Tucked behind a flint stone wall in Bramber is a house and gardens that have mystery, romance, history and personal narrative threaded into every stone, leaf, and timber. It’s a place that shimmers gently in the summer sun with nostalgia and elegance, only outshone by the charm and eloquence of its two owners, author and composer Peter Thorogood and Curator and designer Roger Linton. There are few places left in Sussex which grasp you by the very soul and draw you so completely in, but St Mary’s is one of them. Every tree seems to tell a story and every room seems to hold a secret.
A brief history of the house
The house was shut as a result of Covid restrictions when I visited but will open again in August. I plan to revisit when I can and until I do, I can’t claim to do it justice. Its story is for another day but if I tell you that it has links to the Knights Templar, medieval monks, Queen Elizabeth I, Charles II, Oscar Wilde and even Sherlock Holmes, you’ll start to get a feel for its spectacular provenance. Add to that, stories of hidden chapels, elaborate trompe l’oeil panels, an extraordinary octagonal room, and a labyrinth of stories which feel inextricably linked to the current owners, and you’ll be caught by the charisma and magic that the house seems to exude.
The gardens have all the romance of the Lost Gardens of Heligan. Forgotten and abandoned for many decades, the current owners have spent the last forty years reacquiring land sold and restoring land neglected. And the result is enchanting.
The house is at first hidden as you approach and then it slowly comes into view hovering over a water feature reminiscent of the waterways it once watched over. Hollyhocks punctuate its timber frame and rambling roses hang heavy on the gate. It creates a feeling of discovery, as the pathway leads you around the side to a secluded terrace garden, guarded quietly by a vast magnolia and peppered with red canna lilies, spikes of campanula, clusters of roses and geraniums and other achingly English summer flowers.
It is a step back in time and if you listen carefully, surely you can hear the long-forgotten thwack of a croquet mallet and the rustle of Victorian skirts hurrying across the lawns. Or perhaps it’s an Edwardian house party that emerges onto the terrace full of laughter and innocence about the years ahead or a medieval monk, head bowed in prayer. Here you’ll also find the rare Ginkgo Biloba – a two hundred-year-old beauty and a rare example of what’s also called a Living Fossil tree and you can’t help but wonder how many people have stood under its branches.
A secret garden
The gardens cover a total of five acres and you wind your way past ancient trees happily neglected, to the magnificent walled kitchen garden which would have worked so hard to serve the house in Victorian times, but which lay forgotten for so long. Pineapple beds burst with herbs such as as fennel and sage, and fruit trees line the wall.
Ahead lies thoughtfully laid out formal gardens, grass walks and hedonistic borders. Geometric precision meets gentle abundance, with a clipped hedge as a backdrop to clematis, roses and lavender. It’s magical and evocative in equal measure.
Pass through a faded wooden gate to the old potting shed which now holds a formidable and fascinating collection of memorabilia and artifacts. A Governess’ trap, an old photograph of the owner’s father at Borough Market, a cherished hat, Victorian gardening tools. You could linger here a long time soaking up the past.
The secret garden leads on to a poetry garden down a mysterious alleyway of yew and round to a pond with an island and a lightly wooded area. Every tree, every hedge, every display seems to have its own story to tell, creating a narrative between owners past and present, and the landscape.
Peter and Roger, along with their families, have made it a life’s work to save and restore St Mary’s. I’m not surprised as it’s the sort of place that you never want to leave. If you’re lucky, you may meet them wandering in the gardens and their vast knowledge and great charm will sweep you up and carry you through the centuries. St Mary’s is in their blood after all.
They have set up a charitable trust so that the house and gardens can be preserved long after they’ve gone. You can find out more about visiting the gardens or making a donation at www.stmarysbramber.co.uk