‘Trying things out’ at Gravetye Manor


Earlier this month, I was lucky enough to be invited to visit the garden at the hotel, Gravetye Manor, as part of a tour of garden journalists. Appropriate really because Gravetye is famous, in gardening terms, as the home of William Robinson, (1838-1935), who purchased it as a result of the money he earnt as a gardening writer.


Hmmm, I’m obviously doing something wrong. Still, still… if you are interested in gardening, then you probably know William Robinson as the author of classics such as Wild Gardening and The English Flower Garden. Here he is at Gravetye, he spent the last decade of his life in a wheelchair but still took an active interest in the garden.  


We were taken round by the current head gardener, Tom Coward, and it was fascinating to think about the challenges of maintaining a garden which needs to allow the hotel guests to feel that it is ‘their’ garden for the time they are staying, and will also look good at different times of the year.


Not surprisingly there are intimate seating areas dotted around. Garden service, anyone?



According to Tom, Robinson used the garden to ‘try things out’ that he would later write about. What was so good about the garden today is that it still feels dynamic. The plants in the Long Border, for example, all come from propagated stock, and although it looked good to me, Tom said he wanted it to be ‘bolder’, and spoke about the danger of getting lazy when you found a plant palette that worked. 



One of the joys of the hotel is that it sits between two very different gardening styles. At the front there is the wild garden- a meadow that leads down to the river. In 1904 Robinson planted out more than 50,000 narcissus bulbs in the pasture, woods and orchards, and the tradition continues. Apparently – and I’d love to see this in action – Tom and his gardeners can now plant 1,000 bulbs in 90 minutes, and the wild garden changes according to the season. In the winter, there are sheep to keep the grass down, with an electric fence that sometimes ‘pings’ the hotel guests. Strangely I only spotted the couple in the photograph on the right as I was looking through my images for this post. 



And I’m still wondering whether I’m right in these are old-fashioned stocks… Luckily we were all very well-behaved.



Meanwhile at the back, we walked past the croquet lawn…     …. and up the newly built steps…



…to the highlight for me, the vegetable garden which provides most of the vegetables and cut flowers for the hotel. I’m going to keep quiet now and just let you enjoy…





And now I’m going to leave you with a photograph as a writing prompt… a magical pumpkin. I’m sure that’s been used as a literary device somewhere before! 



Friends and reviews…

Just in this month…

First friends… a page in Kent Life with photographs from the launch, such a lovely memory:


And then reviews, a happy-making review by the garden writer, Annie Gatti in the magazine, Gardens Ilustrated:


And if you still haven’t got a copy of Digging Up Paradise, and would like a signed one, I do have some copies here and would be happy to add a dedication for you. Leave a comment or email me (sarahsalway@gmail.com), and we can arrange payment, postage etc.

Apples, bank notes and a garden at Bere Mill

Bere Mill in Hampshire has a rich history. And I use that adjective on purpose, because it was where the Huguenot family, the Portals, made the paper that was used for Bank of England bank notes in the early eighteenth century. There are still traces of the mill, and also importantly, apple trees. I hadn’t known before that the best wood for mill machinery was that of apple trees because it is both strong and flexible. Isn’t that wonderful?


The current house was originally the home of Jane Deane, as this plaque still states on the side of the house.

bere jane deane

Over the last twenty years, Rupert and Elizabeth Nabarro have created a garden that feels both established and in progress. Something I’ve learnt from my garden visiting is harder than it seems.


I visited the garden at the end of last year so looking at my photographs to write this post is a bit like capturing history myself. However if I had forgotten the vividness of the borders…


… the play of shadow and light in this garden – almost like music – has stayed with me. It’s as if the garden has taken on the watery element of the river and is making shapes that will transform themselves constantly.


Rupert has been very influenced by Japanese garden design and I really liked finding out more about this as we walked round.


As he said, the river – once essential for paper milling – is key in the garden, and not just for its beauty. The river runs through the receptive house for harmony, and the fact that it comes in from the north-east, flows south, and then exits to the south-west – and with the valley sides giving the inverse horse shoe facing upstream – means it adds the needed feng shui blessing.


I was going to say I don’t know much about Japanese gardening, but in fact I know NOTHING about it, so I was pleased to find a little book from our second-hand bookshop and read that in the Nara period (646-795 AD) ‘not only rocks, water, trees, and plants, but even birds, animals and fishes formed part of the material that contributed to their composition.’ Look at these fish in the river at Bere Mill – aren’t they just like a painting?

bere fish

And this is a bad picture, but this sculpture by David Nash sits beautifully in the new orchard.


I had to be dragged away from the Japanese teahouse (built by Australian sculptors, Paul Jamieson and Rohan Ward) because I’ve never seen such a perfect spot for daydreaming.


See the view… can’t you just imagine writing at that table until the sun went down?


But enough. I don’t want to be too gushy in this post because this garden is mostly about daydreaming and silence. It is a private garden, but opened regularly through the National Gardens Scheme. The next opening day is 14th September. I can’t recommend it highly enough. And in the meantime, here’s a poem I wrote for the apple trees and banknotes…


Sarah Salway

Imagine, my father always said
on our Sunday walks, less
an invitation than an instruction,

and because I was too young then
to know that nature’s ‘what if?’
would always trump ours:

the golden section; ants milking
grasshoppers; the bee queening
it over her own slave kingdom,

I loved his games – gold coins lying
under trees like windfalls, to have
a million pounds and spend it in a day.

I wish he’d lived long enough
to hear how Bank of England
notes were milled with apple wood.

How he would laugh. Imagine,
he’d say, money really does grow
on trees, and forever after, I could try

to catch him out lifting his wallet
to his face, trying to inhale a wealth
he only dreamt of, fortune’s wind

at last blowing its fruit his way,
a scrumper, my dad, to the end.

Send me your photographs of Digging Up Paradise – and win some writing seeds.

delphine - dup2

Remember – if you have got a copy of Digging Up Paradise, send me a photograph of it in your garden, or any garden, and I’ll pick out a winner for a very special prize.


In fact, unique!

delphine - dup

I’ll make the winner of my favourite photograph a book of writing prompts and seeds tailored to your needs. The closing date is now 7th July, and photographs should be sent to me at sarahsalway@gmail.com.

shauna - dup

The above are a selection from those received so far… and I’m particularly enjoying this competition because it means I get a sneaky look at some beautiful gardens too!

DIgging Up the Pantiles

Forget Potatoes, People and Poetry – it was Books, Bunting and Busking in the Pantiles this week for the signing of Digging Up Paradise at Gardener and Cook. As £4 for every book sold was going to SpotlightYOPD, a new charity aimed at raising awareness, support and advice for younger people diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, it was particularly gratifying to have signed over 60 books in that one evening.

We were lucky with the weather and so could spill out into the Pantiles where I did my reading (hence the busking). It was the first of many ‘garden’ outings, I hope, for the book. Here’s a flavour of the evening…






anna reading

Jane and lizzie

jo and friend

Kate, nick and liam

marian and friend

me reading

mo looking

neil, jinny, and penny

Sarah and will

sarah, alison and sue

sarah, nick and liam


the cultured llama teamUp

Putting out the bunting for DIGGING UP PARADISE


This week, my new book, Digging Up Paradise, is published – and there have been reports of sightings in gardens around the country.


I’m proud of this little baby – a mixture of reflection, stories, and poetry, with photographs and writing prompts too.


And so I thought I’d run a little competition. If you have got a copy of Digging Up Paradise, send me a photograph of it in your garden, or any garden, and I’ll pick out a winner for a very special prize. In fact, unique! I’ll make the winner of my favourite photograph a book of writing prompts and seeds tailored to your needs.


You can even take a picture of it with a postcard from the hedge…

postcards from the hedge

Closing date is 30th June 2014, and you can send your photographs to me at sarahsalway@gmail.com. I look forward to them!

And here’s a blurb from gardening writer, Lia Leendertz about the book:

On this poet’s garden tour, Sarah Salway writes of the gardens’ physical selves, of course, but also of the sensations they conjure, the memories they stir up and the glimpses of history that colour her perception. Each description is rich, layered, personal and moving. It is more like the way we all experience gardens than any garden writing I have come across.

Sarah has a unique combination of a garden lover’s eye and a poet’s imagination, and it is a delicious treat to watch her exercise them on this group of gardens. She makes a fascinating and unpredictable virtual garden companion, always drawing your attention to some unexpected detail, or taking some half-told story, exploring it and breaking your heart with it. At the end I desperately wanted to set her onto my own favourite gardens and see what happens.

I read this book sometimes with a silly smile on my face, sometimes gripped and anxious, often with a tingle running down my spine. Sarah’s poetry has always moved me, and now she writes about my favourite subject, gardens. How lucky we gardeners are to have her in our midst. This could not be a lovelier book.

You can read more at the publisher’s website here but before you do, here’s the favourite part of MY garden at the moment, a red rose that is trying to climb out over the wall so it can throw petals in the path of everybody who passes!


Old maps, hands and ghost gardens…


Or fingertips anyway…

This is me joining the marvellous Vegplotting’s Show of Hands for the Chelsea Fringe, and a chance to show you a corner of the ghost gardens that I’ve been researching for my Lost Gardens of the Strand walk.


See how wonderful they are. And you can see from this map too how they would go right down to the Thames before the Embankment was built, so you would come by boat and walk straight into the garden. Magic.

lost gardens

And the joy of working with someone like the Old Map Man is that he points out the little traces that are still there. How many times have I walked past the York Watergate (above) in the Embankment gardens, for example, and not noticed it?


But now every time I go to Charing Cross, I try to spend a couple of minutes imagining what it would once have been like when the Thames was king and the Strand was full of beautiful gardens. So as I walk back, fighting the crowds in Villiers Street, I’m actually getting off a barge and walking straight into a fruit orchard in my mind.

Especially when I see this picture…


Here’s an extract from the Spectator of 1885:

FOREIGNERS may say what they like of London and its vast unwieldy size, and may contrast it with the slim elegance of Paris ; but those who love their London as Charles Lamb, for instance, loved it, know where to find its chief beauties, and would never barter the ” silver streaming Themmes ” for any other river. The great artery of the heart of England, with its ebb and flow, its daily freight of barges and lighters passing slowly from bridge to bridge, its mazy windings, outlined at night by countless twinkling lamps, is no longer the thoroughfare of the citizens as it was in good old days, when cabs and omnibuses were not, and steam still sputtered, bubbling and unnoticed, in the kettle. Mr. Secretary Pepys went as naturally by water from his house in Seething Lane to Whitehall or Westminster, as his successor would journey to his office by cab or underground- railway. Charles II. went in the royal barge to dine with the Lieutenant of the Tower, or sallied forth in his pleasure-boat ” above bridge,” or took a particular friend out in his new ” gundaloe.”