Nestled in the far south-west corner of West Sussex lies a quintessential English garden which opens once a year in aid of St Wilfrid’s Hospice.
Owners Paul and Hilary Gilson open their garden annually, at The Old House in Prinsted.
“I opened my garden for the first time in 2005, in my role of chairman of Southbourne Support Group for St Wilfrid’s Hospice,” said Mrs Gilson.
“We have opened it every year since then, always in May, from 2pm-5pm.
“Last year, we had 350 visitors and raised £3,800 for the hospice.
“This year, our tenth opening on May 18, I very much hope to go over £4,000.
“The nine previous openings have generated an income of £22,500 for St Wilfrid’s Hospice.
“I should stress that I could not have such results without the help of members of the support group on the day, together with the tolerance of Prinsted residents.”
The home dates back to the late 14th century, and harbours a green oasis of rustic charm and clever planting.
The couple moved to the house from an almost identical cottage in the Chilterns in 1994, and wanting to make it her own, Hilary consulted a local garden designer for help.
The main priority, other than keeping the garden sympathetic to the cottage’s age, was a hidden work area for Hilary who loves to propagate but, by her own admission, is not the tidiest gardener in the world.
This was achieved with ‘walls’ of trellis, covered in climbers during the summer months, ‘hiding the chaos’.
Although a planting plan was provided, Hilary decided to stamp her own identity on the place and has filled it with cottage garden plants interspersed with a collection of plants and shrubs from around the world.
The beauty of this variety is the cohesion it forms as it nestles the house – salvias and hollyhocks, foxgloves and ornamental grasses, agapanthus and box.
With the thatched well as a centrepiece, it has been cleverly laid out with paths and terraces to entice the visitor, with hidden gems in all corners of the garden.
Colour co-ordination is important to Mrs Gilson and she tries each year to create a flow of colour around the garden, although even she admits she is sometimes pleasantly surprised by the arrival of an unexpected self-planted visitor which can transform a planting plan beyond beauty to a stunning feature.
With an array of plants in the gardens, each has its own story to tell.
A plant brought with them from the Chilterns in memory of Hilary’s mother is osmanthus delavayi with its Award of Garden Merit.
Now drooping its branches towards the path, its highly-scented tiny white flowers compete with a sarcococca humilis tucked in a flowerbed to the left of the entrance way, where visitors are instantly welcomed in winter with its overwhelming scent.
Aptly enough for such an old cottage, there was an ancient Paul’s scarlet crataegus growing over the front wall.
Badly damaged in the 1987 storms, it was subsequently propped up until 2003 when the big decision was made to remove it for safety reasons.
Such an eminent tree in the village required consultation even though it was growing in the Gilsons’ garden, and they made the decision to cull the original but replant a new Paul’s scarlet in order to carry on the tradition.
Another elderly resident grows in the driveway which runs up the side of the house – a very rare, if rather ungainly, Wisley crab apple.
Following its unusual dark purple flowers, it produces ‘the most enormous, red glistening fruit’ – so akin to an apple that many people are fooled into thinking it really is an apple tree, only to get a bitter taste when they bite into one.
Despite the comparatively small size of the garden, there is a lawn, carefully maintained by a local company, which provides the perfect neutral backdrop to the cornucopia of colour in the borders.
Scarified and aerated on a yearly basis, even with two female dogs, the lawn is enviably immaculate.
Hard landscaping consists of a pebbled area around the well, gravel courtyards and a lovely old brick courtyard complete with rolling drain to catch the unaware at the back of the house.
Flint walls form the boundary and an old hovel, again built of flint, is to the rear.
This building, along with the cottage itself, has appeared on old maps for many centuries.
Wildlife plays a prominent role and there are two ponds – one a natural wildlife pond tucked away in a quiet corner, the other a more formal raised pond on the rear brick patio.
Birds and bees enjoy self-seeded annuals such as verbena bonariensis, eryngium alpinum and sunflowers.
Mrs Gilson weeds out any objectionably-placed seedlings, but happily endures the others which bring with them a gentle chaos to what could be an over-orderly garden. Pieces of the cut-up trunk of an old prunus sargentii have been carefully placed in secluded corners as insect hotels while two bird feeders are filled every day, ten months of the year – August and September being diet-time due to the season of plenty.
With only the help of her gardener Kate on a fortnightly basis, Mrs Gilson has shaped a delightful, relaxing oasis of charm around her chocolate-box home. Utilising the fertile soil created by the old owners’ kitchen garden, the plants thrive and pests and diseases are rare.
Winner of several local gardening competitions including the Chichester District Council Front Garden of the Year four years on the trot and the Hampshire Federation Garden of 2010, Hilary has now ‘retired’ from entering and transcended to judge for local societies.
A keen plantswoman with an eagle eye for detail and design, she is a formidable force when it comes to judging, but nevertheless has an open enough mind to see merit in some aspects of design and planting she herself would never use. And, of course, judging other gardens gives her the opportunity of collecting ideas to transpose to her own garden.
“I was invited to become a judge of garden competitions in 2011 so I was able to look at gardens from the other side of the fence, so to speak, something I have very much enjoyed,” said Mrs Gilson.
“As a result of all this, I now give talks on the garden and other subjects.”
But most important of all, Hilary opens their garden for charity, giving other gardeners the chance to come to admire its beauty.
Sitting at a shaded table with a cup of tea and a luscious scone – homemade by Paul – it is the ideal way to spend a leisurely afternoon.
n Visit The Old House gardens in Prinsted on Sunday, May 18, from 2pm-5pm.
Admission is £3 in aid of St Wilfrid’s Hospice. There will be a large plant sale and cream teas on offer.