From Physic Garden to Follies

From Physic Garden to Follies

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With extraordinary energy, the Trust implemented a number of restoration projects over the next 15 years, backed by benefactors introduced by John McCarthy.

The first, in 1981, was the creation of a Physic Garden at Michelham Priory, founded in 1229, to complement the Tudor kitchen garden and stew ponds, which had been restored by the Sussex Archaeological Society.

This was funded with a personal donation from John McCarthy. Bil designed the concept for the garden, which was constructed by five young men on a youth training scheme.

The second project was of an entirely different order, restoring the 18th-century follies built between 1797 and 1810 by Sir Robert Smirke for ‘Mad Jack' Fuller at Brightling Park. Between 1981 and 1985, the Trust brought the semi-circular Coade stone summerhouse, a Doric temple, an obelisk (the Brightling Needle) and a hermit's tower back to life.

At Brickwall House in Northiam (one of Sussex's finest timbered Tudor houses), Bil designed a new garden that paid tribute to the 300-year tradition of topiary on the site. Home to many generations of the Frewen family, the house had become a school in 1918, and the Trust, as well as helping to preserve the existing topiary heritage, wanted a new design that reflected more recent scholastic tradition.

The Chess Garden, Brickwall House

Bil's design for a ‘Chess Garden' used a grid of Sussex bricks set with black and white gravel in alternating squares. The black chessmen were represented by Taxus baccata, while Taxus aureawas used for the white pieces. More than 20 years on, the garden still proves a draw for many visitors under the National Gardens Scheme.

Other gardens given help by the Trust include Bateman's and Great Dixter , but the project closest to Bil's heart was the creation of an appropriate setting for the Royal Pavilion at Brighton. The pavilion itself was being restored in the early 1980s, but the surrounding gardens were distinctly ‘municipal' in character and bore no relation to the building.

Two schemes had been drawn up for the grounds originally, one by Humphry Repton and the second by John Nash, who had designed the building itself, but neither plan had ever been carried out. It was, as Bil puts it: ‘A jewel without a setting.'

After much deliberation, Nash's flowing plan in the English landscape style was chosen, and work got under way in 1984, led by Bil. The project had a working committee of its own, and Bil's ‘people' skills again came to the fore in handling the differing interests of all those involved - six of whom came from different departments of the borough council alone!

The Regency Garden, Brighton Royal Pavilion

Alongside their restoration work, the Trust held conferences to spread good practice.

Those at Kew and West Dean College attracted many representatives from other county councils and heritage bodies, and before long, Bil began to field requests for guidance and assistance in forming other trusts.

The foundation of the Historic Gardens Trust (Sussex) was a spark to a flame, and within four years another 17 county gardens trusts had been established as the national movement for the conservation of historic gardens took shape.

PRIVATE PRACTICE