Notes for the Open Day

Andrew Doig’s edited notes for the tour guides on the NGS Open Day:

About the Kemp Town Estate and the Enclosures:

The gardens were enclosed in 1823 as the centrepiece of Thomas Read Kemp’s speculative development, The Kemp Town Estate. Kemp was the MP for Lewes and local landowner whose land included this cliff top location a mile or so from the fishing village of Brighton. Brighton had become favoured by aristocratic society as a seaside resort in the late 18th century and this was greatly accelerated by the choice of Brighton by the Prince Regent for his seaside home at the Royal Pavilion. Kemp saw an opportunity to develop his land to provide the sort of houses that the newly emerging middle class would want, where they could live amongst other notable and aspiring families, and entertain on a scale that would have been impossible in the stock of fishermen’s cottages that the town had to offer at the time. The development of Brunswick Square and Adelaide Crescent in Hove, aimed at the same market, came after the early success of Kemp’s development here. 

His square, crescent and terraces were to be lined with houses presenting terraces of unified elevations giving the appearance of palaces. In order to attract purchasers to this new town, separated from the old town by open fields, he arranged with builders to take building plots and erect, as quickly as possible, the houses as bare carcases, but with front elevations finished to present the grand unified facades to potential occupiers. This was achieved by 1828 and the gardens were then laid out to complete the effect. Only later did the houses in carcase become habitable homes as and when purchasers or tenants were found for them.     

There are 105 houses around the gardens with a central square, Sussex Square, issuing into a grand crescent, Lewes Crescent, which spans 840 feet and is larger even than the Royal Crescent in Bath. It is flanked by two wings: Arundel Terrace and Chichester Terrace. The original Enclosures extended from these gardens right down to the shoreline, including the Esplanade. That land was acquired by the Brighton Corporation for public use and nowadays the Enclosures extends to just 7.5 acres.

Right from the start, the gardens were managed by a committee formed by the residents who pay annual charges to fund the gardens’ maintenance. The current annual charge is £930 per house. Residents who pay the annual charges are entitled to have keys to the gardens. 

The social history of the gardens

Right from the start, the Estate attracted the great and the good of the period. The 6th Duke of Devonshire built his seaside home here (1 Lewes Crescent and the houses either side), to be near the Court when in Brighton. The Marquis of Bristol built a grand house here on two plots at 19-20 Sussex Square, while in the opposite corner of the Square, Lawrence and Lady Jane Peel established an impressive home at 32 Sussex Square. The Peels were close friends of the French Royal family and also close to William IV’s wife, Queen Adelaide. 

On one occasion in 1838 the young unmarried Queen Victoria came with her mother and walked on the Esplanade and up through the tunnel and into the gardens. The Queen married in 1840 and two years later, on her first visit to Brighton with her husband, Victoria and Albert walked in the gardens, the residents having been asked by the Gardens Committee not to intrude upon the Royal couple.

In the next year, the Queen and the Prince walked in the gardens twice, the first time accompanied by the King Louis Phillipe’s son, who was paying them a visit at the time, and on the second occasion, when they left their three children, including the future Edward VII, in the gardens while they drove on to Rottingdean and back.  In 1844 the children came to Brighton, without their parents and visited the gardens almost every day during their visit.

The exiled French Royal Family settled at Claremont, Surrey, but twice visited the Estate. Once in 1849 and again in 1850, when the French Queen was advised to take the sea air for her health. The Marquis of Bristol invited them to use his house at Sussex Square and they came to stay for two weeks. Louis-Phillipe and his family walked almost every day on the Chain Pier and occasionally in these gardens in the company of the Duke of Devonshire and the Peels. 

More than half a century later, in February 1908, Edward VII stayed for a week at 1 Lewes Crescent, then the home of Princess Louise, his eldest daughter. He was convalescing after a short illness. The gardens committee asked residents to give over for the King’s exclusive use, the gardens and the Esplanade onto the sea front which was at that time private to the Estate.  

While many of the Estate’s residents were able to see the King from their first-floor drawing rooms overlooking the gardens, the townspeople were not so fortunate and crowds came out from the town to catch a glimpse of the King coming and going from Lewes Crescent or walking in the gardens. 

During the First World War a number of the Estate’s houses were converted to use as hospitals and convalescent homes for wounded soldiers. The wounded officers were given access to the gardens. Access for the other ranks was confined to the Esplanade, accessed by crossing the road and using the steps down.

The Estate has always attracted famous people, including in the 1950’s, Anna Neagle, the film star who came to live at 19 Lewes Crescent with her film producer husband, Herbert Wilcox. More recently in 2003, Cate Blanchett came to live at 23 Lewes Crescent, returning to Australia only a few years later. Nick Cave, the Australian rock musician, now lives in Lewes Crescent and Stephen Berkoff the stage actor lives in Arundel Terrace. Kylie Minogue has stayed here several times over recent years as the guest of a Lewes Crescent resident.   

About the history of the gardens

These private town gardens, were laid out for the residents of the Kemp Town Estate by Henry Phillips, Brighton’s notable early 19th Century horticultural writer and landscape gardener, with Henry Kendall, a surveyor who built some of the houses here. Their design is contemporary with John Nash’s design for the Royal Pavilion’s gardens.

At the time, the English landscape garden tradition exemplified by the work of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, was giving way to a more intimate and picturesque style mirroring developments in landscape painting at the time. ‘Capability’ Brown had given his aristocratic clients vistas of lawns, adorned by groups of trees, sweeping down to newly-made lakes with glimpses of classical temples and bridges seen from a grand country house. 

This style was being succeeded in the Regency period by gardens of a more intimate scale, reflecting the smaller scale of domestic architecture employed for the huge growth in middle class urban and suburban living from the start of the 19th Century. Here gardens and buildings were more closely associated and both of a smaller scale. These gardens were designed to complement the white stucco terraces of the new Estate that surround them and form their backdrop. 

The design of the gardens is part of the transition in gardening styles of the period. The emerging Regency style was essentially naturalistic and romantic, with loose shrubberies bordering open lawns and enjoyed from serpentine paths providing walking circuits around a succession of spaces each delivering a picturesque view. Natural groups of trees were positioned in shrubberies or rose from the grass as if glades by the forest edge. The edges of garden spaces were sometimes assigned to a contrived ‘wilderness’, a romantic but highly managed illusion. 

The Regency style of gardening was itself succeeded by the Victorian taste for displays of semi-tender annuals planted out in regimental summer bedding schemes. This came about following the abolition of the Glass Tax in 1851 and the widespread acquisition of glass houses in which to propagate tender plants which followed. This gardening style persisted and was popular with local authority parks and gardens departments until at least the 1960’s.  

Many of the features of Regency gardening are represented in these gardens, particularly the serpentine paths, originally laid out as complete walking circuits, the combination of trees, shrubs and herbaceous planted together as ‘fragrant flowery shrubberies’ set in lawns. Even the longer grass of the wildflower areas hark back to the contrived wilderness of Regency gardens. The Regency fashion for garden follies was represented here by a rustic wooden summerhouse which had been an original feature of Henry Phillip’s layout. It stood in the south-west corner of the gardens until it rotted and was demolished in 1935. The choice of flint facing over the tunnel entrance provides a reminder of the flint grottos of the period. 

In 1995, the gardens, along with Duke’s Mound, were listed in the Register of Historic Parks or Gardens by Historic England: Grade ll. The gardens form part of the Kemp Town Conservation Area which includes the whole Kemp Town Estate. All the buildings facing the enclosures are listed Grade l. 

Managing these seaside gardens

The gardens, sitting on the cliff top, are exposed to the prevailing salt winds. Even at the time of their layout this was recognised by Henry Philips who created a mound to protect a flower garden from the south-westerly winds (Polly Binder copse). He added low walled enclosures (eg the horseshoe garden) to afford residents places to sit out of the wind. These gestures were not enough to sustain shrubs and herbaceous planting, and quite early on, the gardens committee planted euonymus hedges which you see today, particularly along the south and western boundaries. These provide shelter from the winds and also screen off the lines of parked cars and moving traffic on the perimeter roads.

The thin layer of soil here over the chalk cliffs dries out very rapidly. The long-term growth of trees, which are mostly self-sown has resulted in some of the original shrub and flower beds now being in deep shade and deprived of water by the roots of overhanging trees. Some beds have been widened to escape this challenge and, in 2012, a new bed was created out in the open, away from trees but sheltered by hedges, on the Western side of the Lewes Crescent lawn (Jubilee bed) .

A team of two part-time and one full=time gardener now tend the gardens, based in their hidden compound on the East side of the gardens. They are helped by a weekly weeding session from local volunteers, ‘The Voles’. Enriching soil with compost, mowing lawns, clipping hedges and weeding feature heavily in the team’s spring and summer programme, with bigger jobs of eradicating perennial weeds, renewing planting schemes, and maintain the paths and benches occupying the winter months. The team aims to provide colourful displays, particularly where there is shelter from wind. A spring bulb display is followed by other colourful herbaceous planting schemes for the summer and autumn. 

Interest amongst residents in ecology has risen in recent years and the team take care not to disturb nest birds, bats and badgers. Foxes are in residence. Some areas of grass have been set aside for a restricted mowing regime to allow wild flowers to self-seed and multiply. A professional ecological survey is now being conducted as a basis for further nature conservation measures.  

The tunnel, Esplanade, cottages and the second world war

Originally, residents would have been able to stroll from the gardens through the tunnel and out onto the Esplanade, all without leaving the private Enclosures which, at that time extended down to the beach, including Duke’s Mound. At the bottom of the tunnel, there are two cottages: one the East side, a gardener’s cottage and, on the West, a cottage for the constable. These are now in private ownership. The constable, dressed in square-fronted green frock coat with silver buttons and a top hat with a silver band, was employed by the Enclosures ‘to be constantly on the premises, and to keep the whole of the place free from intrusion of all persons whose conduct or appearance seem to justify their exclusion’ (See the notice in the tunnel). The last constable left in 1908.   

Beneath the paved area outside the cottages there is a structure, now open to the elements, which was once enclosed and used as a reading room for residents. At the far Eastern end of the Esplanade is a shelter where residents using the Esplanade could retire from the sun or rain.    

It is legendary that Lewis Carroll, (the Rev Charles Dodgson) was inspired by the gardens in his writing of Alice in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll was a regular visitor to Sussex Square where his Oxford friend, the Reverend Henry Barclay, ran a boys’ prep school at No. 11, between 1871 – 88.  The tunnel in the gardens is said to have been the inspiration for the hole through which Alice fell in Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, so starting her escapades with the Mad Hatter, Queen of Hearts and the Cheshire Cat. The story is undermined by the fact that Alice in Wonderland was published in 1865 but, Rev Henry Barclay, with whom ‘Lewis Carroll’ stayed, didn’t arrive at Sussex Square until 1871.

The last gardener to occupy the Gardener’s Cottage was evicted at short notice by the military in 1942. After Dunkirk, an invasion of the South Coast was expected and so the tunnel was bricked up, the Esplanade and shore front made inaccessible with barbed wire and armed patrols. The Southernmost portion of the gardens was commandeered by the military who set up a huge gun emplacement at the bottom of Lewes Crescent, directing its fire from a viewing tower in the gardens, and protected by pill boxes. The metal railings around the garden were all taken to be melted down for the war effort. During this period and after the war, the Estate fell out of favour and the gardens were in a poor state, their fortunes reviving only in the 1980’s when the Estate became popular once again and residents were willing to fund the proper care of the gardens.

The gardens today

Under the direction of Head Gardener Jeremy Moulsdale, whose sculpture may be seen in the woodland, the gardens have evolved significantly in the last two decades.  Apart from the trees and hedges, virtually nothing is as it was when Jeremy arrived 17 years ago. He designed and created almost all the beds and borders that exist today, aiming at a modern interpretation of a Regency garden and using his skill as an artist to mix shapes, colours and textures to maximum effect. 

The future of the gardens

The present residents of the Estate are the guardians of this garden of national historic significance. We are conducting a review to identify the key elements of our Regency heritage which we need to conserve and also to develop a vision for the gardens in the future which will keep them relevant to their users today and in the future. The gardens will be celebrated by events to mark their 200th anniversary in 2023.

A personal view of the development of the modern garden – from Jeremy

The garden was laid out as a Regency garden. The landscaping including the gravel paths, earth mounds and flint walls are all original and while some of the gravel paths have grassed over the basic structure is still in place. What has changed is the plants, particularly the amount of tree cover. Luckily the Regency style fits very well with modern garden styles, it is relaxed and naturalistic, with flowing paths and curved borders coming out of the lawn. Their ‘shrubberies’ were mixed plantings of shrubs, perennials and annuals, very much like a modern garden.

After the second world war when the gardens were taken over by the military and the railings were removed, the gardens became very overgrown and neglected. The first priority to save the gardens at that time was to restore the railings, which was achieved through much effort in the 60’s. 

For many years after that there was very little money and it was volunteer residents who were given their own ‘patch’ to look after who kept the gardens going. At one point the only job of the part time paid gardener was to burn some of the waste produced by the volunteers. The rest of the waste was stuffed under overgrown bushes and hedges. There was no coordination of planting, as every Volunteer would do their own thing and sometimes disagree. One person would plant irises and somebody else would dig them up and plant roses. (I’ve been told that one formidable lady marched off to bring her framed print of Van Gogh’s irises into the garden to try to prove her point!) 

In the 1987 hurricane the garden lost many of its older trees, particularly the Monterey Cypress trees, which had been a significant feature in the garden. As a response to this, it was decided to consult with an expert on wind protection. On his advice, the South West corner of the garden was planted with a shelter belt of trees.  That shelter belt now contributes significantly to protecting the garden from some of the worst winds. Without the shelter belt I don’t think we would be able to have the Jubilee beds today.

In the 90’s with the garden finances in a better state things started to improve. 

The square border in the woodland was created, although there was some controversy around this as the square style is not sympathetic to the Regency style.

However, I think it was not until 2000 that a full time Gardener was taken on and Donna Taplin became head gardener. She put a lot of useful structures in place which are essential for a garden. She created compost areas and a large bonfire site. She put in more sheds for the mower and tools, and put in a poly tunnel to propagate plants. Then she set to work cutting back a huge amount of overgrown and neglected shrubs, hedges and trees. 

When in 2002 Donna was going on maternity leave, the board decided they could employ another part time gardener. That is when I started working in the garden and was joined a short time later by Ben Borrett.

Despite the work that had already been done, my first impression of the garden was that it seemed a pity to have such a neglected garden in such a magnificent setting. But with Donna in charge, the three of us continued to cut back and renovate as much as possible. Many of the hedges like the southern boundary hedge had never been cut before. It’s hard to believe now, but I also remember when we decided to cut back everything that was growing in the cobbles including big sycamore and elder trees. We also created the children’s play area with the slide together with some new borders. 

In 2006 Donna left and I took over as head gardener. It was a great time to take over because so much chopping back and clearing had been done and I was able to focus more on improving and expanding existing borders and creating new ones.

I continued creating beds, some with new grass paths through the middle like the urn walk and Polly Binder. The biggest new bed that we call the Jubilee garden was created in 2012 and at the same time the original gravel path that had grassed over was restored down the west side of Lewes Crescent. The garden is continually developing, with a new border on the East side of the garden created last winter. The emphasis now is on improving the borders so they flower longer and better through the seasons. 

Managing these seaside gardens

Some of the challenges:

Drought and wind

The biggest single challenge in looking after these gardens is the wind. It is laden with salt and can be very fierce as it is funneled up the garden between the houses. So much of what can be planted depends on the wind, only the toughest plants can survive in the full blast of the wind and as soon as any bit of shelter is created then slightly less tough plants have a chance. The wind has a big influence on how the beds are planted with the stronger plants protecting the more vulnerable ones. However the predominant wind comes from the South West which is unfortunately the same direction as most of the sun, which means that often when the wind is blocked out – so is the sun! And as every gardener knows the most difficult spot to grow anything in the garden is an area of dry shade. So, I am always trying to maximise the areas garden that are both sheltered and sunny. 

Chalk soil

The next challenge is the chalk soil, it is wonderfully light to work with and warms up very quickly in the spring, but it holds almost no water, keeps very few nutrients and it dries out in an instant. We add huge mounts of our own compost and bring in tonnes of mushroom compost every year, but the soil still dries out. There is also a conflict with making the soil too rich, because if the plants grow too lush and tall they will get blown over by that wind! I rarely need to do the Chelsea chop (where you cut back perennials to make them more compact) because the soil is too poor and dry. 

Many of the choices about the how to plant the garden are dictated by the challenging conditions of the site. Any plant that flourishes in this garden is welcome and if it flourishes and flowers for any length of time, it will be planted everywhere! It is often silver leaved plants that can survive well, so I choose colours that blend with them, meaning there are a lot of pinks, blues, purples and white occasionally interrupted by a vibrant burst of orange for contrast. 

Plants are packed together to protect each other from the wind and to help support each other. We don’t have a lot of manpower to stake and tie plants, so anything that can’t look after itself is avoided. I then look for plants that will contrast in leave shape or colour with all the silver. I create lines of defence against the wind, there are very few plants that can be first line of defence, perhaps just 3 large shrubs (like Euonymus Japonica), 3 medium shrubs (like some Hebes) and three small shrubs like Santolina). Behind each successive line there is more choice available. I also try to mix shrubs perennials and annuals as the shrubs can support the other plants and provide winter protection. 

Watering

We try to keep watering to a minimum by kinky growing drought tolerant plants. However we do sometimes water the beds especially if they are new and need too get established. 

Perennial weeds

One of the results of the garden being neglected for so long is that there is a huge amount of perennial weeds particularly bind weed and ground elder. It is so well established through all the old shrubs that it is impossible to remove. The only way to remove it is to take out all the plants especially the shrubs and hedges, leaving the ground fallow for a year and spraying with systemic weed killer. Since we don’t want to do this we have to accept that they will always be here. 

Wild life

The wild animals are one of the great joys of the garden, but as a gardener it can be very frustrating. We have a very active badger set in the garden and the badgers will march through and flatten any planting at random, digging up bulbs and plants, and digging up the lawn. Foxes and squirrels are also destructive in their own ways.

It’s a community garden

With so many residents this needs to be a garden that can handle people playing football, children playing hide and seek, running through the borders etc. it’s not a horticultural display it is a living very actively used garden. 

Ecology

The garden has many different habitats to encourage wild life, the wildflower areas in which we have introduced many native wild flowers, the borders provide a supply of pollen and nectar from spring to winter, the areas of flowering ivy are an important resource. As are other areas where there are butterfly food plants like the nettles by the bonfire, we also have plenty of places for overwintering insects. 

We recently had a phase 1 habitat survey done in order to establish what wildlife is supported in the garden and to learn how we can improve the biodiversity. We don’t yet have the full report, but the ecologists were very impressed with the number and variety of insects, particularly bumble bee and hover fly varieties. It is important to have a healthy population of insects as that is what  supports more wildlife like birds and bats. We will hopefully be able to find out more about them in the future and encourage more. 

The garden today

My aim in the garden today is to respect its Regency origins, while creating a modern garden suitable for today’s residents. At the same time as maximising the potential of the garden for ecological balance and biodiversity. 

The garden is run by a small team supported by a dedicated group of volunteers ‘the voles’ who come once a week to help with weeding and tidying. I am the head gardener although I now work part time. Ben also works part time, he keeps the grass cut helps out with anything and everything. We were joined at the start of last year by a Patrick O’Donnell-Cam who works full time. He encourages me to try new plants that I haven’t used before and his influence can be seen in some of the new borders we created this winter. 

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