How can one put pen to paper, or, in my case, digits to keyboard, in order to do any amount of justice to the heavenly, naturalistic paradise that Sarah Raven has created at Perch Hill, her home and farm in East Sussex. Cocooned in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the home that Sarah shares with her husband, the writer and poet Adam Nicolson, is clearly a labour of love and sheer determination. At the heart of the farm, you will no longer find ancient, rust-embalmed tractors living out their final days in slow, time-worn decay. Here, amongst the wash of verdant, Sussex green, nestles a haven of brightly coloured blooms, like tiny, resplendent jewels glittering upon the infinitely, undulating landscape.
The couple’s home, with its picture-perfect, albeit rustic appeal, looks rather cosy nestled within the embrace of the surrounding garden. The warm, apricot stone walls of the old buildings seem to take vigour from their abundant, flower-filled grounds; and the edges between home and garden happily blur as twists of ivy, its leaves turning a deep garnet red, encroach tenaciously upon the outside walls, hinting at the autumnal season to come. However, as paying guests attending one of Sarah’s annual open garden events, it isn’t the house that we are here to see. With its beautifully patinated red clay shingles, the warmth and cosiness of the home merely acts as a perfectly placed backdrop for the glorious garden that envelops it, beckoning us to wander aimlessly within its bountiful embrace.
Nature comes into her own here, establishing herself upon every carefully crafted man-made structure that adorns the picturesque property, linking the house and gardens beautifully into the wider landscape beyond. Flowers cluster, bright and unperturbed against the weather-worn, roughly hewn wooden fence posts, their tenacious blooms ignoring any sense of common decency or personal space. One who suffers from hay fever, like my flower loving husband, packs a pocket full of antihistamines and a travel pack of Kleenex before entering this floriferous place. Here, nature has triumphed. But not without the guiding hands of Sarah and her talented gardening team.
When I was a little girl, surrounded by the sub-tropical, sandy coastal landscape of Australia, I could only dream of what it must be like to stroll within an English garden. I imagined overflowing borders brimming with frothy, sweetly scented flowers such as roses, lilacs, and little clusters of jewel-like sweet peas that, to my adolescent innocence, looked more like boiled sweets than anything protruding from a rich and fertile ground. Few things in life can compare with the joy of strolling through an English country garden at the height of summer, and until moving to the UK I would never have believed that reality could far exceed a child’s boundless imagination.
Perch Hill’s 25-year transformation from a dairy farm into a continuously growing horticultural business, one dedicated to superior cut flowers and thriving, sustainable gardens has been nothing short of miraculous. What was once a ramshackle site littered with farmyard debris and decades of mineral poor soil has been transformed into a flourishing flower farm that radiates with colourful and unique planting experiments.
With its bucolic, vibrant green landscape, Perch Hill is the beating heart of Sarah’s thriving business. Floristry, seasonal cooking, and flower growing courses are held mere metres from Sarah’s own back door. Every precious, organically produced seed in her catalogue is grown, trialled, and photographed on site. On this drizzly day in late August, with the sun veiled so stubbornly behind a glaring sheet of silver-grey cloud, nothing can dampen my enthusiasm for the promise of the floral profusion that awaits.
A short archway of small trees entices guests towards the filtered light emanating through the opening up ahead, their branches intermingling above our heads providing a fittingly dramatic entryway. The excitement is palpable! Flashes of lucid colour sparkle in the distance, like spontaneous fireworks brightening an otherwise darkened sky. Two fellow visitors, only a few steps ahead of us, pause stupefied at the sudden burst of joy. Was this how Alice felt when she asked, so befuddled, to the broadly grinning cat “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
Our fellow garden lovers, on hearing us approaching softly from behind, turn towards us with faces bathed in pure astonishment. Their awestruck gaze – one which so universally unites complete strangers when faced with such magnificent surrounds – seems to echo our own look of wonderment and awe. Rendering our choice easy, they steer towards the right, which allows us the freedom to meander, wide-eyed and hypnotised in the vague direction of the left. Sarah’s garden isn’t simply a space to stroll through, admiring neatly clipped hedges and lovely beds of successional planting as you go; here you are immersed in nature; eye to eye with swathes of late summer cosmos, whose feathery foliage caresses the bare shoulders of those lucky enough to meander by.
The air is cool and clean now, and any trace of late summer heat is dampened by the fine mist of midday rain. A rousing chorus of tweets and chirps wafts sweetly from a nearby copse of trees. Evidently impressed by Mother Nature’s spectacular performance, the sweet melody of songbirds fills the garden like a raucous standing ovation. Glimmering, golden sunshine washes over the landscape, creating a masterpiece of light and shade. While the plumpest bumblebees I have ever seen make haste towards the nearest flowers, siphoning every skerrick of glowing pollen they can possibly perceive.
And finally, there they are, shrouded in their own magnificence, the big, buxom beauties that we really came here to see, Sarah Raven’s stupendous dahlias! Carmine pinks, richly hued, slaughterous reds, deep apricots so ripe and luscious you almost want to take a greedy bite. They startle with their joyous faces, tightly massed together in incredible profusion, showing no sign of bashfulness, nor coy. Tall, slender stems – some so darkly crimson they look concocted by a magic potion – rise sky-high, holding a multitude of ruffled pom poms, their hefty weight supported only by some well-placed stakes and twine. I move closer, towards the colossal mass of blooms, and tentatively reach out to cup their globular heads between my palms. How wonderfully tactile they feel, as though Mother Nature created floral stress balls to placate and appease. There is no sound here but the occasional soft gasp as someone new approaches from behind, neither willing nor able to articulate their wonder.
The garden at Perch Hill is mesmeric. Ribboning your way along the red brick pathway you become enveloped in Sarah’s wondrous creation, understanding a little more with each new step just how integral her love of flowers has been in shaping Perch Hill, and the thriving business that flourishes within. Here, amongst the greedy bumblebees and compost rich soil, Sarah can observe daily the intricate ways in which her flowers grow and, ultimately, prosper. With careful consideration in relation to ongoing issues with climate change Sarah has developed her blooms to withstand problems that plant nurseries and flower farms face today. The flowers, and the resulting seeds, must be long season, easy to grow and drought tolerant. Also, commercially viable to keep at home in a vase for at least ten days.
Perch Hill is a living laboratory, and I am reminded of this when observing not only the interesting plantings, but also the other, equally fascinating visitors here today. There is no doubt that everyone who is traversing this glorious garden is a lover of nature and beauty. Dan and I are here simply to revel in the last of summer’s glory, and for the chance to immerse ourselves for a few hours in a world so far removed from our little London flat. Yet there are many here, notebook and pencil poised in hand, eager to capture whatever fanciful new floral creations or artfully arranged colour combinations that tickle their well-honed, green-tinged thumbs. Some, who look as though they have been gardening for longer than I have been alive, are a joy to behold, and the unmistakable passion for flowers is evident in the vitality that still sparkles in their curious eyes. Others seem to be gardening novices, or simply garden admirers from afar, wishing to enhance their own green spaces with a little horticultural magic captured from their annual pilgrimage to Sarah Raven’s flower farm.
We, too, hope to one day have our own little pocket of floriferous paradise. Our dream garden, the one spilling with blowsy summer roses and pungent wafts of honeysuckle and lavender, nestles oh-so-vividly at the perimeter of my mind, awaiting patiently for its own moment in time. Though, perhaps not on such a grand scale as we find here at Perch Hill. As the softly falling rain rests upon the multitude of blowsy blooms, glistening in tiny, glassy pools, the sun emerges so graciously from behind a bank of ominous cloud, illuminating the entire garden in a wash of golden sunlight. It is in this fleeting moment I reflect on what I’ve gained today, which is not just admiration for the enormous transformation so evidently special here. It is also having the opportunity to experience the magic when sharing a gardener’s love and passion for the flowers and garden that she so obviously adores.
“It feeds me on every level. I think about it from the moment I get up (which is very early) to the moment I go to sleep. I can’t imagine life without it.”