Sometimes it pays to wait. Southern England may be awash with cleverly conceived gardens which look gorgeous in spring, but occasionally autumn can compete. A fortnight ago it was end of summer, grey days, cool nights – all rather dreary. But then bingo, along trots an Indian Summer (still going strong as I write), the sky-blue deepens, the sun burns, the light sharpens, a huge pink harvest moon rises and, as for the flowers…
So last weekend, the end of September, I was back in Sussex to see the visual treat of Great Dixter. I’ve been on the Sussex and Kent garden trail on numerous forays from London, which you can read about here (Sissinghurst) and here and here and I visited Great Dixter itself several years ago – in summer. This time I naturally expected a tinge of autumnal russet (exemplified by the glorious Winkworth arboretum), a few bedraggled flower-heads, a sense of fin de saison. But no, it was ablaze with colour and humming with visitors.
Rather a lot of them were trailing squat little dachshunds. The soundtrack of happy yaps and yelps soon lured us to a field where we found a dachshund party – or, as I subsequently found out, a “dachshund fun show”. Proud owners trotted beside their proto-champs as they hopped over fences, wiggled through hoops and slalomed through poles in front of a beaming line-up of judges and fellow dog-owners.
All very odd, until I learned that the founding soul of Great Dixter’s stupendous gardens, Christopher Lloyd (1921-2006), was himself a huge dachs fan. In fact his little troupe allegedly ruled the household. Here are two pics which I’ve lifted from the net – Great Dixter ‘s dachs above and the great man himself, below.
Anyway, the canine gathering brought a ‘fun’ taste of eccentricity to this magnificent estate and its legendary gardens – considered among the best in England. With Lloyd now dead and his words of gardening wisdom no more (he was correspondent for the Guardian and authored several seminal books), Great Dixter is run by a trust led by Fergus Garrett, once Lloyd’s head gardener. Six full-time gardeners are employed to keep the dozens of riotous flower-beds under control, helped by a constant flow of volunteers from all over the world.
And the garden is staggering. Lloyd was such a formidable horticulturalist that he knew exactly which flowers would bloom at any time of the year, so creating layers and layers of living, ever-changing colour palette. The hue and scale juxtapositions are so brilliantly crafted, sometimes it looks as if the background buildings are sinking in a sea of blooms. I won’t attempt to go into the intricacies of the estate as it is both complex and huge, but enough to say that at times you feel like you’re drowning in flowers, so great is the profusion of the borders. Not such an unpleasant sensation.
But I was bemused by how the plants survive such close proximity – perhaps a lesson in ‘let it be’?
Great Dixter has it all: separate hedged gardens, meadows, a lake, an orchard, topiary, paths that twist invitingly through dense foliage or alongside towering yew hedges, a veggie garden where beetroot sprouts leafily beneath espaliered pears and tomatoes cling rosily to their vines. Grapes, figs, apples, lettuces – it feels pretty global.
Giving some kind of structure are the three houses joined at the hip so to speak and that altogether span six centuries. At their heart is the half-timbered 15th century dwelling with mullioned windows and crooked porch, then comes the 16th century section and finally Edward Lutyens’ 1912 addition that combines the two with immense finesse.
This main house (part of which you can visit) is joined by outbuildings – from an oast house, typical of nearby Kent, to a great barn, plus a nursery garden. And yes we did – who can’t resist buying a plant from Great Dixter – reasonably priced too.
I just hope my snaps give an idea of Lloyd’s artistry and of this wonderful homage to his memory. Long may it grow.