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.

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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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A Walk From Seaford To Berwick Station

With my gardening enthusiasm washed away by heavy rain, here’s a post about something else.

On a sunny Saturday in September, I walked into Seaford to meet my friend Tracy for a day’s walk.   Whereas I prefer walking alone, Tracy is sociable.  Not only has she recently joined The Ramblers but she now leads their walks too and, having plotted a new route on the map, she invited me along to check its suitability for a large Goretex phalanx.  (On the big day, a few weeks later, she led 36 people on this ten-mile walk.  36!!).

Seaford Head

We climbed the springy turf of Seaford Head at the east end of the beach and, swivelling, gazed over the town, Newhaven and, on the left-hand horizon, Brighton.

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Despite this beautiful coast lying on my doorstep, I haven’t featured it on my blog before.  Which is odd given that one of England’s finest views is about an hour’s walk from my front door.

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The Seven Sisters

And here it is.  The Seven Sisters – a line of eight (!?) chalk hills abruptly sliced by the sea.

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The Seven Sisters aren’t as famous as their Dover cousins but they’re whiter, far more striking and less built up.  As such they are often used as a cinematic and photographic stand-in for the (not as) white cliffs of Dover.  They also mark the beginning of the end of the South Downs Way, which hugs the cliff-tops for an exhilarating finale before Eastbourne.

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Haven Brow, the first sister

It does worry me if visitors get too close to the precipice though – like those two on the crest of Haven Brow.  The cliffs are blindingly white simply because of repeated land-slip, collapse and bashing from Atlantic storms.  The cliff-edge is crumbly and fatalities, not all suicidal, are quite common.

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The Sisters begin at Cuckmere Haven where the Cuckmere River cuts through the chalk to reach the sea beside a row of Coastguard Cottages.  No wonder it is a scene I have photographed before.

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In November 2011, I took a series of photos on an afternoon dog walk.

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For whatever reason I didn’t use the photos then.

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But when I came across them recently

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I thought you might like to see the cliffs under a softer light.

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Tracy’s route lay inland after Cuckmere Haven and we avoided the ups and downs of the Seven (or Eight) Sisters.   Turning our back on the English Channel, we followed the west bank of the Cuckmere River north toward Alfriston.

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Off to our right, on the far side of the valley, is enormous Friston Forest – a favourite haunt for me and my dogs over the years and where, as I have learnt, it’s all too easy to become embarrassingly lost.

Cuckmere Valley

Tracy planned a detour for her walk, off the river and up High and Over Hill – a steep climb followed by an immediate return to the river.  As I had seen the view from the hill countless times, I suggested it might be an unnecessary, arduous addition and muttered mutinously when she insisted.   Grudgingly, I conceded she was right as we gained height to slowly reveal the meandering river

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and ahead to Litlington.  I hate it when Tracy is right and I’m not.

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The view back to the Haven wasn’t half bad either.

Rathfinny Estate

Before we dropped back to rejoin the river we glimpsed the impressive Rathfinny Estate vineyard.  This is brand spanking new but, I think, a welcome addition to the South Downs.  Rathfinny is continuing a long tradition of Sussex wine-making but nearby Breaky Bottom Winery has the better name.

Litlington

Litlington, which we now aimed for, wasn’t on our itinerary today – and that’s always a regret.  There’s a decent pub, The Plough and Harrow, a great tea garden as well as an independent plant nursery.  I used to work in the gardens of a Manor House in Litlington owned by a well-known musician – but I’m not going to tell you who. Irritating, huh?

Alfriston Church and Clergy House

Now on the east side of the river we by-passed Litlington and reached Alfriston opposite St Andrew’s Church with, next door, the National Trust’s first acquisition, The Clergy House.

Alfriston

A handy bridge led is into the centre of the village.  Alfriston is as pretty a place as you could wish for – with the resultant crowds you might imagine.  But on a warm Saturday lunchtime it was surprisingly quiet and we grabbed a table in the beer garden of my favourite Alfriston pub:

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The George, of course.  Unusually, my food wasn’t up to much but, after three hours hot walking, I was happy enough with a pint of cold shandy.

Alfriston Village Store

As if Alfriston isn’t quintessentially English enough, the Village Store underlines the point.  (I had to restrain myself from automatic weeding mode).

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The Cuckmere valley winds through the north escarpment of the Downs and after leaving the village, with no more big climbs ahead, most of our walk was done and the remainder easy-going.

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The ground flattened as we approached the tiny village of Berwick.

Berwick Church

We paused at the church and tried the door for a peek at Duncan Grant’s famous paintings.  Sadly it was locked (and remained so however much Tracy rattled).  I was disappointed as I wanted to see his murals again.  From a previous visit, I remember being underwhelmed but I wanted to check whether I hadn’t been mistaken.  (Duncan Grant was one of the Bloomsbury Group from nearby Charleston Farmhouse).

The Cricketers Berwick

Near the church is another favourite pub, The Cricketers Arms.  I say favourite but I haven’t visited for years and even though I demanded beer, held my breath, turned red and stamped my feet, Tracy grasped me firmly by the scruff of the neck and frogmarched me away.  Oh, well.  It was worth a try and it’s good to have an excuse to walk this way again and see those Grant murals.  (And visit The Cricketers).

The last couple of miles were fairly tiring across muddy fields, following a sometimes elusive path to the station.  Trains are once an hour and, if you arrive early like we did, there’s another pub The Berwick Inn next door.  It’s OK, I suppose, just not as nice as The Cricketers, Tracy.

(Trains to Seaford run from Brighton and Lewes; from Berwick, services are to Eastbourne or Lewes and Brighton.  Change at Lewes to return to Seaford).