A Garden Tour: The Clergy House, Alfriston

On a sunny day in June of last year, and anxious to avoid a long list of home DIY jobs, I drove a few miles over the South Downs to the village of Alfriston.* I spent an absorbing hour browsing in the book shop, peering through windows (some of them public), not going into the pub

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The Tye, Alfriston

and finally gravitated to the church on the Tye (or village green, if you’d rather).

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Sussex Day, Alfriston

I hadn’t realised that it was Sussex Day (I hadn’t even heard of Sussex Day) and enjoying the fete atmosphere, I circled amongst the stalls, watched a little sword fighting re-enactment (but only a little), grabbed a coffee and glancing at my watch, decided I still had plenty of spare time.

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I looked across at The Clergy House next to the church and decided on a spontaneous visit.  I have annual membership of the National Trust and, each year, I shamelessly wring as much value out of it as possible.  The Clergy House is my local NT property and I’ve explored the garden several times over the years.  But, like most gardens, it repays visits at different times of the year – and besides, I’d chalk up a £5.35 entrance fee to my tally.  I fished out my dog-eared, NT card, gulped the last of my coffee and strolled over.

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As you probably know, The Clergy House was the National Trust’s first acquisition; bought in 1896 for the mighty sum of £10.

Copy of an 1894 black and white print of Alfriston Clergy House

The Clergy House, 1894. National Trust image

Which given the house’s state, sounds more of a bargain than it probably was.  This rare example of a medieval Wealden hall house was built in about 1350 and by the late nineteenth century was in such a state of disrepair that the owners, the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, decided to demolish it.  But first they agreed that a woman, Harriet Coates – who had been born and still lived in the house – could see out her days there.

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The Clergy House, 1896. National Trust image

After she died in 1888, the new vicar of Alfriston, the Rev. Beynon, sought to save the building and eventually contacted the newly formed ‘National Trust for Places of Historical Interest or Natural Beauty’.  They agreed to buy and sympathetically restore their first building (many Victorian renovations were anything but sympathetic).

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Stepping through the front gate, and before reaching the ticket office at the back of the house, I passed a large bed plumped up with Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum × hybridum).  I wondered whether theirs is attacked as virulently by sawfly as mine.  After writing about the scourge of Solomon’s seal sawfly (see – ‘Garden Visitors’ ), I found that picking off the grubs one year led to a dramatic decrease in numbers in subsequent years.  In 2013 I collected well over a hundred, in 2016 hardly a handful and my plants no longer resemble lace-work by autumn.

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Above the Solomon’s seal rose spires of monkshood (Aconitum napellus): a plant I love despite its toxicity and one that happily flowers in shade or sun (and isn’t prey to slugs).

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St Andrew’s Church, Alfriston – ‘The Cathedral of the South Downs’

From the ticket office, I veered off to the east (I’m making the garden sound much bigger than it is) to an area of lawn merging into uncut grass.

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I leave similar areas un-mown in ‘my’ gardens and a simple display of buttercups and daisies gives easy reward, even without adding wild-flower plugs or bulbs.

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Mowing paths through the long grass makes a feature of what is, after all, unkempt lawn.  More close sward or buttercups and daisies?  I know which I prefer.

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I walked along the bank of a reed-filled pond to the rear of the ticket office and towards the beds and borders near the house.

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As the garden is fairly small, I paused often: studied plants, smelled roses and tried/failed to photograph small birds zipping amongst the reeds.

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As every flight of sunny steps should, these were lined with Mexican fleabane (which trips off the tongue easier than Erigeron karvinskianus).  This little wonder will flourish in the tiniest of cracks, self-seed and flower non-stop till the first frosts.

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To the west of the house lies the vegetable garden and it’s impressive.  Past stately artichokes;

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and a lavender hedge (worth another visit to see in flower);

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I arrived amongst the raised beds.  These are seriously constructed and I winced at the inadequate, half-inch width boards I have used.  Unlike mine these will last decades.  (After eight years, several boards at The Priory are rotten and need replacing but I suppose eight years is quite a long time).  Though still relatively early in the season, the kitchen garden was zingy green and harvest-able … but I didn’t.

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I pulled a face at memories of eradicating, fanatically, opium poppies in The Old Forge vegetable garden, in an ongoing battle to prevent it self-seeding.

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But actually, why did I do that?  They add to a vegetable garden rather than detract … and are easy enough to pull up if they appear somewhere unwanted.

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I hadn’t seen mint ‘hedges’ before and they proved impossible not to touch (and then sniff my fingers).  How nice an idea is that?  Mint lining a path, softening those hard, straight beds and readily available for Pimm’s O’clock?

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Silky bronze fennel also drew my hand, growing against burgeoning potatoes, with a nearby teasel left to flower in its own good time.  I would have pulled that up too but resolved to be more relaxed about interlopers in future.

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I liked the vegetable garden very much but as much as I’m relaxed about poisonous aconitum, I might balk at it flowering in a kitchen garden.  Pretty blue flowers on that salad, anyone?

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I retraced my steps to a small brick-paved area, with a central bed and peony in flower, to views over the yew hedging, across the river valley with the Downs beyond.

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A massive container should hold huge plants, shouldn’t it?

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Well, no actually. Not if filled with something as pretty as this saxifrage (which I think is Saxifraga ‘Esther’).

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Nearby, relishing the southerly aspect, was a very impressive helianthemum.

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When I worked in an alpine nursery, I knew these as scraggly, little plants in 3″ pots.  How marvellous to see it as a huge, established specimen.

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And close by are erodiums.  This one looks like Erodium x kolbianum ‘Natasha’ but I don’t think it is.  Anyone?

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Two more erodiums peeped out from under the yew.  I do know these but, for no good reason, I don’t grow them: both the very pretty Erodium × variabile ‘Album’ and the pink,  Erodium × variabile ‘Bishop’s Form’ suppress weeds and flower from spring to autumn.  Find space.

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Four clipped box trees sit near the west wall of the house, under-planted with dianthus.

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These pinks were just coming into flower during my visit but will be a sight – and scent – a little later on.

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Red campion, blue geraniums and magenta gladioli jostle against the house wall

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with white rambling rose, summer jasmine and vine racing to obscure windows.

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And so back, through a cloud of rose perfume, to the ticket office

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and the blackboard.  I’m always interested to see how much work goes into making a garden and appreciated this easy to do, yet often missing, extra detail from the team.

I turned to enter the house but, though the garden was mostly empty, it was too busy with the door blocked by visitors waiting to get in.  I decided to come back on another day (and chalk up another £5.35).  My brain mulling over gardening ideas and inspiration, I returned to the entrance gate (avoiding the plants-for-sale with steely willpower) and walked out to the Church.

Right then, time enough for The George Inn and that pint of Harveys.

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The Clergy House is open mainly from March through to the end of October (but not Thursdays and Fridays.  Check detailed opening hours here).  There is no parking near the property, so if you’re driving, leave your car in one of the village car-parks and walk along the High Street and down to the church.  Alternatively, take the train to Seaford and follow a grand walk to Alfriston (two or three hours).  The Clergy House has a shop if no tea-room but there are plenty of cafés, and those pubs, in the village.

*I’ve recently learnt that I’ve been mispronouncing the name of the village.  Wow the villagers with your local knowledge and say it right – ALLfriston.

oooOOOooo

January has been a busy time for my blog.  It featured in Gardener’s World Magazine as one of ’50 New Things To Try’; and it was also recommended as one of six gardening blogs to follow in an article by Rachel de Thame for The Sunday Times. (Photos of both articles are on my ‘As Featured In’ page).

In addition, I’ve answered questions posed by a couple of websites.  The first, for Capital Gardens, was about New Year’s resolutions.  The second, for Garden Buildings Direct, on the health benefits of gardening.  Click the links to read answers from me and other garden bloggers.

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41 thoughts on “A Garden Tour: The Clergy House, Alfriston

  1. Loved this post, lots of ideas to mull over plus I have a thing for old houses. (I really should join NT.) I never knew pinks would grow in shade and am wondering how that mint is restrained from rooting back into the beds behind. Looks glorious though!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Caro, actually I suspect that most of the pinks will struggle in the shade of the box trees. The mint is already spreading into the beds and regularly pulled up I imagine. Still a nice idea though. Dave

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  2. Pingback: A garden tour… | Old School Garden

  3. Hello DavidJohn Gordon here, I am still following your blog and because you were helpful in guiding me a photoraph question I had on setting up my blog I though I would take the liberty to ask another question. Today I signed up to wordpress and have spent the day playing about on the site which I find a struggle although I am told its easy. I understand it will take a wee while before Goggle recognises me. The question I have is what watermark editor do you use to coyright your photos ? I see a few different ones on Google but  I would rather go for one that someone using it regularly is  is happy with. If you could point me in the right direction I would be gartefull regardsJohn Gordon

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  4. How wonderful to see these lovely pictures on a wet and miserable January Sunday evening, just reminding us of what we have in store in a few short months! Every winter I stare out at my mostly perennial garden and think what a horrible muddy mess it looks, and every spring I am amazed when it transforms itself into fresh bright greens and glorious colours. Thanks for a very reviving post!

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  5. A well-structured vegetable garden makes my heart leap—that combination of geometry, easy-going exuberance, beauty, and usefulness. Lovely. And this, Sir Dave, is an admirable piece of gardening/life wisdom: “Mowing paths through the long grass makes a feature of what is, after all, unkempt lawn.” Turning a “flaw” into a virtue is a fine, fine art. Part of me wonders if the mint “hedge” began life that way. Stacy x

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    • I suspect you’re right about the mint hedge: runners repeatedly creeping along the base of the bed until someone grew tired of pulling them up and decided to transform the flaw. Thanks for pointing it out, Stacy – more argument against me uber-worrying about stuff in the garden not sticking to the plan. Dx

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    • Phew, glad I laid your worries to rest, Brian. True enough about the dry conditions for the dianthus but I suspect patches of them won’t get enough sun. I’ll have to go back just to make sure. D

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  6. Whether on- or off-topic, you have a very emotive way of describing your experiences. I find your manner quite refreshing. You seem to genuinely love and enjoy Nature and how people re-arrange and organize Nature in their gardens.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Why, thank you kind chap. It’s difficult pitching posts to people who may not share my interests and frankly might not be that interested in a garden visit I made last year. I’m very pleased that, for you at least, I got it about right. Thanks for saying so, D

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  7. What vision those early restorer’s had! Impressive comeback for that cottage. I loved the beds of dianthus under the trimmed trees, the gray-green foliage against the green grass edging it. I agree with you that the aconite in the kitchen bed should go, and allowing mint in a mixed bed is just asking for trouble, IMO. 😉 Luckily for you, bringing P. somniferum back to your beds is easily rectified. I love mine!

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  8. We loved this property both inside and out when we visited a few years ago. It is a real jewel, with an immense sense of tranquility in spite of the number of visitors. As a bonus, on the summer afternoon of our visit the reed beds were busy with flocks of small birds (reed buntings, we thought) and their calls just seemed to make the day complete. Thank you for prompting a happy memory on this bleakest of winter days.

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    • It was bleak yesterday. I need to mulch all the borders but the compost and leaf mould is frozen solid so I pruned apple trees instead – until I could no longer feel my fingers that is, despite gloves. I thought I might have seen reed buntings too but they were too uncooperative for me to be sure. It is a tranquil place and despite Sussex Day, the gardens were remarkably quiet. D

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  9. What beautiful pictures to warm up a freezing cold day. I live not too far away from the Clergy House but hadn’t realised what an abundant garden it has. Am now looking forward to visiting in warmer weather!

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  10. Ah, good, I can rebalance things. I may get my Eremerus and Eucomis mixed up, but I think I’m fairly good on my Taxus and Buxus. Now that I’ve got that out of the way, what a gorgeous little property. Alfriston (All-friston, really?) has been firmly in my sights since an earlier post of yours and now I know of another garden there, it’s definitely on the must visit list for this summer. Must be thirty years since I’ve been there (how old am I?).

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  11. Oh, just what I needed today. A reminder that summer will come round again.
    And, as ever, so many brilliant ideas. There’s a constant running battle between me and Himself over daisies and buttercups. One is enough for him to go and get the mower out. It’s a battle I just have to win. And the mint. How marvellous is that. Can I nick that idea too?

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I thoroughly enjoyed my vacarious gentle stroll with you around the garden at the ALLfriston Clergy House. I have lived in Sussex all my life and am ashamed to say I have never visited. Like you I’m a member of the National Trust. Thank you for inspiring me to visit, hopefully in June.
    Regards Lorna

    Liked by 1 person

  13. How do you manage, when writing up a garden tour, to make me feel like I’m walking beside you? Never the clinical tour; rather a gentle meander. I’m still resisting the temptation to fork out for a better camera! I like it when the odd self-seeding interloper pops up. And we can expect these chance things to grow well as they, not we, have decided where to make their home. Or have they – I sometimes wonder! Oh, and Erodium “Katherine Joy” maybe?

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    • Offering two other alternatives from my “I want” list, there’s “Stephanie” and (I think) guttatum, which have the prominent purple blotches on the upper two petals. I went for Katherine as there’s a pinkish petal tinge in your photo; the other two are whiter. There’s another one whose name escapes me which shares the white petal and purple blotch characteristic but the petals tend not to be overlapping at all. HTH

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      • Thanks for picking up the erodium challenge, John. I spent some time looking at various varieties on Google but couldn’t be sure of an identification. The only one I know for certain is Natasha as I grow it myself. But yes, I thought either guttatum or Katherine too. (What’s HTH mean)? Self sown plants are a marvel – they do it so effortlessly and to an effect I couldn’t possibly emulate. Tsk. You’re very welcome to walk beside me whenever you like but you might find my constant stopping and muttering over my camera a little trying. D

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  14. A lovely gentle post on a beautiful garden. Fab photos. I also love the pinks. Any idea what the rose was? Like Amelia I am in bed with a cold so really appreciated this post – one of your best I think!

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  15. Just the thing to read on an icy morning while nursing a cold. I loved the easy style of the garden, I bet there is a lot of experience concealed in the words “five volunteers”. I have a lot of sympathy for the old lady who finished her days in the original house, it looks very drafty to me. Every garden visit sparks ideas and so do proxy visits like this one. I liked very much the paths in the lawn. Kourosh always leaves patches in ours but I think paths would look nicer. Amelia

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    • I hope that the house was in a better state before the lady died too – the earlier photo was taken six years afterwards so maybe it wasn’t quite as derelict whilst she was still alive. If I had the spare time, I should love to volunteer at the house. I did so at Batemans for a short time and learnt a lot. Certainly something I’d want to do when I retire. D

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