The Woodland Garden and Lower Lake by Gillian Sandham, Trustee & Landscape Gardener

Those of you who walk regularly around Lower Lake may have wondered why so much clearance took place in the green and leafy space between the two lakes, towards the end of 2022. I hope this article helps to explain the reasons for the work we undertook and our plans.

Some of you will know of William Robinson, as well as the history of Gravetye Manor and the two lakes, while others will just enjoy walking in the area and be unfamiliar with its story. The clearance mentioned above is closely related to Robinson.

William Robinson (1838–1935), was a famous gardener and highly successful author who challenged many of the commonplace gardening traditions of his time, and whose ideas for gardens attracted widespread interest in Victorian England because they were in tune with an increasing taste for simplicity, as epitomised by the British Arts and Crafts movement. Robinson restored the nearby manor house and laid out the present gardens and he also enhanced the surrounding of the lakes, and planted woodlands, eventually leaving the whole estate to the nation on his death. The style of the garden immediately surrounding the house, now considered one of the most important historic gardens in England, is classic Arts and Crafts.

Gravetye Manor is a beautiful Elizabethan manor house (Grade 1 listed) and the historic gardens are Grade 2 listed. The house was built in 1598 by a local ironmaster, Richard Infield, and remained in his family until the late 17th century, passing eventually into the hands of trustees. No records survive of the Manor’s history between 1784 and its purchase in 1884 by the renowned writer and gardener William Robinson (1838-1935).

Robinson is best known today for extolling the virtues of the wild garden, and creating a landscape that celebrates nature rather than controls it, and he experimented with this concept on the estate, aiming to enhance the natural beauty of woods and the banks of the lakes rather than coaxing the landscape into more formal styles.

The estate originally extended to 360 acres, but Robinson gradually built it up to 1000 acres. He was not a successful farmer, having become one by default, and he eventually let most of the fields on the estate to other farmers, allowing him to concentrate on his interest in forest and woodland scenery and developing the area around the lakes. Much of the estate was coppiced woodland giving Robinson the opportunity to experiment on a vast scale with planting on the edges, and in cleared spaces, in the woods. Planting in meadows, woodland, and in and around water is taken for granted today, but was revolutionary in Robinson’s time, as was his interest in plants’ habit of growth and their cultural requirements.

Like Upper Lake, now in the hotel grounds, Lower Lake was constructed from a former hammer pond, but we are not sure when. ‘Hammer’ ponds are not natural lakes but dammed streams and rivers, crucial to the Tudor and Stuart iron industry. The water was necessary to cool the iron, and dammed lakes and ponds were used to create a head of water to drive water wheels, and eventually power furnace bellows and steam hammers. Robinson dredged his newly acquired lake and re-shaped the banks in 1885 and 1887, and the brick and concrete dam wall at the north end of the lake was extensively repaired by Robinson in 1889 (and again in 1904). In 1892 he dredged the lake again, netted all the carp to stop them eating the trout, and left a fringe of silt around the edges to enable planting of flag irises, bulrushes and other waterside plants, the descendants of which can still be seen today. He also planted the lake with water lilies, mostly sourced in England at this stage. William Robinson eventually had one of the world’s finest collections of waterlilies on the lakes, many bred by a French friend Monsieur Latour-Marliac in his nursery near Bordeaux, the same man who inspired Monet’s fascination with water lilies at Giverny. He also developed an extensive collection of clematis, an enthusiasm shared by his head gardener Ernest Markham, and Robinson enjoyed wreathing shrubs, trees and hedgerows with this varied climber, many of which were bred at Gravetye. Clematis macropetala ‘Markham’s Pink’ and Clematis texensis ‘Graveye Beauty’ are still popular today. Robinson planted willows near the water’s edge, carefully choosing varieties with colourful winter stems, or interesting summer foliage, and carefully placed trees and shrubs with a good autumn colour throughout the landscape.

In 1893 he created the stone bridge over the stream which connects both lakes, and added a gate to what is today the hotel grounds so that it was possible to walk from the area below the house, and adjacent to Upper Lake, around the whole of Lower Lake. His friend Gertrude Jekyll sent him sacks of bulbs, and in 1896 100,000 daffodils and narcissi were planted around the lake, and a further 80,000 in 1897, again around the lake but also in the woods and in the hedgerows. He also experimented with planting the seeds of trees, shrubs and wildflowers directly into the soil – with very mixed success.

In 1898 he planted a bamboo garden at the head of Lower Lake and further improved the little bridge and surrounding stone structures mentioned above. He chose bamboo to complement the willows.

In Robinson’s day the Lower Lake was much more open and the planting new and low level. Today it is a beautiful tranquil place completely fringed with trees, including a selection of mature exotics and groups of conifers surviving from Robinson’s time. Over the years much of what Robinson planted has disappeared or become overgrown, and we understand more about the behaviour of some plants, like invasive bamboo, than he did when these were new and exciting to him.

William Robinson Gravetye Charity now manages the estate. As part of our mission to share William Robinson’s legacy, the Charity is committed to restoring the area around the lake as funds become available, starting with the creation of a woodland garden in the woody dell next to the High Weald Landscape Trail, at the start of the Lower Lake walk. In the autumn we hope to start this project by improving the soil and replanting the area. We aim to increase biodiversity at the same time as bringing colour, fragrance and texture to this leafy dell. It is not an easy area to plant as it is in a frost pocket, has little depth of soil in some places, and part of the area floods. However, in this first stage we plan to include many of the plants beloved by Robinson. Of the plants which bear his name or that of Gravetye the Summer Snowflake is probably the best known. In 1924, William Robinson gave the name ‘Gravetye Giant’ to an especially robust, tall and floriferous form of Leucojum aestivum which he first noticed among bulbs he had scattered in the woods. This cultivar remains widely available and it’s unbeatable. Being tall and tough it copes well with competitors in woodland. Geranium himalayense ‘Gravetye’ is another as is Anemone nemorosa ‘Robinsoniana’. This beautiful blue wood anemone can be seen growing in spring beside the path around Lower Lake as it would have done in Robinson’s time.

The initial stage of this restoration project was the removal of the bamboo planted by Robinson. Only one variety remained, and it had spread into an unruly mass. This was done in August 2022. The second stage was the removal of self-seeded trees, many of which had become diseased and brittle, and were a potential hazard to anyone walking in the area, as well as to neighbouring healthy trees. Robinson would not have been aware of climate change issues, or the loss of native tree species and wildlife through disease and reduced habitat, but he would certainly have been in favour of our aims to redress the balance. This left the area looking rather as if it had been under attack – it had, but all for a very good reason. At the same time the path down to the area from Main Drive was improved and made safer, and the beginnings of a native hedgerow was planted along the path, much of it by volunteers. New fencing and gates were erected at the same time, and this was extended into the woodland dell where the new garden is planned. Stage 3 was unplanned and came as rather a surprise. Near the gate to the area, if approaching down the path from Main Drive, was a rare tree, Pterocarya fraxinifolia (Caucasian Walnut). This was a venerable tree planted by Robinson and there are very few examples in the UK. As it suckers freely there was a thicket of offspring around it. The ground in the area was very wet this winter, and ivy, scheduled to be removed, had grown up into the crown. It may already have been reaching the end of its lifespan, and its roots may have been compromised, but once there was a fall of snow the extra weight and sodden soil was too much for this lovely old tree, and it fell. To clear it, much of the surrounding vegetation had to be cut back. To lose an old tree is always sad but losing such a rare tree even more so. However, come late spring and warmer weather we have high hopes that the suckers and other vegetation will regenerate.

I hope that this has helped explain what has been going on down in the dell at the head of the lake, and the plans to improve it. It will not be a woodland idyll for a while as we will have to erect deer fencing to prevent them from snacking on young plants and leave it until the plants are strong enough to survive a good bite taken out of them. But, hopefully, in the not-too-distant future the ugly duckling will turn into a swan!

The Gravetye Estate is a large area to look after, and it can come as a shock if one has not passed an area recently to find it completely altered by felling and other clearance. In the woods and around the lake some work will have had to be done speedily because of the discovery of pests and diseases and the need to protect the surrounding planting. Other changes will be routine maintenance or good forestry practice. Rest assured a lot of thought will have gone into these changes. We hope the woodland garden in the dell will be the first step in what will be the long process of improving the planted areas around the lake, both in homage to Willian Robinson, and in celebration of what he left for us to enjoy.

Gillian Sandham

Trustee (and landscape designer)