‘Peto, build me a pergola!’ The gardens at West Dean.

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The Peto pergola at West Dean gardens

I love the gardens at West Dean, just north of Chichester, for which the Edwardian architect and landscape designer, Harold Peto, designed a stunning pergola for owner and philanthropist Edward James. I met my husband there in 1984, when the gardens were unkempt, the fruit trees overgrown and the Orangery and  Edwardian glasshouses in the walled kitchen garden derelict. In 1991 Jim Buckland and his wife, Sarah Wain, took on the garden and persuaded the Edward James Foundation to splash some cash on restoring it. Every time I visit I come away fizzing with inspiration: the pruned fruit trees, cleverly cordoned up brick walls (a great idea for small gardens),  the violet house, with its whitewashed panes and impossibly sweet fragrance, the serried ranks of rhubarb forcers and perfect cabbages, tomatoes and chillies growing up strings in the glasshouses, and banks of annuals grown for cutting: everything is immaculate, with not a weed or stray leaf in sight. It is a model garden, full of instructive techniques if you look closely. Everything you need to know about pruning and training fruit trees is on show here. I particularly like to see the annuals, grown en bloc so you can really appreciate their size and growing habit.

In May, the curved oak struts of Peto’s pergola are smothered with clematis, including the exotic alba luxurians, with its splashes of lime on white petals, and the fragile lilac-blue Betty Korning which I have now bought for my own garden. She is little slow to get going, apparently. I know how she feels. I am intrigued by Harold Peto.  As a result of a dispute with his business partner he was prevented from working in England for nearly twenty years. Consequently, many of his gardens are abroad, notably in Ireland and the South of France.  His own garden at Iford, where he lived for thirty four years, is set on a steep slope and is possibly his most romantic and personal creation, full of statuary and stonework, much of which he hauled back from the Continent. If you have not been, try to make the journey, checking opening times in advance.  http://www.ifordmanor.co.uk/

I was at West Dean when they were planting the newly restored sunken garden. Five years later, it is looking wonderful. Its restoration makes sense of the pergola which for a long time seemed to stand unconnected to the rest of the garden. Now, you walk up the steps to the edge of the sunken garden and find the pergola stretching ahead of you.

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The Harold Peto Pergola at West Dean Gardens

The Harold Peto Pergola at West Dean Gardens

Take time to notice the details – the stained glass and etched windows, the cobble stone work in the floor, the intricacy of the roof struts and the subtle fragrance of the wisteria.

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West Dean gardens deserve a whole day, for you can also walk through the extensive arboretum, and up onto the Downs from where there are spectacular views of the house below. There are long herbaceous borders flanking the house (not open unless you are studying there – access to the garden and grounds at all times are a sufficient reason for booking one of the numerous stitching and creative workshops) and a wildflower meadow.  There is a cafe serving light lunches and refreshments, and a shop. During the year there are various festivals and events. Jim and Sarah have now left, but I am sure their wonderful legacy will be maintained. They co-wrote a book about restoring the gardens called At West Dean: the creation of an exemplary garden published in 2018.




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