|Frances Hodgson Burnett's Secret Garden|
As a child, a favourite story of mine was 'The Secret Garden' by Frances Hodgson Burnett - and I've loved walled gardens ever since. Walking into a walled garden feels like entering a hidden world, and, for a child, this can be a mysterious world, as Frances HB describes so well in her book, when her character Mary finds herself in the Secret Garden and 'it seemed almost like being shut out of the world in some fairy place.' The planting in walled gardens can look lovely, too, because the old walls provide a perfect background to cottage garden flowers and climbing roses.
Frances HB had been inspired to write the book by her own walled garden at Great Maytham Hall in Kent, where she was living at the turn of the twentieth century. Although I loved the book, I hadn't really thought about visiting the real-life garden that had inspired her story. But a couple of years ago I was researching some family history and made a surprising discovery: David's six-times great grandfather was Captain James Monypenny, who had Great Maytham Hall and the gardens (including the Secret Garden) built as his country house and grounds in the early 1700s. So, having discovered that the 'real' Secret Garden exists in Kent (not too far away) - and that we have a sort of family connection to it (even though three hundred years and eight generations is a bit distant to say the least...) - we thought it was well worth a visit.
|Great Maytham Hall viewed from the Secret Garden|
The current Great Maytham Hall isn't the house built by Captain James; this was largely replaced by a house designed by Edward Lutyens in 1909. The gardens have undergone various transformations, too. Frances HB found the Secret Garden overgrown and forgotten and she set about changing this by planting several roses. Later, Edward Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll re-designed the grounds. Today, the Secret Garden is full of flowers and is very well maintained...
In 'The Secret Garden', Mary discovers the hidden garden when she is led there by a robin (and it seems Frances HB was led there by a robin, too). Well, there were no robins on our visit, but instead I did see plenty of bees and this lovely Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly...
Mary enters the garden through a door concealed by ivy and finds that it is neglected with all the flowers and plants apparently lifeless. But it's winter, and she soon discovers the first green shoots of the spring flowers in the earth. When she visits again and again over the next few months, and begins to do some gardening of her own there, she watches everything come to life, especially the roses...'Rising out of the grass, tangled around the sun-dial, wreathing the tree trunks, and hanging from their branches, climbing up the walls and spreading over them with long garlands falling in cascades - they came alive day by day, hour by hour...and uncurled into cups of scent delicately spilling themselves over their brims and filling the garden air.'
We visited the real Secret Garden on a hot day in early July, so the cottage garden flowers and roses were in full bloom. It is very pretty and we were lucky that, for much of the time, we were the only people there. But the romance of a secret garden has gone, of course - and I tried to imagine Frances HB being the only visitor there when it was more enclosed and hidden and wild. She came to the garden to write and I wonder whether she found any peace there, because she apparently suffered from depression after losing her own son some years before 'The Secret Garden' was written. The children in the book come alive in the garden, and, interestingly, there is a hundred year old message here about children spending too much time indoors when they are healthier and happier outside.
|Area of the grounds outside the Secret Garden|
'The Secret Garden' at Great Maytham Hall is open on Wednesday afternoons under the National Gardens Scheme (gardens open for charity). The Hall itself, which isn't open to visitors, has now been divided into luxury apartments.