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Charleston Manor


Charleston Manor has a garden inspired and influenced by Vita Sackville-West, Gertrude Jekyll and Sir Harold Hillier. The garden, which occupies about 4 hectares and was laid out in the 1930s, is divided into several areas and features abundant planting. The garden sits in a wider landscape of wooded grounds and farmland of 23 hectares.


Valley floor
The following is from the Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest. For the most up-to-date Register entry, please visit the The National Heritage List for England (NHLE):

Formal and informal gardens surrounding the former home of the painter, Sir Oswald Birley, laid out in the 1930s by the architect and garden designer Walter Hines Godfrey and planted by Sir Oswald and Lady Birley.



Charleston Manor lies on the east side of the narrow road which runs north/south along the eastern edge of the Cuckmere valley, c 1km north of West Dean and 1km south of Littlington village. The 4ha garden is concealed within Charleston Bottom, a narrow, west-facing combe of the South Downs. The garden occupies the valley floor and extends up the north-facing side of the combe, above which lies Friston Forest. The South Downs Way runs north to south along the eastern edge of the garden. The boundaries of the present garden were established by the end of the C18, the Tithe map of 1840 showing the narrow belt of woodland which now encloses the garden on its southern boundary, while the belts to the north and east are shown established on the 1st edition OS map surveyed 1873-5.


The garden is concealed from the public road by timber-panelled fencing and entered through a single, timber gate. A pair of flint-fronted cottages, also by Godfrey's practice, sit on the high bank north of the entrance. From the gate, the gravelled drive, established on its present line from at least the early C19, and lined with Irish yews (the present ones are a replacement for Godfrey's original plants), follows a route for some 250m eastwards towards the house. The drive is enclosed along its length by a steep, wooded bank on its north side and by a 1.8m high flint wall on the south side.


The Manor house (listed grade II*) lies in the centre of the narrow valley floor, towards the eastern end of the site, its eastern elevation overlooking the Tithe barn (two end-to-end barns of C18 or earlier origin and listed grade II*), which stands some 25m across the lawn to the north-east. Sir Oswald Birley used part of the barn as his studio and one was used by the Birleys to house performances for the Charleston festival. The Norman hall, of Caen stone, with a rare two-light window (revealed by Godfrey), forms the core of the present house, the second wing being added in the C16. The north front of the house, the separate stable block to its north (used by the Birleys as an exhibition gallery and as studio accommodation and listed grade II), and the Garden House (listed grade II) attached to the walled garden west of the house, are all C18 additions. These buildings form a visual group at the head of the drive.


The gardens are laid out largely following Walter Godfrey's design precept of its areas being characterised by privacy and variety, 'self-contained, sheltered and generally unapproached save by well-planned paths and archways' (Godfrey 1914). Between 1932 and 1934, Godfrey laid out the overall hard and soft structure of the garden while the Birleys were responsible for the majority of the ornamental planting.

On the south side of the drive and screened by the wall lies the lake, set in open grass with a sparse scatter of trees. There are willows on its banks and a central island. The lake was an established feature by the end of the C18 when it was larger, extending eastwards almost to the westernmost walled orchard. By the early C20 it had reverted to marshland. The Birleys were probably responsible for its restoration and reduction in size and also for the tennis court, partially screened by a tall beech hedge, which lies to its south-east. Further eastwards, beyond the lake and the lawns, lies the walled orchard containing the Birleys' collection of climbing and rambling rose varieties, planted to grow through fruit trees and over a series of arched frames spanning the central brick walk. This garden was laid out as an orchard by the 1870s.

Immediately west of the house, the drive forks at a small triangular green with a blue cedar, planted in 1990. The northern fork leads to the stable block on the north side of the drive, enclosed on three sides by the continuation of the mixed woodland belt. The southern fork leads, via Godfrey's brick piers topped with urns, into the walled forecourt of the north front of the house. This contains a central circular lawn and an outer border edged with box. The entrance gates, hung by the present owners in 1996, are flanked by mature Irish yew and Magnolia grandiflora. To the south of the triangular green is the Garden House with its own walled garden on its south side laid out in a formal arrangement of a stone-edged pool and four rectangular beds filled with a great variety of herbaceous plants. Roses and other shrubs grow against the walls. A central east/west walk, passing through wrought-iron gates, connects this garden with the walled orchard to the west.

To the east of the house, and separated from its forecourt by the high east wall, is the extensive lawn, backed by the full length of the Tithe barn along the north side. A border with grey and silver-leaved planting runs along the foot of the barn walls which are clothed with roses and wall shrubs. At the west end, the house is linked to the lawn by a paved terrace shaded by a tall, wide-spreading yew and a flight of Godfrey's typical circular paved steps. The lawn is enclosed by a high yew hedge and a wrought-iron gate at the east end and is overlooked along the whole of its south side by a series of ascending terraces lined with yew hedges. The broadest terrace is laid to grass with two rectangular box-edged, planted compartments. The highest level of the terraces extends as a grass walk running east/west above and behind the house to the round dovecote (listed grade II), possibly dating from the C13. On the sloping lawn to the north below the dovecote, species roses, some surviving from the Birleys' planting and including hybrid musks, are planted as specimens. Above the terraces and dovecote, the rising slope of the combe to the enclosing woodland at the top is managed largely as open meadow with wild flowers and spring bulbs. A laburnum tunnel-arbour is laid out up the slope opposite a gate in the south wall of the orchard.

Beyond the eastern end of the Tithe barn lawn, through the wrought-iron gate, there is an avenue of topiaried yew and the remnants of a second orchard, probably part of the Birleys' planting design. The steep, wooded slope rising to the south-east contains remnants of a rockery, now partly planted as a fernery. The present (1996) owners are currently undertaking considerable renovation to the woodland on the site and replacing trees lost through storm damage in 1987 and 1990 and through Dutch elm disease.


The kitchen garden is laid out at the far western end of the north-facing valley side, overlooking the lake. Godfrey was recalled in 1938 to build it and design its layout. The surrounding brick walls are faced with flint on the outside and the round-topped entrance doors are of timber. The garden is quartered by gravel paths, with a glazed timber greenhouse and vinery beside the north wall. The garden is laid partly to grass and partly to the cultivation of vegetables, soft fruit and cut flowers.


W H Godfrey, Gardens in the Making (1914)

Country Life, 131 (31 May 1962), pp 1286-1288; 160 (5 August 1976), pp 350-353

I Nairn and N Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Sussex (1965), p 622

T Wright, Gardens of Britain 4, (1978), pp 124-130

D Ottewill, The Edwardian Garden (1989), pp 200, 222

Charleston Manor, Review of Garden History and Restoration Proposals, (Landskip & Prospect 1990)


Tithe map for West Dean parish, 1840 (East Sussex Record Office)

OS 6" to 1 mile: 1st edition surveyed 1873-1874

2nd edition published 1899

OS 25" to 1 mile: 3rd edition published 1928

4th edition published 1938

Description written: December 1996

Amended: October 1997

Edited: March 2000

Visitor Access, Directions & Contacts

The following is from the Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest. For the most up-to-date Register entry, please visit the The National Heritage List for England (NHLE):


The present Manor was established on the site by at least the 12th century and was recorded in Domesday Book as Carlestone. Charleston functioned as an agricultural farmstead, tenanted during the 19th century and then in use as labourers' accommodation before standing empty in 1931.

The painter Sir Oswald Birley (1880-1952) and his wife bought Charleston in that year and in 1932 commissioned the architect and garden designer Walter Hindes Godfrey (1881-1961) to refurbish the house and lay out the garden. The Birleys established the Sussex (later the Charleston) festival at the Manor which continued until the house was sold in 1980 after Lady Birley's death. The property has changed hands several times since but the gardens survive largely as designed by Walter Godfrey with the present (1996) private owners continuing the tradition of the annual music festival.


  • 20th Century (1901 to 1932)
  • Early 20th Century (1901 to 1932)
Associated People
Features & Designations


  • The National Heritage List for England: Register of Parks and Gardens

  • Reference: GD1061
  • Grade: II*


  • Gardens
  • Landscape garden
  • Planting
  • House
Key Information





Principal Building

Domestic / Residential


20th Century (1901 to 1932)





Open to the public


Civil Parish

Cuckmere Valley