The Gardens – A brief history: 1855 to the present day
The Hall was designed by the architect of Hyde Park Gardens, John Crake. He was a pupil of the celebrated Georgian architect Decimus Burton and died of tuberculosis in his early 40’s soon after the completion of Fairlight Hall. With the exception of the late Victorian extension on the North wing, the sandstone mock Tudor house is unchanged from its original design, and the garden infrastructure of stone walls, winding entrance drive and circular paths is as laid out in the 1850s. The exceptions to this are the new lawns, Portland stone entrance steps and pond at the front entrance to the Hall completed in 2010. The bronze statue at the front of the house, The Three Graces, is a sculpture by the Brazilian-born artist St Clair de Cemin.
All that remains of the 19th century plantings are some mature specimens of Wellingtonia (Sequoia Dendron giganteum), Monkey Puzzle (Araucaria araucana), Irish Yew (Taxus baccata ‘Fastigiata’), Holm Oak (Quercus ilex) and Portuguese Laurel (Prunus lusitanica). By the late 1990s, Rhodedendron ponticum had overwhelmed considerable areas of the pleasure gardens and woodland, and since 2002, when the current owners bought Fairlight Hall, a large percentage of this invasive, acidifying species has been removed. Now there is wildflower-rich grassland with a mix of native and ornamental deciduous trees. In 2011, the front meadow on the west side of the building was re-graded following the installation of a geo-thermal heating system, and the field re-stocked with Weald Native-Origin Seed harvested by the Weald Meadows Initiative in ancient meadows near Battle. The grounds and surrounding 90-acre estate are Soil Association certified, and all vegetables, fruit and plants grown here comply with stringent Soil Association rules.
Since this organic regime began in 2002, with particular emphasis on soil preparation and maintenance, the increase in bird life, native mammals, insects and wildflower has been exponential. Mowing is minimised, traditional meadowing widespread, and chemical pest controls and fertilisers rejected. Hobby birds, Wasp Spiders, Fire Crests, Solitary bees, Nuthatches, Woodpeckers, Kestrels and Owls are regularly seen and heard. More than 50 bird and bat boxes have been sited throughout the grounds to encourage nesting.
The Tropical Border
Begun in 2007, this a work in progress. As new shrub plantings have gone in, the Victorian Rhododendrons have been gradually pushed back to make more space and light. Unusually, some of the Rhododendron retained here as a windbreak and foil to the bold and exotic planting has not reverted to species, and show more interesting colour and variety. The plantings are both hardy and frost tender in this sheltered spot and approximately 30 per cent of the plants are moved to the green house for winter protection. The more tender plants need a full summer for fresh growth and flower, and the border is often at its best in September. This area of the garden is currently under consideration for a major renovation in 2015.
The Long Border
Widened and re-shaped in 2006, the Long Border is a mixed planting of herbaceous annuals and perennials as well as shrubs and climbing roses. Here the theme is of hot, spicy colours intended to emanate from foliage as much as the flower, and with the aim of pushing the boundaries of seasonal interest by using many North American perrenials and shrubs which often flower later in the season. These strong brushstrokes of colour are also designed for enjoyment at a distance from the upstairs bedrooms of the house.
The Ha-ha Border
The Ha-ha Border, reinstated and widened in 2007, is a young border of exclusively herbaceous plants with the exception of the Yew hedges, the Euonymus japonica aurea ‘lollypops’, climbing roses and ornamental mallus. The yews will be shaped into buttresses and form rooms along this 120-metre border. The colour and texture of the planting is intended to feel gentler, more ‘English’, and less likely to compete with the backdrop of meadows and hills that roll down to the sea. The mixed peony ‘hedge’ which reaches its peak in late May early June, is still establishing itself, and additional varieties are added each year.
The Nursery, Russian Steppes and Walled Garden
The Nursery, just beyond the Stable Block, houses tender plants and extends the planting season with propagation of bedding plants and vegetable seedlings. This is also an area where perennials which have been lifted and divided are heeled in for stock and sale.
Close to the Walled Garden is the newest area in the pleasure gardens, the ‘Russian Steppes’, so called for the stepped slopes down to a sunburst pond, forming a large natural amphitheatre with extensive views to the sea.
Walled Garden restoration began in 2006 with the repair of collapsing walls. In the following two years the designer for the project, Suzanne Watson, oversaw the installation of raised beds, a new glass house and a 40,000-litre subterranean rainwater collection tank. There are multiple rainwater collection tanks around the grounds topped up by natural spring water stored in several ponds on the estate. The Walled Garden amphitheatre has been used for concerts and most recently a performance of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream by students from the Hastings Academy. The garden won a Sussex Heritage Trust renovation award in 2009. There are six part-time gardeners and one full-time gardener