William Robinson and the Path to Chelsea

The soft grey stone of Gravetye Manor sits perfectly, nestled in the glorious rolling woodland landscape that surrounds this beautiful hotel and restaurant, which was once home to the revolutionary gardener, William Robinson. Born in Ireland, William Robinson pioneered the concept of the English Country Garden, challenging the formal and rigid gardening styles of the day in favour of a more natural approach to planting. He was a true advocate of harnessing the simple but powerful principle of what grows best where and for best effect. His books, ‘The Wild Garden’ and ‘The English Flower Garden’ remain horticultural best sellers to this day and essential companions to keen gardeners everywhere. Perhaps less well-known than some of his contemporaries, including his great friend, Gertrude Jekyll, as well as William Morris, Charles Darwin and John Ruskin, he was no less a ground breaker, even instrumental in the introduction of everyday garden tools we take for granted today like secateurs and hose pipes, as well as applying his garden principles even to urban churchyards and cemeteries!

Enduring Garden Principles of William Robinson

  • The use of Alpine Plants in Rock Gardens
  • Dense planting of Perennials in Borders
  • Use of ground cover plants that leave no bare soil
  • Planting of natural drifts within the landscape

If you need further living proof of his continuing inspiration, celebrated garden designer, Sarah Eberle is using his abiding principles and working with Gravetye Manor and Forestry England to create ‘The Resilience Garden’ at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show this May. She explains that “The garden investigates how planting a greater diversity of species is an essential exercise in ensuring our gardens and landscapes are healthy for generations to come” and with true echoes of William Robinson, she says “I’d like to see this garden impress, inspire debate and spur people into action.”

The garden, which is commissioned by the Forestry Commission and supported by the William Robinson Trust and major sponsors, the Gravetye Manor Hotel and Restaurant and the nearby Kingscote Wine Estate, which was once part of Robinson’s estate, celebrates 100 years of forestry but also looks to the future and addressing the big challenges around climate change, tree health and resilience and the protection of the nation’s forests.

William Robinson famously nurtured and cultivated the entire landscape across both, what are now the Gravetye Manor, Forestry Commission managed land and the Kingscote Estate – In fact more than eight lithographs of scenes in his published Gravetye Manor diaries were from land that now forms the Kingscote Estate and tt was very much a part of his extended ‘playground’ from Gravetye.

Furthermore, ‘The Resilience Garden’s’ focus on sustainability and adjusting to climate change while protecting our natural surroundings, is an ethos that Kingscote too feel strongly about.

Since William Robinson bequeathed over 1,000 acres of woodland on his estate to the Forestry Commission, including Gravetye and Kingscote, and continues to drive a passion for the ongoing restoration of his garden at Gravetye Manor, I can’t help but think he would smile and be rather proud of this ongoing legacy today.

William Robinsons Legacy at Gravetye Manor Today

  • The Oval Shaped Walled Kitchen Garden
  • William Robinson’s beloved Waterlilies in his original tank in the Flower Garden, including hybrid Robinsoniana, created for Robinson by Latour-Marliac, contemporary of Monet.
  • An Extensive Collection of Heathers
  • The Mixed Perennial Border
  • Several acres of Wildflower meadow, still complete with species introduced by Robinson
  • The Cherry Lawn, with trees established by Robinson, as well as new species introduced by the
    current Gravetye Manor Garden team
  • The Croquet Lawn, also known as ‘The Playground’ by Robinson. An important stretch of formality to offset the ‘Wild Garden’ concept. Robinson welcomed the local school to play and have tea on the lawn every year, a tradition that is maintained today

Where the Resilience Garden focuses very much on the future, so too do Wakehurst today with their outstanding work in the preservation of seeds for the nation through its Millennium Seed Bank and its current exhibition ‘Surviving or Thriving’ that looks at plants and us and the state of the world’s plants and what this means for the future, based on their pioneering annual science reports.

Key Highlights on a Visit to Wakehurst

  • Bloomers Valley Restoration Meadow & Coronation Meadow
  • Coates & Horsebridge Woods with the magnificent trees of Australasia, North & South America
  • The Himalayan Glade in Westwood Wood with the glorious Rhododendrons
  • Bethlehem Wood with its Silver Birches and carpet of Spring Bluebells