lawn and now you have the remedy.
      It is a blissful place to spend a sunny Summer afternoon.

  9. susurrus says:

    I loved this post with the anecdotes, the time travelling and the plants. I’ve long fancied visiting and this just makes me want to go even more.

  10. Cathy says:

    Oh Chloris, what an enjoyable post to read and I shall have to start saving up for an afternoon tea there I think – perhaps the Golfer can wait outside and I can bring him a doggy bag… But if you purchase or are bequeathed it in the meantime perhaps you could accommodate the occasional well behaved house guests… ?😉

  11. Flighty says:

    A most enjoyable post and lovely pictures. I’ve been there once some years ago but it was raining so our look round was curtailed sadly. I sure that I’ve seen that book on someone’s bookshelf and will have a browse next time I visit. xx

  12. Chloris says:

    Thank you Mike. What a shame that you were rained off when you visited. If you get chance to go again, do make the effort. You would love the walled kitchen garden.

  13. Christina says:

    What a wonderful place, it has long been on my list of places to visit, now it has moved even higher up the list. Your post made me smile many times, I always enjoy your writing but this was even more entertaining, thank you so much.

  14. bittster says:

    What an excellent introduction, very enjoyable.
    I think you should in fact live there. You could putter but I’m sure if you wanted to just direct that would be fine as well.
    I don’t quite understand gardeners who claim to enjoy all the heavy labor.

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you Frank. I do enjoy gardening but sometimes I wish I had a team of willing helpers who would do the jobs I don’ t like doing. I would like them to work at night though. I like the garden to myself during the day. They could have little lamps attached to their heads. At the moment I need them to get rid of the Bindweed which is getting out of control.

  15. mrsdaffodil says:

    He sounds like a real curmudgeon, but the gardens are lovely. I will definitely add Gravetye manor to the long, long list of English gardens I would like to visit someday.

  16. jenhumm116 says:

    Thanks so much for allowing us to join your visit!
    The garden’s been on my list for years too so good to know it didn’t disappoint. Perhaps next year…

  17. Brian Skeys says:

    I was treated to a weekend there for a birthday a few years ago, it was wonderful. WR and the gardens at Gravetye Manor feature in one of my presentations.

  18. I have heard of William Robinson, though I never read his books. Sounds like an irascible old codger, but interesting. I am unfamiliar with Gravetye. Seems like a garden that most go on the list should we ever get to the UK again.

  19. You have made me want to live at Gravetye, too. Thanks for your words and pictures.

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you for commenting on my blog. Gravetye Manor is wonderful. I would love a walled garden like that to work in. And all the help that they have of course. You definitely need a team of gardeners for a place like that.

  20. Annette says:

    On my bucket list too, Liz, and how wonderful to be able to visit the garden through you. Guess William had some help in his garden too 😉

    • Chloris says:

      It is worth a visit Annette. Oh yes, all these Edwardian gardeners had teams of gardeners. I believe Ellen Willmott had 100 at one time. I wish I had a small team right now. The garden always gets away from me at this time of the year.

  21. thanks Liz for another interesting post about a gardener and their garden, I have read some say he was the pioneer of naturalistic planting, your photos of the garden today are beautiful, Elaine Stritch apparently spent her later years living in a hotel, I think the Ritz, I have often thought if I had the money what a nice prospect and Gravetye Manor sounds just the place, Frances

    • Chloris says:

      I certainly wouldn’ t want to live at the Ritz. It would have to be somewhere with a garden. Gravetye Manor would be nice. But only if I was allowed to do a bit of gardening myself. My father gardened until the last year of his life in his 95 th year and I am hoping to do the same.

  22. karen says:

    I would love to take my Mum for afternoon tea there. Such a glorious garden. Thanks for sharing your photos.

  23. I did enjoy that bio – I do love stories about contrary old men (they remind me of various much loved people I have known!). The house and gardens are just divine. Fabulous oval walled garden – what a splendid idea!

  24. homeslip says:

    My husband took me for a birthday dinner here pre-children. I remember lobster bisque served in a copper pan over its own little gas burner. When we rocked up for afternoon tea with the children one hot summer’s day we were politely turned away by the German maitre d’hotel as they were full with Glyndebourne opera-goers. I will visit the garden one day as wild meadows and walled kitchen gardens are my absolute favourites.

    • Chloris says:

      It is essential to book for afternoon tea, especially if you want it in the garden. What a wonderful treat to have a birthday dinner there. Do try and visit the garden, you would love it Sarah.

  25. Great post! Looks an amazing place, one that is now on my list. Lovely.

  26. Chloris says:

    Thanks Gill. You would love it, specially the amazing walled garden.

  27. Have been foraging among emails I missed last week. Glad I found this one.

  28. Debra says:

    ty ty ty. I loved this. Just this past weekend someone told me a story about common names for plants. She had a biology assignment and decided to take her grandmother for a walk in the woods. Grandmother happily described a great many plants. But the girl got a D- for her loving efforts because the names of the plants were just common names. Too bad it wasn’t a paper for a different class because as I see it, it contained a whole lot of local lore.

  29. Lavinia Ross says:

    Gussie Fink-Nottle and his newts! Thank you for that memory jog!

  30. Chloris says:

    I love PG Wodehouse and ths interior of this old house is Edwardian and reminds me of his books.

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