Petworth is famous for its majestic 17th Century English Baroque mansion and art work collections, but it is its fusion with the surrounding pleasure grounds and deer park that make this such a special place to visit. John Tuner often visited here and painted some wonderful views of the grounds and house.
The house, perched on the edge of the historic town of Petworth, overlooks the opposite way, over a great valley literally sculptured three hundreds years ago by Capability Brown, the most popular english landscape designer of his day. He was famous for pulling down the orangeries, formal parterres and topiary of the Upper Classes, to create naturalistic tapestries of lakes, hills and snaking paths.
Martyn Burkinshaw, Head Gardener, takes me around the Pleasure Grounds that surround Petworth house.
“People wanted to show off their wealth. They walked with their guests around these gardens and showed them all the follies and unusual plants. At this time, new plants species for the Americas were coming to England via plant hunters. So Petworth has had this connection from the start, especially by the 3rd Earl of Egremont who was a big collector. Recently when we have revamped the new borders we had this in mind, choosing modern cultivars of the same original species as long as the form of the plant was the same. We were able to look at old Bills of Payment to see what kind of plants they were buying then”
Martyn goes on to tell me about the reason for pleasure gardens.
“They were created in the theatric style, which meant that they were meant to engender particular emotions in guests as they walked around. See this path with trees in front of us- this would have had shrub borders in different places along the walkway to show off the latest plants but also to obscure the views of the other paths, to give more privacy and also more intrigue”
We pass by a huge wide expanse of low hedging made from Portuguese Laurel. Beyond this, and way down, is a wide and sturdy tunnel running under the lawn. Martin is used to seeing people exclaim with curiosity, so he explains the tunnel’s origins.
“ Normally a manor house is set a good distance from a town, and livestock make their way to the marketplace away from the formal areas of the garden. Because Petworth house is right at the edge of the town, in order to protect the garden and lawns this vast, this short cattle tunnel was built”
You could probably fit 10 bulls side by side through it! These days ramblers and dog walkers from the town find it a convenient shortcut to the deer park beyond.
We walk on and suddenly we come to a glimpse of the valley that is part of Firle Deer park. It spreads out rhythmically before us, some of the views hidden by trees and a hill- classic Capability Brown design techniques to make a view appear larger and more mysterious.
“We have over 700 fallow deer here, which have lived here for 500 years but probably a thousand as the Doomsday book records the existence of a deer park here. They need feeding in the Winter as their numbers are too great for the land to sustain them in the cold season.”
It is a magnificent sight to see a herd wander or spring by the manor house (some of the deer were given to Knepp when they decided to introduce herbivores into their rewinding scheme)- they move by like a dream, a surreal combination of wildlife so close to a colossal Baroque building.
Unbelievably, Martyn goes on to explain, the whole park is laced with clay Victorian drains to keep the land dry enough for the deer and strolling about.
We finish our tour back making away along the drive entrance past a 600 year old Chestnut tree. We arrive at the house, where the giant Champion tree, Abutus, greets us from the corner of the kitchen and office outhouses. The perennial borders here still have the odd flower on them despite the lateness of the season. “ We did a very radical Chelsea chop on them this year (chopping fast growing perennials down to the ground in May) and they flowered just as well but with more manageable heights”
Martyn looks back at the gardens.
“We have up to 175,000 visitors to the house and pleasure gardens each year, with 230,000 coming to the deer park”.
He beams with pride at his new 90 metre borders that he not only designed with the supervision of heritage experts, but that he saved during the first Covid lockdown, rescuing them from the dry Spring and Summer by importing hundreds of tonnes of mulch to keep them moist, doing it all by hand, just himself and a skeleton staff.
What to do this January in your garden
The biggest jobs are the pruning of deciduous plants like Roses, Wysteria and fruit trees.
The best place to go to learn proper pruning methods is a professional gardener, the RHS Pruning Manuel or Youtube !
Example- If you type in “Pruning a small apple tree” you will get all sorts of well meaning gardeners showing you what they do. Choose to listen to an expert though there are different options. Try RHS first. Also make sure the apple tree looks like your one as there are different types.
Also in January you can sow in your greenhouse all sorts of vegetables ready to be transplanted in Spring into your plot.
Plus you can start to force your Rhubarb by placing as big a pot as you can find over the heads.
Where to visit this January
Book online if you want to visit the Pleasure Gardens as numbers are Covid restricted. If you just want to visit the deer park, no need to book.
If you want to walk off those extra Xmas calories you can take a trip up to Kew Gardens. They have such a huge range of trees even in the middle of winter there is so much to see. Plus you can hang out in the cafes or Tropical Greenhouse for a warm break. They also have after-dark tours. Or visit a local forest! All Covid dependent of course.