Kent is a big county. The Weald in the west with its sandstone and clay has completely different geology to our dry chalk downland in the east, and what an impact that has on the landscape. The clay makes the Weald much wetter and muddier, heavily wooded with lots of with streams and ponds. We decided to stay there for a few days and explore what it had to offer.
There are a lot of grand houses and gardens to visit in the area but most of them were closed for the winter. Some were still open, however, and we started the trip with a visit to Chartwell, Sir Winston Churchill’s beloved home and now a National Trust property.
Churchill famously used to paint in order to escape from his worries and stress but he also had a lifelong interest in wildlife – particularly butterflies. This building below had originally been a meat larder but, when the Churchills bought the house in 1922, they removed a wall and it became first a summer house and then a butterfly house where Winston stored the larvae of British butterflies to release into the garden.
Alongside his wife Clementine, they created a beautiful garden to relax in but also one that was a haven for wildlife, particularly his beloved butterflies.
On the next day of the trip, we visited Bedgebury Pinetum – the largest pinetum in the world and a centre for international conifer tree conservation. Winter was a great time to visit because we more or less had the place to ourselves and these evergreen trees, of course, still had all their leaves.
We spent a happy couple of hours wandering around admiring the trees.
We have come away from Bedgebury with the names of several beautiful trees that we would like to try to grow ourselves.
On the way back to the cottage that day we visited Eridge Rocks near Tunbridge Wells, where a bit of that soft Wealden sandstone pokes its head above ground.
It is a popular place for rock climbing – so much so that, during Covid times, this has had to be temporarily prohibited – the precious ecosystem of mosses and lichens on the rock was becoming damaged.
Our cottage was close to the Ashdown Forest and on the third day we went for a walk at Old Lodge nature reserve. I was surprised to discover that Ashdown Forest is actually mainly heathland:
A A Milne lived at Cotchford Farm, just north of the Ashdown Forest and Winnie the Pooh’s Hundred Acre Wood was based on this area. We walked down to Pooh Sticks Bridge where the author reputedly played the game with his son Christopher.
The highlight of our stay was probably the visit we made to Wakehurst Place the following day. Left to the National Trust in the 1960s, they have leased it to The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew since then and it is now home to the Millennium Seed Bank.
As well as the seed bank, there is a grand house (now used as offices for Kew staff and for school visits) and the most wonderful garden and estate, housing several national collections.
We were very taken with these Wollemi Pines.
These trees had been found in the fossil record and were thought to be extinct until a small population of less than a hundred trees was found in 1994 in their native Australia, hanging on in a remote gorge, the exact location of which is kept secret to protect them:
Kew has found a way to propagate these trees and now sells them to the public as another way to protect the wild population.
An exciting project underway at Wakehurst is to research and create six acres of the endangered American prairie habitat:
The grounds at Wakehurst are so extensive and we didn’t get round everything by any means. We would love to revisit in the summer to see the full glory of the gardens and especially to get a feel for how that prairie is coming along.
Our cottage did not have an enclosed garden and so in the mornings I took the dog on her lead up to this beautiful meadow and took its photo at about the same time on several different days. What an inspiring start to any day:
On the final day we called in at Sissinghurst Castle on the way home. This famous garden is only an hour from the meadows and yet we had never visited before.
There was not a whole lot to be seen of this garden in January, however:
We had not expected much of our short break in the bog-end of January, encumbered as we were with the dog and scarcely leaving our home county. But it turned out to be inspiring and interesting and we learnt a lot about natural history. We definitely want to revisit every one of these places in the summer.