Denmans Gardens is at Fontwell, West Sussex just off the A27. It’s got a fantastic reputation (as well as a great little café – Midpines) and is well worth a pitstop. It feels like a bit of a lost wonderland, and I had been following their compelling social media posts for sometime before I managed a visit.
Joining the dots and a bit of background
One of the joys of my romps around Sussex is discovering the many ways the different parts and people of our county are connected. The name Denman always rings a faint bell in my head because the first Baron Denman was a lawyer and judge, and was Lord Chief Justice from 1832 to 1850. Memories from my long-ago legal career and having to read (and understand) his judgments.
The third baron (the first baron’s great-grandnephew) was a politician who served as the fifth Governor-General of Australia from 1911 to 1914. He was also one time owner of Denmans Gardens although they were sold by him in 1903. That same year he married Gertrude (née Pearson) from Balcombe Place, near Haywards Heath. Her father was Weetman Pearson, 1st Viscount Cowdray (yes the Midhurst Cowdray). Gertrude was a lady of progressive ideas about women’s place and roles within society. I think I would have liked her but I wish I could have seen the estate way back when and before it was first sold.
A bit about the gardens
The garden and its manor house were requisitioned during World War II. Thereafter, sadly the house was sold and the gardens turned into a market garden serving Covent Garden and other local markets. Between 1947 and 1985, the then-owner, Joyce Robinson, began developing Denmans into an ornamental garden creating gravel gardens, and planting unusual and interesting plants in the Walled Garden. Joyce was an accomplished, self-taught plantswoman and horticulturalist. In the early 1980s, the garden came under the management of John Brookes, an internationally-renowned landscape designer (he was also a writer and teacher), who continued working at the garden until his death in 2018. Brookes discovered Denmans through the NGS open gardens scheme. He also renovated the old stable block which he named Clock House, and started his own Clock House School of Design.
In 2017, Gwendolyn van Paasschen purchased the garden, setting up the John Brookes-Denmans Foundation and beginning restoration work which is ongoing. Denmans was added to Historic England’s Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest at grade II in August 2020. The garden won Gold in the 2021 South and Southeast East in Bloom Competition, and was named a Finalist in the RHS Partner Garden of the Year 2021 competition.
What to expect
The gardens are spread over 4 acres garden with unusual plants, ponds, a walled garden, and a conservatory. There are also blue timber benches and sculptures to spot and a notable sense of calm and tranquillity along with the many gravel gardens. Joyce Robinson pioneered abundant, naturalistic planting and gravel gardening, and she described her style and garden as ‘glorious disarray’. The sort of style that looks utterly effortless but you know takes hours of hard work to achieve.
As you move from one area to another, it almost feels like you’re moving from one country to another. It feels both quintessentially English but also exotic at the same time. There’s an abundance of wildlife and the dragonflies at the lower pond are mesmerising. Back towards the cottage, and you want to pull up a chair and chat with those from times bygone, or read a book in the greenhouse while you shelter from the rain.
Whether you’re exploring this part of the south coast, or looking for either gardening inspiration or a moment of calm, Denmans is worth a deviation and an hour or so of your time. The garden is open Monday to Saturday 9.30 am – 4 pm and Sunday 11 am – 4 pm. Admission is £9 per adult and £7 for children and concessions (60+).
If you like this post about Denmans Gardens, you may also like: