The Lost Garden: discovering Kent's Himalayan garden

Kev Reynolds, author of Walking in Kent, reminisces about taking a walking holiday group to visit a 19th century Himalayan garden in the grounds of a Kent estate.

It would have been in the mid-to-late 1800s, I guess, when Sir Henry came back from Sikkim with a collection of Himalayan plants for his hilltop garden in Kent. Joseph Dalton Hooker had beaten him to it by a few years, but those that Hooker brought back were destined for the botanical big-wigs at Kew. Sir Henry’s were for his own small estate, so he could admire them every time he walked out of the house. Most of the rhododendrons and magnolias would take years to mature, but he was content to know that future generations carrying the family name would gain pleasure from them on his behalf.

The orchids, primulas and dwarf azaleas were different. They threw down their roots and blossomed as though Darjeeling was just down the road. As Sir Henry proclaimed: ‘One plants flowers for today, but trees are gifts for the future.’

Himalayan garden magnolia
Magnolia (illustration by Clare Crooke)

I’d been shown an album of faded, sepia-tinted photographs of Sir Henry supervising a dozen labourers as they created the Himalayan garden of his dreams. It was an ambitious project, but the old man was obviously proud (and justifiably so) of his achievement when the landscaping was completed and the plants were established at last in the Kentish greensand.

Successive generations had tended the garden with mixed success which owed as much to the enthusiasm of the owner of the house at the time (a minor mansion with pretence of something more grand), as it was on their financial resources.

By the mid-1980s, the family’s fortunes were in a dire state and things were not looking good – for the house or for the garden. The latest in the line of Sir Henry’s family had become physically disabled in a riding accident, and the cost of his care was eating into what was left of his inheritance. His wife (I call her Lady Jane, although that’s not her real name) was desperate to keep the house within the family for she felt she owed it to the past, but it was all she could do to put food on the table and heat a couple of rooms in winter. There was no money to spare for maintaining either the garden or the house in a proper state.

One summer I found myself leading a walking holiday for a group of ‘seniors’ from the USA. A jolly bunch, they stayed in a five-star hotel, and each day I arranged for a small coach to collect them for the drive to the start of my chosen route, then pick them up at a strategic point in the late afternoon when our walk was done. On alternate days we’d either have a simple pub lunch in an Olde English Inn with low beams and horse brasses, or a picnic prepared by my wife. On picnic days I’d carry nine small bottles of white wine in my rucksack, along with the sandwiches, salads and slices of home-made cake.

Afternoon tea with Lady Jane (illustration by Clare Crooke)

It rained most days, but they accepted that as being typically British. I never heard a single complaint, not even when one of the women got too close to some nettles and was badly stung on the face. She’d never seen stinging nettles before.

They were intrigued by the stiles. They’d never experienced anything like these either, and for the first couple of days they’d shriek with laughter as one arthritic gent managed to get his leg hooked up, leaving him almost suspended upside down. It happened three times, and each time instead of whingeing, he laughed until the tears ran down his cheeks. After that they named the holiday ‘Obstacle Hikes in the English Countryside.’.

I wanted to make their holiday as authentically British as they might imagine the English countryside and way of life to be. As a highlight of the last day’s outing, I took them for afternoon tea with Lady Jane. It would give them something to remember, and perhaps the cost of their visit might help pay for a day’s heating in the house when winter arrived.

Lady Jane played the part of the Grand Dame to perfection. Her cleaning lady became the maid for the day, wearing a black outfit and frilly white apron. It was she who poured the Earl Grey and passed around the tea cakes and scones still hot from the oven, while Lady Jane sat at the head of the table and talked about the family’s history, every so often directing her guests’ gaze towards one gilt-framed portrait after another. The silver cutlery bore the family crest; the crockery was old and delicate. That most of the cups had hairline cracks was part of the charm, but the place would have been closed down had those cups been seen by the Food Standards Inspector. I don’t think my American friends noticed. If they did, no-one lifted an eyebrow, but copied their hostess by raising a little finger when taking a sip from them.

Lady Jane's make-shift maid (illustration by Clare Crooke)

I’m not sure they noticed the thin layer of dust on the window sills either, or the damp stain on the ceiling above the fireplace. The house was in a state of elegant decay, and to fix it would take a lot more money than Lady Jane could lay her hands on.

Tea over, her ladyship rose from her chair and led us to the door. ‘Do take a stroll around the garden,’ she urged. ‘It’s one of the finest in Kent and has a fascinating history. I do hope you’re not put off by the rain. It’s only a light shower.’ And she waved us off from the shelter of the thick stone-arched doorway.

In its hey-day the Himalayan garden must have been quite splendid. It spread out from the drive which ran along the edge of the hill where pine-groves formed circles round straggling jungles of yellow-flowered rhododendrons. The plants tumbled over the now-crumbling edges and spilled into gullies and grooves and small open areas where gentians (so they claimed) would have spread in blankets of blue. Most of the rhodies had finished flowering for the year; their once-scarlet petals now lay damp and forlorn, trapped in a wilderness of old gnarled trunks and broken branches.

The garden’s hey-day had long since passed, and with just one gardener to look after it, it looked rather sorry for itself. One man could not be expected to work miracles on just one day a week, no matter how hard he laboured. I saw him skulking in the bushes, trying to relight his damp, home-rolled cigarette.

I must admit, there wasn’t much to see in the way of a Himalayan garden that wet summer’s afternoon, but with imagination you could picture what it might once have been during that brief long-lost period between those sepia-coloured photographs and today’s reality. It would have been a natural reaction to feel sad for its faded glory. But my Americans were an upbeat bunch, for it was then that I overheard one of the women’s voices come drifting through the drizzle.

‘Oh my!’ she exclaimed. ‘Just think what God could do if he only had some money!’

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