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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The Rhine Cycle Route: Mainz to Cologne

In 1979, with my best friend Colin, I cycled from Hook of Holland across the Netherlands and into Germany.  We carried on pedalling to the Rhine near Koblenz and continued south along the river, past Mainz to Worms; where we camped for one night before heading for home via Luxembourg, Brussels and the port of Zeebrugge.   In two weeks, making up the route as we went along, we rode 700 miles and camped in fields or woods when we couldn’t find a camp-site.  We were 16.

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Me and my Viscount Sebring bike (with bespoke sock-drying facility).  Nijmegan, 1979

I’m now amazed that our parents gave us permission but it didn’t seem particularly odd at the time; and the following year we set off again for three weeks: cycling through the Black Forest, Switzerland, Austria and Lichtenstein; and over the Alps to Genoa.  Today, the idea of allowing my 16-year-old boy to bicycle for hundreds of miles on busy roads, for weeks at a time, unsupervised and non-contactable, is laughable.  But as L.P. Hartley almost said – “The 1970’s is a foreign country: they do things differently there”.  We two schoolboys had an incredibly exciting, fun and formative time; and nothing too bad or scary happened (though an encounter with a group of very drunk, lederhosen-clad, Austrian yodellers came close).  Those two teenage cycling trips are up there with the very best holidays of my life.

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Mainz Cathedral

But when I arranged a recent Rhine Valley cycling reboot with Jim, I ditched the first-cycle-to-Germany plan and caught the train from London to Mainz instead.

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The Bingen to Koblenz stretch of the Rhine Cycle Route

At our Mainz hotel, we collected our hire bikes and for the following five days rolled slowly downriver through a Grimm landscape; enduring bright sun, huge breakfasts, beer, picnics and currywurst for the 135 miles to Rüdesheim, Koblenz and finally Cologne.

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The sun always shines in Germany – or rather – the sun always shines on our cycling holidays in Germany.

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Der Klunkhardshof, Rüdesheim (Spoken German: Exercise 1)

We smothered on the sunblock and rubber-necked past fairytale architecture;

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Bacharach

quaint mediaeval towns;

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and castles.

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And castles.

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And a castle.

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And another castle.

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Another bloody castle.

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A close-up of a castle.

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Until I grew bored at photographing castles and stopped.

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I liked old shop-signs advertising long-gone businesses: here the services of an adept, if elderly, boot thief.

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And here, erm … actually, I have no idea what business this unfortunate fishing incident is selling.  Fishing tackle?  Fish?  Specially trained attack deer?

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I liked modern, sleek things too;

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and even industrial complexes that reminded me of 1960’s postcards promising us all a brighter, shinier future.

River Rhine

This section of the Rhine Cycle Route, squeezed tight against the river by the Rhine Highlands and sharing the valley bottom with railways and dual-carriageways, is less peaceful and rural than our last cycling holiday (see ‘And Quiet Flows The Spree’).

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Unsurprisingly, there wasn’t as much wildlife either but we did see pylon-nesting storks

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and their more conventional brethren.

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Cormorants were common too

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and curious house martin chicks.  One morning I squealed to an impressive, rubber-smoking halt when a red squirrel ran past my front wheel and scurried up a tree.

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Only, it wasn’t a red squirrel.  Well, it was but it was a grey squirrel … yet red.

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Have you ever seen one of these?  A red grey squirrel?  I hadn’t and didn’t even know they existed.  Perhaps it’s a new species and I shall be famous the world over … or more likely it’s a colour variant of the common or garden grey.

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In the pretty town of Boppard, I nodded hesitantly at Jim’s suggestion, swallowed hard, breathed deep and climbed anxiously aboard a very-flimsy-indeed-looking chairlift.  (As I’ve mentioned before, I’m rubbish with heights).

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Good grief but it was high … and my eyes flicked to automatic closing mode; my vocab to automatic squeaking.

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The views were worth the anguish (when I did open my eyes but certainly not looking down between my feet) – and Jim forgave the squeak and whimper soundtrack.

Das GedeonsEck, hoch über der Rheinschleife

Das GedeonsEck, hoch über der Rheinschleife (Spoken German: Exercise 2)

At the end of the ride, the stupendous sight from the restaurant GedeonsEck, calmed my nerves

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as did a small restorative;

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before – “Eeek!” – the return journey.

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In early July, wild-flowers were at their peak.

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Mile after mile of stunning flowers;

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on verges and scraps of wasteland.

Gasthof zum Landsknecht, St Goar

Gasthof zum Landsknecht, St Goar (Spoken German: Exercise 3)

No camping in woods this time nor struggling with heavy, overladen bikes.  Our tour company* pre-booked the accommodation, provided our bicycles and, after Frühstuck, ferried our luggage from one hotel to the next;

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leaving us to pedal a leisurely 25 miles or so a day.

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Hashtag Action Shot

It was hardly a blistering pace but we made it less so.  On day 4, Jim realized that he hadn’t overtaken a single non-stationary cyclist.  He reddened when I pointed out that even senior pensioners on ancient bone-rattlers (and toddlers on trikes) had whizzed past us for days.  Maybe we could increase our speed just a little bit?  We did and even reached shirt-tail-flapping speeds.

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But not for long.  There was always the perfect excuse to slow down and stop again.

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Stone towers of the Remagen bridge today

At Remagen, the Ludendorff Bridge is no more.  This was the only Rhine bridge captured intact by the Allies in 1945 – after Hitler ordered them all destroyed to hamper the Allied advance.  Despite several attempts by the Germans, and to the delight of the US 9th Armored Division, the bridge survived.  After a fierce battle, the Americans took it, threw five divisions across the river and surged on to Germany’s industrial heartland, the Ruhr.

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Ludendorff Bridge, 1945 (Photo of an image at the ‘Peace Museum, Bridge at Remagen’)

Two weeks later the badly damaged structure finally, suddenly collapsed – killing 28 US soldiers – but by then its capture had already helped shorten the war.  (Interesting aside, huh)?

Cologne Cathedral

Cologne Cathedral – the tallest building in the world (for four years in the 1880’s)

Five days after leaving Mainz, we arrived in Cologne and the end of our tour.  I’d booked an apartment for a further three nights and we were looking forward to the galleries, museums, the botanical gardens and cake of this vibrant city.  But surrendering our bikes on arrival was hard: we’d developed a fierce affection for them and would miss the open road, World Heritage Sites, the vineyards and occasional flapping of shirt-tails.  Hell, I’d even miss the castles.

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If the idea of a cycling holiday appeals, I’d urge you to go.  The pace is generally easy; you can stop wherever and whenever you like (without having to find a parking space); and you’ll enjoy an intimacy with the countryside and wildlife that’s impossible from the inside of a car, bus or train.  I’m already planning our next trip.  You might want to do the same.

*Over the years, I’ve booked three cycling holidays through Mecklenburger RadtourThey offer a wide choice of tours in various countries, at different fitness levels and, as you might expect from a German company, they’re reassuringly efficient.  They book all the accommodation; arrange luggage transfer; provide the bike, route guide, information pack, simple repair kit and breakdown back-up support – though we’ve never needed the latter two.

(I haven’t been asked to plug Mecklenburger Radtour.  I just wanted to give credit to a company that does its job really well).

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