I’m sure, like me, you’ve often coveted a garden that you’ve visited. Maybe it’s a grand estate with sweeping vistas, or a beautiful garden building that takes your eye or perhaps somewhere that has wonderful planting. What wouldn’t we do to live there? Then, coming down to earth with a bump, we think of the upkeep, the worry, the expense and the crowds. But there’s one place where I think it would all be worthwhile, so if one day you hear that the National Trust announce that the original Scotney Castle has been stolen you’ll know it was me.
Who wouldn’t fall in love with Scotney at first sight? I did within minutes of my first view of the castle across the moat donkey’s years ago and I’ve done so all over again on every subsequent visit, although the last time was probably 8 or 10 years ago. So when to came to choosing somewhere to visit for a birthday treat last weekend Scotney was top of the list, and luckily we managed to get timed tickets.
The big question was, of course, would it it live up to my memories and expectations?
The photos are all mine unless otherwise credited.
Scotney first enters the record in 1137 when it was owned by Lambert de Scoteni but it was Roger de Ashburnham who built a small fortified house there between 1378 and 1380. From the 15thc until 1750 it was in the hands of the Darrell family. They were Catholics and from 1591 to 1598 Scotney was the illicit centre for activities of a Jesuit priest. Often sought by the authorities, but never captured, his hiding places can still be seen in the old castle.
In about 1630 the family remodelled the castle and added another enormous wing which as you can see seems to have dwarfed the earlier building. There are several images of the extended castle which vary considerably.
The Darrell were eventually forced to sell Scotney to meet debts, and by the end of the 18thc the estate had been bought by Edward Hussey, whose grandson, Edward Hussey III, inherited in 1835 and owned it up until his death about 60 years later. The old castle had been abandoned in 1816 as damp and inconvenient and it is him we have to thank for the transformation of the site because he commissioned the present ‘new’ castle from Anthony Salvin.
Edward Hussey III was a man of decided views. A number of sketches of his exist showing that even in his 20s he’d decided on building a new house in the spirit of Richard Payne Knight’s Inquiry on Taste and Uvedale Price’s Essays on the Picturesque. They had argued that the principles of composition employed by great landscape painters could be equally applied to the design of not only gardens but buildings too. Scotney was to be a mix of romantic aesthetics and practical considerations. In turning to Salvin he chose an architect in his early career but who had already successfully designed in the fashionable neo-Tudor style at Mamhead in Devon, Moreby Hall in Yorkshire and Harlaxton in Lincolnshire.
Very often commissioning a new house meant the demolition of the old so that the building material could be reused. Luckily at Scotney this did not happen because the new site was high above the old castle and there was plenty of stone that could be quarried from the hill between the two sites. It also helped that there was a considerable change in garden taste at the end of the 18th century. The picturesque was taking over from what Graham Stuart Thomas, the garden writer and National Trust Garden Advisor, called “Brown’s suave landscapes”.
To complement Salvin’s work on the New Castle and its associated walled garden, Hussey first turned to Salvin’s brother-in-law, William Andrews Nesfield ,but rejected his proposals as too formal and elaborate. Instead he called in William Sawrey Gilpin one of the last and greatest advocates of the picturesque to advise on the siting and landscaping of the new house, and unsurprisingly Gilpin seems to have seized the opportunity with gusto.
There is a wonderful account by Christopher Hussey in Country Life [16th Oct 1969] of how Gilpin chose the spot for the new castle. Arriving late and in the middle of a storm, he marched around under his umbrella, until he found a spot 300 yards from the moat and 70 feet above it where he stuck the umbrella in the ground and declared “here is the site.” Gilpin’s sketches are apparently in the Scotney archive but not yet digitised.
I can’t think of another site in the south east which offered so many opportunities, or another in the picturesque style which is quite so late. The new house was given a series of formal terraces, and off the lowest of these a lookout or bastion overlooking the newly formed quarry, and down to the old castle.
It was a living version of parts of a verse by Payne Knight in An Analytical Inquiry into the Principles of Taste (1805)
Bless’d too is he who, midst his tufted trees,
Some ruin’d castle’s lofty towers sees,
Nodding o’er the stream that glides below
What followed might seem shocking and nowadays simply wouldn’t be allowed, but in retrospect showed Gilpin’s talent. The 17thc wing of the castle was in words of Graham Stuart Thomas “adjusted” – a polite way of saying half-demolished. The roof was removed, the height drastically lowered, the interior gutted, windows removed and then the remaining walls knocked about a bit.
It bears similarities to Cromwell’s slighting of castles or perhaps more pertinently to the comments of Gilpin’s uncle who famously recommended taking a mallet to parts of the ruins of Tintern Abbey because they ” hurt the eye with their regularity; and disgust it by the vulgarity of their shape.”
The last word on Gilpin and Hussey’ success should be left to Rose Macaulay, the novelist, who also had a penchant for ruins: “Sometimes ruins have been intentionally manufactured by destruction, not in anger or in arson, but fun aesthetic enthusiasm…. If ever ruin-making has justified itself, this has.” [Her full account in The Pleasure of Ruins 1953 is too long to quote here but well worth reading]
Comparing the earlier images of the old castle with today it also looks as if part of the moat in front was filled in before gardens were created both inside and around the ruins.
Scotney was inherited in 1952 by Edward’s great-nephew Christopher Hussey, who was editor of Country Life and a prolific writer on architectural and gardening matters. Few knew as much about country houses and gardens as he did and his work has been very influential. In particular he wrote the first serious study of The Picturesque in 1927 when the concept , especially in terms of gardens was not very well recognised or understood.
He and his wife Betty were determined to maintain and enhance the garden’s essential picturesque character calling in Lanning Roper for advice. In keeping with the family’s motto, ‘Vix ea nostra voco’ which means ‘I scarcely call these things our own’ [which was actually shared by another gardener I’ve written about on here] the Scotney estate was then given to the National Trust on Christopher Hussey’s death although Betty remained living in the “new” castle until her own death in 2008 .
Scotney lies very close to the A21 London-Hastings road, now a fast dual carriageway, but once out of sight, the road might as well not exist because access to the house winds via a long drive cut through thick woodland in the late 1830s to serve the new house. By the time you arrive in the visitors car park which is outside rather than inside the walled garden, you’ve forgotten the journey.
The walled kitchen garden was finished around 1840 to an unusual octagonal design. There is a surviving vinery/glasshouse which is in a pretty parlous state and awaiting restoration. There are wall trained fruit trees and areas set aside for soft fruit, vegetables, herbs, – which get used in normal times in the cafe and cutting beds to provide flowers for the house.
Staff give regular Wednesday afternoon talks on various garden techniques but a sign up outside suggests that its clear that covid restrictions and now austerity have limited what’s possible for both staff and volunteers : “we will only keeping up with essential tasks such as fruit tree pruning, hedge cutting and mowing… the vegetable beds will one rerouted for thee foreseeable future and where green manure isn’t suitable beds will one covered with a black membrane to suppress any weeds and keep maintenance to a minimum.”
The service buildings to the side of the house have been adapted to the usual paraphernalia of all places open to the public, a cafe and shops. Behind them is a wide sweep of gravel in front of Salvin’s new castle.
The interior has hardly been altered since it was finished, although there was a “modern” kitchen put in I’d guess by Christopher and Betty Hussey which was fun to see.
Where once something from the mid-20thc would have been ripped out as an anomaly with the “history” of the house the NT has now embraced such “modernity” so the kitchen cupboards, orange and white spotted cups and even the early microwave all feature on the NT Collections page with full museum detailing.
The ground floor is now open to the public but much of the rest of the house has been converted in apartments, one of which used to be rented by Margaret Thatcher. So fond of it were the Thatchers that when Denis was made a baronet he took as his full title – Sir Dennis Thatcher “of Scotney”
The exit from the house is onto the long terrace on the south side of the house looking out over the expansive landscape. At first sight it looks a bit tatty. There’s no formal bedding, indeed no flower beds at all but instead a sea of long grass dotted with ox-eye daisies and other wild flowers.
All of the terraces have been given over to this “meadow” style. At first it might seem this was a cost saving measure but in fact, apart from looking really lovely at this time of year, it’s a deliberate conservation measure as the slopes were discovered to house a colony of rare Green-winged orchids and these terraces and the meadow just below them are a near perfect habitat. Probably once common on the estate’s farmland the increasing use of chemicals and intensive techniques have eradicated them there, but they have survived in these areas of the garden. As a result the garden has been classed as a Site of Scientific Interest (SSSI) by Natural England.
The lowest terrace has a bastion/projection out towards the quarry edge. It was designed to offer the most famous view of the old castle over the steep drop into quarry garden.
Below the bastion paths lead in several directions down to the lower levels of the garden and the old castle. One runs between the edge of pasture and the shrubbery on the slopes, and has several mature specimen trees, as well as passing the thatched ice house.There are branches off that that lead into the wider parkland. Others go down through the quarry garden, or along its western side.
Graham Stuart Thomas wrote that “in May and June the whole bank… is alight with azaleas in yellow and orange, and in rhododendrons of all colours, including the huge group of Pontic Rhododendron which are so sympathetic to woodland greenery. Before they have finished the broad groups of Kalmia latifolia come into flower, their scintillating pink and white buds like icing on a cake.”
Of course over time some of these shrubs and trees began blocking the prospect making it impossible to even see the castle. below. At the same time the rocks, a key part of. many picturesque landscapes, were being overgrown by vegetation, and the grass paths that meandered through the planting had disappeared. This all meant that the balance of the site between plants, natural features and views was in danger so in 2018 work began on a project to restore the view and rejuvenate the quarry garden.
Luckily Edward Hussey’s vision had been recorded in notes and plans and there were there were historic images too to help the process. It’s difficult to know how far the project had got before covid struck, but certainly there has been large scale clearance and heavy pruning in some areas, The paths through quarry garden were mainly closed off with large parts looking pretty weed infested. In the lower areas there was evidence of a lot of new planting and heavy mulching too, so I’m hoping it’s merely social distancing and lack of gardeners for much of the last couple of years that have led to the slopes not looking their best.
For me though the Quarry garden, the woodland slopes, and the lawns at the bottom of them are just a foil – albeit a very beautiful one – to the site’s greatest delight, the old castle on its islands. These are reached via a stone causeway and through remnants of a pair of mediaeval stone gate piers which Edward Hussey had reconstructed in the 1840s.
The courtyard area immediately on the other side contains a circular herb garden planted by Lanning Roper in 1975 and based on an earlier incarnation by William Andrews Nesfield dating from c1848 . In the centre is a Venetian well-head installed in 1898.
Also in this courtyard area is a large herbaceous border while ….
… a spectacular white wisteria has taken over part of the wall. Beyond the ruins is a large area of grass dominated by a magnificent oak tree which also dominates the views back to the castle from the walk around the moat.
This passes through newly developed areas of woodland and stream gardens and by a wooden boat house that dates from about 1838. The whole circuit is extremely photogenic and it was very tempting to add a lot more photos as well as a few more paintings, but I have resisted as I have just seen the word count!
Scotney was lucky that the National Trust’s first garden advisors were Graham Stuart Thomas and John Sales, both of whom have written about the site.
Graham Stuart Thomas waxed lyrical and in romantic vein in Gardens of the National Trust, whilst John Sales in Shades of Green offers a very readable account of the personalities involved and the practical issues raised in advising on such an iconic place. One was how to follow in the footsteps of Lanning Roper who continued to advise Mrs Hussey until his death in 1983. Given that Mrs Hussey was clearly a formidable figure I was particularly struck with how she obviously loved the site but apparently took its structure for granted and was mainly concerned with smaller more limited schemes, while John Sales “recognising the limitations of my role” tried to keep the focus on the the long term future of such an important site, and its picturesque nature.
The Great Storm of 1987 seems to have played an important if unexpected role in bring their visions together. Scotney, like many other sites in the High Weald, was devastated with over 100 mature trees brought down but it was heartening to read John Sale’s encounter with Mrs Hussey in its immediate aftermath with their shared enthusiasm and talk of the wonderful opportunities for replanting and the future.
So Scotney is as magical as ever despite everything but whether it will remain so has to be debatable.
Although the estate stretches to 770 acres the garden areas are small. On a day with limited timed tickets it didn’t feel overcrowded but I checked visitor numbers. In the late 1980s it attracted around 35,000 visitors a year while the National Trust annual report for 2019/20 puts attendance at over 187,000. Managing visitor numbers has become a problem at almost every major site and is discussed by John Sales in Shades of Green . However a current job advert for staff at Scotney includes this chilling phrase : “Scotney Castle is a big growth property in the region, with the team working to improve the visitor experience and facilities.” That’s a difficult game to play and I hope for Scotney’s sake it works.