Charleston Farmhouse is situated in the lee of the South Downs near Lewes in Sussex, England. It was the country home of artists Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell from 1916 until Grant’s death in 1978. It is home to the best example of their decorative style in a domestic setting. The garden at Charleston consists of three elements - a walled garden, a large farm pond and an orchard. It is unmistakably a painter’s garden, with its shapes, colours and textures making a striking impact on all the senses. Over the last 30 years the garden has been brought back to life by gardener Mark Divall.
“I have been involved with the garden for so long I sometimes wonder if I exist outside of it. Some ‘flights of fancy’ to describe why I inhabit it so much...
After a hard day digging a flower border, the soil is dark and friable and has been enriched with humus. The possibilities are endless.
On certain days in late summer, when everything is just right for it, young spiders having climbed to the top of a branch or a stalk, launch themselves into the breeze. One wouldn’t notice a few, but there are many thousands, and a morning dew can make it seem as if the garden is clothed in silk. I know them as ‘spider days’.
Glimpsing the rabbit in the walled garden that has been the bane of my summer, and realising that I needn’t fret any longer, as autumn is on its way and it will soon be checking out for pastures new.
As the hazel leaves start to fall in October, one can notice an early sign of spring. Looking very closely, one can see that next year’s catkins are already starting to form.
Those very rare days in Summer when it is cathedral quiet, hearing the sound of a wasp or hornet incising away the loose skin from a bamboo cane, it will mix it with its saliva to make the raw material to fashion a structure much overlooked in its beauty.
The garden on a still summer night can offer many rewards. The many scented flowers such as Stocks, Tobacco Plants, and Sweet Peas, their fragrance accentuated by the heavy air, will bring out the many nocturnal insects searching for nectar. Frequently they will be pursued by bats, who, in turn may be the prey of owls.
I love it when the gold finches discover that the cornflowers have gone to seed. They are light and delicate enough to be supported by the fragile stems while gleaning their chosen seeds.
In late May the many stems of Oriental Poppy will be growing with such gusto. Their buds the size of table tennis balls. Petals just starting to show as the bud starts to unfurl. The process can seem agonisingly slow. Then on the chosen morning the bud will have transmogrified into a flower of such delicacy and precision, that were it to be a dress, it would certainly go to the ball.
The last words go to a gardener I worked with for a short time in 1969. It was my first year as a gardener, and his last, having been a gardener since 1922. He told me that ‘The best manure is a gardener's feet’. I didn’t understand what he meant. It slowly dawned on me that the more you wander around and look at your garden, the more you'll see and the sooner one can react to anything going awry, and maybe make a difference.”