Great gardens to visit in East Kent are rarer than hens’ teeth. Those that open during the winter months even scarcer. So, as soon as Goodnestone Park reopens in spring I am there, with bells on. Well a bobble hat anyway. The red brick and sandstone mansion at Goodnestone (correctly pronounced ‘Gunston’), well-beloved of Jane Austen and her brother Edward who married into the family, is undergoing a massive restoration programme. Margaret, Lady Fitzwalter, who made the gardens what they are today, sadly passed away last September at a time when the Palladian mansion was in desperate need of repair. Behind the scaffolding one can see it beginning to look like new again.
I was lucky enough to bump into Lady Fitzwalter three or four times in her later years, normally in the garden or collecting entrance fees on quieter days. She was a keen plantswoman and a properly English eccentric, waggling her stick where she wished plants to be positioned and regaling visitors with stories of the great and good that she had known and loved. At Goodnestone Lady Fitzwalter created an unpretentious, timeless English garden that perfectly suited the gentle Kentish landscape in which it lay. It will be fascinating to see what the future holds once the mansion is completed and let as a very grand holiday cottage. From £2500 (I presume for a week, I fear I may be wrong!), one can now take advantage of the 12 newly refurbished bedrooms and 11 bathrooms, along with a suite of elegant receptions rooms. All provided one has enough wealthy friends to entertain.
This weekend the Kent group of the Hardy Plant Society staged a special ‘Snowdrop and Hellebore Extravaganza’ at Goodnestone, complete with attendant specialist nurseries selling choice plants. I always suggest to novice gardeners seeking year-round colour to visit their local nursery at least once a month to see what’s looking good. Although not foolproof, because so many plants can be forced to look their best unusually early or late, it is one way to learn what’s in season and when. This plant fair would have been a great starting point for anyone looking to introduce some early colour into their garden. Madrona Nursery, one of my favourite staging posts en route to Sissinghurst, tempted me with the thorny delights of a 6ft specimen Ribes speciosum. I was about to open my wallet until Him Indoors gave me one of the those “you dare puncture the car’s leather upholstery with your thorny plant” kind of looks. It’s not a good look. I moved quickly on, lest he get too attached to a brightly variegated trachelospermum which made his eyes light up and mine bleed.
Next in line was Decoy Nursery, for which I have a very soft spot. Amy Green and James Amery always have special things to offer and Sunday was no exception. I tried to resist, but succumbed to a generous pot of Muscari ‘Baby’s Breath’ and Fatsia japonica ‘Spider’s Web’, which curiously I had mentioned in a post only the day before. Some things are meant to be. Being the lovely people that they are, James and Amy sent me home with a pot of Cyclamen coum (silver leaf form) and two dainty Narcissus cyclamineus to brighten up my greenhouse staging.
I knew my luck was in when I spotted a single plant of Tropaeolum pentaphyllum on the Hardy Plant Society stand. It didn’t take me long to part with £5 for the pleasure of owning a plant I have long admired in the yew hedges at Sissinghurst. And from Copton Ash Nursery there was violet-blue Ipheion uniflorum ‘Froyle Mill’ and spiny, exciting Eryngium eburneum. By this stage I was getting carried away and Him Indoors was losing interest (and the use of his extremities) so I reluctantly agreed to come away lest more of the building project budget be blown on plants.
At the entrance to the gardens I was sad to see that beds usually packed with hellebores, narcissi and Sarcococca hookeriana var. digyna had been swept away, apparently ready to be replaced by turf. I hoped this was part of a masterplan to rejuvenate this part of the garden rather than an attempt to reduce future maintenance. On the other side of the box parterre, venerable birches and sweet chestnuts, their branches flailing wildly in a stiff breeze, conducted an orchestra of lemon yellow narcissi.
Throughout the woodland garden spring was much in evidence. We were treated to candy-pink camellias, burgundy hellebores (perhaps transplanted from the entrance area?) and sulphur-yellow witch hazels. Goodnestone’s snowdrops had already peaked, but the snowflakes, Leucojum aestivum, were in fine form. On a bitterly cold, windy day it was striking just how calm and warm it was in the shelter of the trees. Equally striking was the scent from brooding swathes of sweet box, Sarcococca confusa. It never fails to amaze me that such small, insignificant white flowers can pump out so much honeyed scent.
Whilst the woodland garden was very much awakening, the walled gardens slumbered on. A keen eye might have noticed the buds on a pear tree flushing pale pink and lime green, or the blood-red shoots of a peony piercing the earth. Condensation on the greenhouse’s glass was a tell-tale sign that plans were already afoot for colourful displays of annuals and tender perennials this summer.
With a changing of the guard at Goodnestone Park one hopes the job Margaret Fitzwalter began when she reclaimed parts of the garden from Christmas tree cultivation in the 1960s will be continued with her own particular brand of verve, vision and vigour.
Goodnestone Park Opening Hours 2016 (please check the website for updates before travelling):
- March: Good Friday, Easter Sunday and Bank Holiday Monday
- April: Sundays 12 noon-4pm
- May-August: Wednesday, Thursday, Friday 11am-5pm and Sunday 12 noon-5pm
- September: Sundays 12 noon-4pm
Open all Bank Holidays March-August 11am-5pm
Do go along!