A garden never stands still. It either moves forward taking in its stride plant growth and changing circumstances or it slides backwards to become a shadow of its former self. Usually what pushes it backwards is the scaling back of maintenance, for whatever reason, and unfortunately this is the demise of Denmans. Owned by Michael Neve and John Brookes, I found its present state to be a shocking revelation.
I first visited Denmans in the early 1990s when it was owned by Joyce Robinson, who worked with John Brookes to create the garden in its present form. It was for me a turning point when I realised that good garden design needn’t just be for leisured toffs with grand country gardens but for us all. Like many others this led me to buy his books, to try out his ideas and in my case fired with wild enthusiasm to enrol for a career in garden design. Although of an open and generous nature, at times John can be prickly. I remember when first introduced to him in a social context I was met with an exasperated ‘not another bloody garden designer’; perhaps justifiable in this overcrowded profession.
John Brookes is one of that watershed generation that came to prominence in the 1960s who, like Terence Conran and Habitat transformed the way we live. The seismic change that Brookes instigated, in over twenty books, and countless newspaper and magazine articles was to make people realise that small gardens were about outside living rather than horticulture. Now in his early 80s, he continues to lecture and design gardens, currently in Russia and Louisiana.
Although John has designed over a 1000 gardens in a wide range of styles to suit the practical needs and aspirational requirements of his clients, I have always thought that Denmans reflected his own design philosophy and stylistic preferences.
There is a wonderfully considered balance between bold architectural foliage, clipped evergreens, terracotta pots, perennials and self-seeders. It proves that a garden can have good structure without resorting to the formal layout of Arts and Crafts gardens. The overall effect is of a contemporary informal and relaxed succession of garden spaces.
This is especially true in the Walled Garden where gravel is used for both paths and growing medium. There is no separation between people and plants and this creates a wonderful sense of freedom, as if the plants have broken free from the confines of their beds and borders. The self-seeders give the garden a casual appearance, but look carefully and you will see areas over-run by weeds and ground elder and flaking paint on the blue-painted seats.
I always feel that Denmans is two gardens – the superb Walled Garden, and a more conventional garden of large curvaceous lawns with bold planting of unusual specimens, red and variegated foliage, and architectural feature plants such as yuccas, melianthus and cordylines. This lawned garden is divided by a dry gravel ‘stream bed’ which leads down to a small butyl lined pond with its surprisingly sentimental sculpture of a small boy with fishing rod; not the bold abstract modern sculpture that you would expect.
Garden maintenance has been hugely scaled back since I first visited the garden, and I get the impression that at those times of year when the garden bursts into life the two part-time gardeners struggle to keep the 4 acres up and together. Contracting out the cutting of grass would certainly help to take the pressure off them, but large areas of the borders have been taken over by rampant ground elder.
I can’t understand why if the newly created and neighbouring Sussex Prairie Garden has 15 volunteers, the iconic Denmans has none? Young designers and horticultural students would be falling over themselves to be associated with John Brookes, who still from time to time likes to potter in the garden.
Whereas the garden seems to have lost its way, the cafe restaurant has grown and flourished despite the nasty 1970s faded green plastic chairs and split plastic tables of the outside eating areas, and the loos not having been updated since my first visit over 20 years ago. There is a sad lack of investment in people and in the future and I fear for the long term survival of this inspirational and formerly great garden.
Where: Denmans Garden, Denman’s Lane, Fontwell, Arundel BN18 0SU
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