Just outside Hawkhurst, in the Kentish Weald, there’s a walled garden so quintessentially Victorian that stepping inside feels like time-travelling. Rustic brickwork glows in the winter sun; in bright corners the skeletal arms of buddleia seem to beckon the ghosts of bees; and everywhere you look the light is reflected by shimmering glass.
There are 13 crumbling, deeply atmospheric glasshouses – the “Demanding Ladies” – most of them more than 140 years old. There’s a shaded fern house, a long, leaning peach case, a sunken glass corridor for melons and pineapples, a pelargonium house, a carnation house, a hot house with great vats that once steamed with heated water.
Emma and Monty Davies bought the garden in 2010 and tried valiantly to preserve the decrepit collection of greenhouses – one of the largest in the country. Maintenance required thousands of pounds; restoration a small fortune. The couple moved into a tiny cottage in the corner of the garden, opening a café and selling a superb range of plants. But each winter left its mark, with broken panes, warped wood, and a sense of neglect that, while picturesque, felt like it might swiftly turn terminal.
The walled garden had been part of the Tongswood estate, a 1,000-acre slice of Kent centred on a neo-gothic mansion owned by CE Gunther, whose father, George, invented the Oxo cube.
The stately home became a prep school in 1945, and the gardens were leased to a succession of market gardeners, none of whom could afford the upkeep of the Demanding Ladies.
Just as the Davieses were beginning to despair, they had a phone call from the granddaughter of Gunther’s long-serving head gardener. In 1940 she’d been evacuated from London to her grandfather’s house – Tongwood’s South Lodge. All of her life she’d carried the picture of that walled garden, those greenhouses, in her mind. Now a widow in her 80s, with no children, she wanted to leave a legacy.
Thanks to a £200,000 cheque from this anonymous benefactor, restoration work has already begun. When I visited in December, the glasshouses were slick with new paint. There’s a great deal more to be done, but the Demanding Ladies can now look forward to a bright, sparkling future.