At West Dean – A Review

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A view to the college at West Dean

West Dean, as we see it today, is a 19th century country house with gardens in the Arts and Crafts style. The walled garden, with its range of Victorian glasshouse and gardened in a style which is deeply rooted in Victorian practices, is the crowning glory though the extensive gardens outside the walls are beautiful and interesting and lead to sweeping wildflower meadows and a significant arboretum. The layout of the 90 acres of gardens is informal and blends almost seamlessly into the borrowed landscape of the rolling parkland to the south, nestled in the foot of the South Downs in West Sussex. Thanks to the efforts of Jim Buckland and Sarah Wain it is now one of the greatest restored gardens open to the public today and this book tells its story.

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Perhaps the  most perfect example of a working walled garden.
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The rolling parkland to the south of the gardens. 

The authors are, first and foremost, gardeners – “not horticulturalists, designers, managers but dirt under the nails gardeners” and over the past twenty seven years they have “breathed new life into the sleeping beauty that was West Dean Gardens.”

The original manor house was built in 1603 and a map of the late 17th century shows a restoration of the garden with avenues, terraces and plats. Much of this layout was swept away in the mid 18th century to give a more naturalistic style, influenced by the Palladian landscapes of Italy. The house was extended in the “Gothick” style and was accompanied by remodelling of the gardens. In the early 19th century the gardens were extended to the west in the Picturesque style and when Lady Caroline Harcourt inherited in 1835 she commenced the planting of the arboretum.

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The Harold Peto designed pergola at West Dean

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Frederick Bower acquired the estate in 1871 and opened annually to visitors. William Dodge James, an American who was one of the Prince of Wales set, purchased the estate in 1891 and set about the house and grounds suitable to host the Prince and his circle. Harold Peto was involved in this restoration and designed the 100-metre-long pergola on the North Lawn. The glasshouses in the walled garden were rebuilt and extended at this time also. William James’ death in 1912 and World War 1 lead to a decline in the gardens. His son, Edward, lived in California and Mexico, and never really lived at West Dean again.

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A section of perennial flowers in the gardens at West Dean.

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In 1964 he set up the Edward James Foundation which lead to the opening, in 1971, of the West Dean College of Art and Conservation. The gardens and estate – 6,000 acres – were for the benefit of the college and as income was directed to the college and away from the gardens they their decline continued. The great storm of 1987 forced the trustees to take stock of the situation and the landscape consultants’ report they commissioned laid out a long-term plan for the walled gardens, the ornamental grounds, the park and St. Roche’s Arboretum.

Jim Buckland and Sarah Wain were appointed to undertake this restoration, a mutually beneficial arrangement as they had the advantage of an agreed plan of action with the support of the trustees to implement it while the trustees had the good fortune to have two experienced, gifted, imaginative and hard-working gardeners. The narrative of this book is the process of achieving the objectives laid out for the gardens.

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The Sunken Garden at West Dean
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Meadows at West Dean

Though it is almost impossible to separate exceptional horticulture practices from gardening excellence – process from product – it is clear that at West Dean process leads the way. There is here an uncompromising and absolutely diligent attention to the very best of good gardening practices. There are not short cuts; there is no taking the easy way out; there is nothing less than perfect. There is a right way to do every gardening job – from grass cutting, to lawn edging, to organising a glasshouse regime, to training and pruning fruit trees, to growing vegetables and the ever so many mundane and daily tasks of any garden and this right way is the only way employed at West Dean. It is an example of horticultural practices of the highest calibre and, not surprisingly, the gardens – the product of all these processes – is sublimely beautiful.

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Vegetables in the Walled Garden
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Meticulous attention to detail! 

Jim Buckland describes the processes of work in West Dean in an insightful and informative narrative which is wonderfully illustrated by Andrea Jones’ photography. It champions the values of good practices, hard work and the satisfaction of a job well done – and, indeed, it was very well done!


[At West Dean: The Creation of an Exemplary Garden, Jim Buckland & Sarah Wain, Photography  by Andrea Jones, White Lion Publishing, London, 2018, Hardback, 288 pages, £40, ISBN: 978-0-7112-3892-3]