About 10 miles from Rye in East Sussex is the village of Northiam are the house and gardens of Great Dixter. For a small village right up on the northern edge of the county, Northiam packs quite a punch. There are lots of interesting and period properties, a great legend about how Elizabeth I left her slipper here and there is also a steam railway. And if that’s not enough, up a small and unassuming lane, Great Dixter (former home of gardener, prolific writer and TV personality Christopher Lloyd), is a showstopper.
As you pull up in the car park, you know you’re somewhere special. There are panoramic views behind you, and tantalising glimpses over the hedge of Tudor beams and the turrets of oast houses. Run as a charitable trust, Great Dixter describes itself as “an historic house, a garden, a centre of education, and a place of pilgrimage for horticulturists from across the world”
The gardens at Great Dixter
You start with the approach to the house down a central path but quickly turn off to the right to start exploring the gardens. And what a sanctuary from the outside world these are. The first stop is the Sunk Garden, with a walled water feature. Even in early spring, colour, texture and form jostle quietly with one another trying to catch their own reflection in the water, while teasing glimpses of the house and an arched entrance in the wall lead you forward.
This is the beginning of a journey that takes you onwards to the Walled Garden with its pebble mosaic of two dachshunds (pets of Christopher Lloyd) and from where you can take multiple paths. There is a secret Exotic Garden which you discover accidentally when you’re rummaging in an old shed, with huge banana plants reaching to the skies.
There’s the Long Border with all the quintessentially English classics, the orchard, the topiary cut in the shape of peacocks, complex vegetable and flower beds in a labyrinth of neatly trimmed hedges and yew arches, and winding paths, steps, and corners. There are also barns, meadows, wildflowers, the lazy bows of wisteria, and in spring, the upright peaks of Magnolia. There are curves, straight lines, sloping valleys, lots of old features, and some new. The gardens are Grade I listed in the National Register of Historic Parks and Gardens and a wonderful place to while away a few hours in this little corner of East Sussex.
The house at Great Dixter
As you discover new parts of the gardens, so you also see different aspects of Great Dixter house whose benign presence seems to call softly to you to come on inside. To visit the house costs a little extra but it’s well worth it. You’re not allowed to take photographs inside, and I’m pleased about that because it means you enter with a blank canvas of expectation. Only three rooms were open to visit in April (there are students living in the other parts of the house but they do sometimes open them for special events). However, only three rooms notwithstanding, they have a real wow factor.
The Great Hall
You enter into the Great Hall via a porch that has a happily untidy pile of wellie boots lining the side. The house itself is a little complicated because it is actually three houses combined. There is this (the Great Hall), a 16th century Yeoman’s House that was actually built in nearby Benenden and transported to Dixter in 1910, and a third part of the house built in 1912.
The hall is vast and has a unique combination of Medieval gravitas and Edwardian charm! It was built in approximately 1450 and has a high vaulted ceiling, long wooden beans (there’s a 25-foot-long oak beam), and rare hammer beams. It feels light and fresh but warm too, with tall palms against long windows that overlook the gardens. In short, it is enchanting. The guides bubble over with infectious enthusiasm and explain the carved coats of arms, the pagan symbols carved in the door, and a squint window high up in the wall. That’s what the masters of the house would have looked through to survey the masses who would have slept in this magnificent hall. The roof used to be of Horsham slate from West Sussex, a quarry I personally know well and I love that sense of joining the dots of Sussex.
In 1411, the estate at Great Dixter was owned by one Robert de Etchingham and Robert’s daughter, Elizabeth, married Richard Wakehurst, who built the present hall. And yes, that’s Wakehurst of Wakehurst Place fame. More dot joining. By 1595, it was owned by a John Glydd and thereafter it passed through various hands until 1910 when it was bought by successful businessman Nathaniel Lloyd and his wife Daisy (Christopher Lloyd’s parents). Between 1910 and 1912, Lloyd engaged Lutyens to carry out a complete refurbishment and renovation of both the house and the gardens. Lutyens was a renowned architect who had some incredible projects to his name including a number of New Delhi’s more prestigious buildings and a refurbishment of Lindisfarne Castle.
From the Great Hall, you move to the Parlour and the guides bring alive the fascinating Lloyd family with vivid descriptions of the family life and the personalities that went into creating the house and gardens that they are today. You get to know Daisy Lloyd and also learn about some of the changes that were made to the house by John Glydd in his day. There is centuries-old graffiti engraved in a beam, a writing desk and a warm comforting fire.
The Solar Room
From the Parlour, you climb the stairs to the Solar Room. This is the room from which the masters would have looked down on their peasants but today it has a tremendous feeling of warmth, welcome, and grand charm. It’s here you meet (if only in spirit) Christopher Lloyd as it’s full of his personality, with books lining the walls, lofty views of the grounds both front and back, and two chairs pulled up by the grand fire. Although Christopher Lloyd died in 2006, it feels like he has just popped out for a while.
There really is something very special about Great Dixter in East Sussex. If you find yourself in this part of the world, make time to stop by. Or in fact, you might want to make time to find yourself in this part of the world.
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