The exteriors are elegant and the gardens unbelievably lush. Come along for an authentic tour through real English country homes.
"There is nothing quite like the English country house anywhere else in the world," wrote Vita Sackville-West. "It may be large, it may be small; it may be palatial, it may be manorial; it may be of stone, brick, stucco, or even beams and plaster; it may be the seat of aristocracy or the home of gentry -- whatever it is, it possesses one outstanding characteristic: It is the English country house."
Houses in England have continued to evolve in the years since Vita attempted to define them in a slim monograph she wrote on the subject in the waning years of the Second World War. Yet our fascination with the dwellings -- and the gardens that so many of us consider inseparable from them -- continues.
What would it be like to spend just a week living in the English country manner? We are about to find out.
First Stop: Sussex
A 19th-century sculpture provides a focal point in the rose arbor at Old Whyly in Sussex.
"Pull over here," I instructed the driver when I saw a sign for Peartree Pottery in the village of East Hoathly. "I'll go in and ask if they know how to get to Old Whyly."
"I'll go with you," he offered, in part, I suspected, to discourage me from purchasing souvenirs. (The man was my husband as well as my chauffeur, and well aware of both my passion for pottery and my proclivity for overpacking.)
Inside a cavernous studio adjacent to Peartree Pottery's tiny showroom/shop, Nigel Graham sat behind a potter's wheel, turning clay into a jug. "Let me know if you need any help," he called out.
I eyed shelves crowded with crocks, lamps, and tableware, and envisioned how charming Mr. Graham's slip-glazed drawer pulls would look on the doors of my bright-green kitchen cabinets.
"Actually, I was hoping to ask directions," I admitted. "Could you point us toward Old Whyly?"
"You mean Old Why-lye," he corrected, providing the traditional Sussex pronunciation. "Go left at the bend, then make the first right."
After a minute or two back in the car, we ventured down a tree-canopied avenue that ended at the circular drive of Old Whyly, the classic Georgian manor house where we were to spend the night. A shiny black cock announced our arrival to the hens in his company, and a slam of the rental car's hatchback brought our host, Sarah Burgoyne, and her whippet, Darcy, to the front door.
After a gracious welcome and a round of introductions, Sarah led us upstairs to a bedchamber about 1 1/2 times the size of our own master bedroom. She told us to make ourselves comfortable and invited us to tea in the garden whenever we liked.
Having spent some hours in transit, we found this most traditional of English rooms -- with its pink-and-green tulip-motif cotton curtains, eiderdowns, Staffordshire spaniel, porcelain tea service, and cut-crystal biscuit jar filled with heart-shaped shortbread cookies -- difficult to abandon, but we mustered enough strength to head back downstairs and out through the conservatory doors.
For our efforts, we were rewarded with the sight of a neat-as-a-pin landscape, complete with formal perennial beds ("We don't like annuals much," Sarah conceded), a rose arbor, wrought-iron urns cascading with pelargoniums, and a stretch of manicured lawn made magical by a quartet of towering yew topiaries clipped in the images of squirrels and songbirds. Yes, we were in England, all right.
A Garden Tour
It was tulip time when we arrived at Pashley Manor in the hilly, wooded countryside of Ticehurst, East Sussex. James and Angela Sellick were preparing for the Celebration of Tulips that takes place here the second week of May each year. Inside their restored manor house -- a half-timbered Jacobean dwelling with a larger wisteria-covered Queen Anne addition to the south -- Angela readied for an onslaught of tulip peepers and prepared ploughman's lunches of Stilton cheese, crusty brown bread, and pungent homemade chutneys for visitors who were about to partake of tea in the garden.
"It is always necessary to be doing something in a house of this age -- but not so much that it takes away from its true character. It is important not to overdo," explained James, voicing a philosophy carried out in the garden, as well.
A footpath wound its way around masses of mature rhododendrons and conifers.We walked with our host along a gravel path through the kitchen garden and past a row of espaliered red maples toward Pashley's colorful perennial beds. A footpath wound its way around masses of mature rhododendrons and conifers, and a natural tunnel formed by rhododendron branches led us toward a garden bench and an unexpected vista of the Sussex hills. In the distance, sheep tended to their daily mowing, apparently oblivious to any other activity on earth. On this day, only baaing, birdsong, and an occasional dog's bark (six live at Pashley) and baby's outburst (a 14-month-old girl was touring the garden on her father's shoulders) dared to break the serene silence.
The granary at Woodside Farm in Oxfordshire has been converted into a guesthouse.
"Fortunate are those who inherit houses of manageable size, but what of those who carry the beloved burden of unreasonably spacious halls?" pondered Vita Sackville-West some 50 years ago. "A large house does not necessarily mean a large income, although many people seem to be under that delusion. The obligations, and the expense, however, are always large."
Vita, the daughter of the third Baron Sackville, welcomed men and women who shared her passion for plants into the gardens that surrounded her home, Sissinghurst, in Kent. Throughout England, owners of historic estates built for the wealthy -- yet lived in by smaller, heavily taxed 20th-century families -- have kept up the tradition.
"I wanted our home to be comfortable and inviting -- and I resolved that this place pay for itself," explained Caroline Eckersley, owner of Woodside Farm, near the village of Shilton in Oxfordshire. After completing a 10-year restoration of the former tenant farmer's residence on Woodside Farm, she transformed its granary into a private guesthouse. Attached to the 1850's stone farmhouse by a walkway draped in ceanothus (C. arboreus 'Trewithen Blue', to be exact -- a blue-flowered shrub regrettably too tender for cold-winter gardens like mine back in New York State), the private guest quarters overlook a tranquil water garden, an apple tunnel bordered by viburnum, and, in the distance, a pasture surrounded by a ditch and the mortarless, stacked-stone walls for which the Cotswolds are famous.
The Heart of the Matter
The lovingly tended gardens at Hill Farm include plantings grown from cuttings contributed by Vita Sackville-West.
We arrived at Hill Farm, near Twyford in rural Hampshire, late on a misty afternoon. Our hosts Belinda and Will Martin greeted us at the courtyard gate, offered to take our bags, and led us inside their welcoming brick home.
"I grew up in this house," said Belinda, whose parents bought and restored the dwelling some 50 years ago. "When it became Will's and mine, we changed things to meet the needs of our family." They added French doors that open onto the garden and enlarged and updated the kitchen to accommodate Belinda's passion for cooking, as well as her collections of pottery and cookware.
"When my parents moved here, there was no garden," said Belinda. "My mother was determined to have one, and she would go to Sissinghurst once a month to get ideas.
"One day Vita noticed my mother, walked up to her, and said, 'You come here often, don't you?'"
When Belinda's mother explained that she was "planning a garden from nothing," Vita contributed advice and cuttings to the cause. Today a Falkland shrub rose that Belinda's mother cultivated from a cutting given her by Vita thrives in the garden at Hill Farm, its foliage shooting off into the neatly trimmed boxwood hedge that surrounds the perennial bed, and its fragrant white blossoms linking the present with the past.
"If these English houses of ours were all to be turned into institutional buildings, schools, asylums, hotels, and the like, something of our national heritage of pride and beauty would be gone," Vita Sackville-West wrote 50 years ago. "A museum is a dead thing; a house which is still the home of men and women is a living thing which has not lost it soul."
Vita envisioned country homes in which "useful things" were practiced: homes in which jam was made, herbs dried, and buildings kept in good repair. One thinks she would have been pleased to learn that there remain a number of her countrymen who have kept her dream -- and her Falkland rose -- alive in the English country manner.