Unbelievably it’s a whole year ago this week that I moved into my lovely cottage – Grade 2 listed and apparently one of the oldest houses in the village. Magically hidden away next to the church and school in an idyllic East Sussex spot, it manages the perfect trick of being both tranquil and at the heart of the village. Because of the location of the chimneys, I have established that the main part was built before 1550 but there is a lot of detective work to do before I find out more of its history. But from the first time I walked through the door I have loved it.
Twelve months have flown by leaping through hoops with the planners and conservation officer to try to work out how to create a kitchen I can work in, and now that we are nearly there, I realise it’s probably best to throw all the plans out and start again. However for a building of 500 years old, it’s worth spending time getting things right. I aim to be here for a long time, and it deserves my time and attention to find the most appropriate way of doing it not only for myself, but for all those who will come after me.
Over a year of living with, and getting to know the ins and outs of, the house, has also seen the same happening in the garden. And it poses similar challenges to those I am finding inside. Charming as it is – a third of an acre organised in little ‘rooms’ around the cottage – it needs some adapting to suit my needs. At the moment it’s all rather chaotic but not in a satisfying way, and with a huge rockery, rose garden and pond full of goldfish, is very high maintenance. Plus there’s a thuggish willow not ten feet from the house which has only been there a couple of years and it already taking on triffid proportions, especially after all the rain. Apparently it shouldn’t be within 30 metres of a building so will need removing and replacing with something less intrusive. I am working with talented garden designers May and Watts, responsible for the new walled Himalayan garden at Riverhill outside Sevenoaks, to ensure the garden properly reflects the house with all its history but also my interests, life and work.
Obviously food is at the heart of what I do. I reluctantly left behind the last vegetable garden, hens and small orchard at my previous house, where, with 8 acres of grazing, they made up the bulk of the garden and took a lot of my attention. Spending this period without them has been interesting. What elements to bring here from all my past gardens? Immediately I know it’s sadly goodbye to the chickens – this is too small, especially with the dogs, to accommodate them. Plus I can get great eggs from Cherry Gardens organic farm shop just down the road in Groombridge, and from the egg lady at the farmers’ market. Designated vegetable beds – hmmm, I know I want to grow veg and fruit but not to the same scale. Once again finding Cherry Gardens where Kate grows organically all my favourites has eased the burden to grow my own. So apart from copious amounts of herbs, I want a courgette plant, salads, runner beans, maybe a globe artichoke but in amongst the flowers, some Cavolo Nero or other kale that I use repeatedly but not a great amount of anything else. So we are planning one raised bed to accommodate these.
Then there is an orchard. The obvious space already exists in what must once have been the vegetable garden. It has a group of fruit trees already – and luckily they make a good start.
First and foremost there’s a beautiful quince. Thick with delicate pink flowers earlier in the year, rough winds have definitely shaken its darling buds, and for a while I thought a promising start had been all to no avail. But there are little golden jewels hidden amongst the leaves; Atlanta’s golden apples, waiting to swell and deliver their rich promise in the autumn. The tree will also provide shelter for a large dining table that we are planning to site, French style, amongst the grasses and mown paths of this orchard.
Next a weeping mulberry. Last year I waited impatiently for the rich ruby red fruit to ripen. Juicy and sweet, they can be added to other fruits for lambent jellies and jams if there aren’t enough on their own. But one day I went out and the birds must have had them. This year the yield looks much better so I will be vigilant.
What looks like a Cox is the apple of the group – and still one of my favourites – but although on dwarf stock, it has been planted up between the beech hedge and quince so will need to be moved. An elderly plum is way past its best and needs to come out, and a wonderful old Bramley apple which comes with a prolific but unexciting small green eater grafted on to it, giving double bounty, is sadly far too close to the house, witnessed by the evidence of lots of severe pruning. I am biting the bullet and accepting that its days are numbered. But its branches are hung with lacy hydrangea petiolaris, and I hate to say goodbye. A much desired bay in its place will help with the pangs.
So now what to add to my trio – quince, cox, mulberry? We have room for 4 or 5 more trees and I’m going to be having a challenge to decide what to choose. Diana and Mark are coming up with their ideas. I’m thinking plum, walnut, Bramley but not sure what else except that I know I don’t want a pear. They either fruit too heavily and I run out if things to do with them, or not a lot and then the few that appear are never ripe at the moment critique! Keep posted for developments….