Continuing restoration

PUBLISHED: 13:17 24 September 2008 | UPDATED: 15:28 20 February 2013

Chilham Castle

Chilham Castle

Reviving the gardens around Chilham Castle has revealed layers of different historic periods

From Roman times there are records of a castle at Chilham. The Jacobean mansion that you see today was completed in 1616 by Digby Diggs, replacing much of the Norman fortifications. Originally, the garden would have supplied vegetables and fruit for the house and over time has seen a transformation to a more ornamental-based design.

The earliest records of the garden show that the impressive brick terraces were designed by John Tradescant the Elder, a friend of Digby Diggs, using the steep banks or earlier castles' defences. Further redesigns occurred in the 18th century.

Fine vistas were created across the Stour valley. Capability Brown recommended changes in the 1770s, including a curving ha-ha, allowing the lawns to blend imperceptibly into the grazed park beyond. Striking topiary yews were planted on the lawn and a large lake was dug in the 1860s and by the 1900s, the gardens reached a peak with a huge gardening team, heated greenhouses and an elaborate rockery typical of country houses of the time.

Active involvement
Present owners, Stuart and Tessa Wheeler, who bought the castle estate in 2002, found the house and grounds in poor condition and have been actively involved in its restoration ever since.

"We realised very quickly that restoring the garden to any one period would be a mistake, one of the most interesting things about this garden are the layers of different periods - each one not entirely erasing what had been before," they explain.

Fortunately, as well as the exciting framework to enhance, the soil although chalky is rich, deep and very productive. Designer Lady Mary Keen was called in at the beginning of the project to help with the restoration.

"We went through everything together. Her skill was enormous - firstly in translating the historical research into a plan for the future, and being able to imagine what things would look like before they were done. All the way through we have been very aware of the history of the place, which has been a big influence on our decisions," remembers Tessa.

An interest and expertise in gardening goes way back for Tessa, resulting in a collaborative synergy at Chilham. "I grew up in a largish house in Rutland and I can remember my father always worried about the upkeep of the garden. Before the war there had been about four full-time gardeners, and now there was only one.

Soak up the sense of timelessness in the Quiet Garden, with its towering trees defined by shafts of sunlight

"My father, who was a businessman in London and only home on the weekends, turned the garden into a Market Garden, and so many a time as a child I was found helping to pack gladioli in long thin boxes to go to Covent Garden or helping to make up Christmas wreaths with my mother to sell locally. My favourite job was to drive the little garden tractor, which was a first of its kind," Tessa remembers.

Further gardening influences include input from her father's younger brother, the garden designer John Codrington. "I only got to know him when I was grown up. He was rather disapproving of my father, turning what had been a beautiful garden into a commercial enterprise. Discussing things with Mary, certainly evoked memories of my uncle, who died in 1993. I would often think to myself...what would Uncle John have done?" she says.

Joint decisions
Decisions are now made jointly in the garden between Tessa and Mary Keen's assistant, Pip Morrison, who has stayed on as a consultant. "I have an input especially into colours and shapes for the detailed planting," explains Tessa. New gardener, Greg Park, who started in January, is also making an impact on the garden as part of this enthusiastic team.

In October, a visit to Chilham is a very atmospheric experience. The late-season light enhances the vistas by casting wonderful shadows against the mellow tones of the changing foliage colours and clipped evergreens.

Wandering the terraces, you are surrounded by richly coloured perennials and waving grasses. Over the last five years the walls have been repointed and these borders completely cleared and replanted.

Being part of the historic fabric of this Kent gem is a responsibility that has been taken on with great empathy

Take time to soak up the sense of timelessness in the Quiet Garden with its towering trees defined by shafts of sunlight. Beyond are the kitchen garden and restored cold frames and glasshouses. Further afield it is interesting to see continuing work around the lake and a new orchard is being planned for the autumn.

Being part of the historic fabric of this Kent gem is a responsibility that has been taken on with great empathy by Stuart and Tessa Wheeler while still very much enjoying Chilham as a family home.

"I love the views and the fact that I can make my daily dog walk a different pattern all the time. It has been extremely satisfying seeing the changes we have made come into their own as the garden matures," sums up Tessa.

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