The Pines Garden, St Margaret’s at Cliffe


At long last the weekend offered some semi-decent weather, so off we set down the East Kent coast to the well-to-do village of St Margaret’s at Cliffe, near Dover. St Margaret’s has always charmed, with its white cliffs, wooded valley and sheltered shingle beach. Beneath the gleeming cliffs there are two Art Deco cottages once owned by Noël Coward and Ian Fleming, men who obviously cherished the relative isolation and found inspiration in the rolling seas and scudding clouds.

Sir Peter Ustinov was stationed in the village during World War 2 and found he liked it so much that he later bought a house on the cliffs. This is the point where the sun first reaches the UK each morning.

We missed the sunrise, but made it to the shoreline in time for a substantial lunch at the beachside pub, ‘The Coastguard’. It lacks a certain charm, but does a mean steak and chips.

Winston Churchill Sculpture by Oscar Nemon, The Pines Garden, June 2013

The Pines Garden sits just above the bay in a generous chalk valley. Unusually for a garden on chalk, there’s natural water in the form of a substantial lake, with a well planted bog garden alongside. It was a joy to see native waterlilies (Nymphaea alba), attended to by neon-blue damselflies – a true sign that summer is here. The grassy rush, Butomus umbellatus, was also putting on a show of its pink, allium-like flower heads.

Near the lake on rising ground, a famous Oscar Nemon statue of Sir Winston Churchill stands looking out towards the white cliffs (see top of post). It’s a view one could never tire of and just as well for, despite that determined look, poor old Winston isn’t going anywhere.

Butomus umbellatus, The Pines Garden, June 2013

Butomus umbellatus (grassy rush) on the fringes of the lake

Nymphaea alba, The Pines Garden, June 2013

Nymphaea alba, the European white waterlily

The village of St Margaret’s is committed to becoming carbon neutral. As part of that the six acre garden has been run organically since Spring 2002. An emphasis is placed on working in harmony with natural systems; composting, recycling and using natural predators to control pests. Within the grounds an award winning conference and wedding facility has been constructed, employing the latest technology to generate its own power, with the capacity to produce more than it consumes. ‘The Calyx’, as it’s known, claims to be the first conference building in Europe to reach beyond carbon neutral and become carbon negative. A grass roof, awash with ox eye daisies at this time of year, ensures the building is sympathetic to its surroundings, even if does not entirely blend in.

White Saxifrage, The Pines Garden, June 2013

A white mossy saxifrage reminds me of the gardens of my childhood

Close to the conference building there’s a productive garden, including Mediterranean vines and ornamental exotics such as bananas and echiums. Summer vegetables were neatly planted out, ready to make the most of the longer days and warmer weather. Mounds of Phuopsis stylosa, the Caucasian crosswort, create a pretty junction between the vegetables and the banks of ferns which lead into the woodland behind.

Phuopsis stylosa, The Pines Garden, June 2013

Phuopsis stylosa, the Caucasian crosswort, related to our native goose grass.

My plant of the day was Iris ‘Kent Pride’. A gorgeous, chocolate and ginger confection with beautifully marked falls, this is a flower that could give any orchid a run for its money when it comes to exotic good looks. Irises love the open, well drained chalk soil and flourish in the garden.

The Pines isn’t the most pristine or plantsmanly garden you’ll ever visit, but the situation is uniquely beautiful and the ethos behind the maintenance and planting is admirable. On a bright, sunny summer’s day there could be nothing better than lying back on the grass by the lake and staring up at the clouds scudding by. If it was good enough for Messers Coward and Fleming, it’s good enough for me.

Iris 'Kent Pride', The Pines Garden, June 2013

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