Much has been written about Great Dixter and its approach to gardening and planting design so I was keen to visit, luckily enough on a sunny day in July. I am hoping my response to the garden hasn’t been influenced by what I have read.
Great Dixter is in East Sussex an area I was not familiar with but found very charming and far more rural than I was expecting, with some very beautiful villages and interesting architecture. The family home of Christopher Lloyd who developed the gardens with an unwavering passion throughout his life, Great Dixter itself is a fine piece of architectural design. The original medieval manor building, bought by Lloyd’s father, was turned into a family home by Lutyens with a new extension and the addition of another medieval building moved from a nearby village. The finished house has a wonderful sense of history about it and a very typically English feel, although large it felt homely and welcoming and looked lived in and loved.
Christopher devoted his life to his garden and his passion for plants which was nurtured by his mother. Although Christopher is no longer around his spirit lives on in his garden and his vision is being upheld by head gardener Fergus Garrett whom he worked closely with over many years.
The design of the garden was set out by Lutyens and the area is broken up with hedges to create separate rooms. The paving is York stone and there are typical Lutyens details such as the use of roof tiles for step risers and the pillars in the loggia. Even though the garden layout was designed there is no sense of formality which suits the rural setting and the style of the building.
The approach to the front of the house is along a path flanked by rough grass which contains native wild flowers and spring bulbs and there are similar areas scattered around the garden; this style of meadow gardening was introduced by Christopher’s mother and at the time I imagine was a rather radical idea.
As you move around the garden and enter the different spaces you become assailed with a riot of planting and colour. The calm of the open meadow areas soon becomes forgotten with the floral explosion that is happening around you. There are plants of every conceivable form and colour filling every spare bit of ground and encroaching across the pathways making it necessary to squeeze through the foliage. Initially this is surprising and enchanting and an assault on the senses, however the more time I spent lost in the plants I began to feel a little claustrophobic and felt the need for some breathing space. This style of garden is evidently for the enthusiastic plant lovers however I do have a penchant for some formality with vistas and focal points and an element of structure; so perhaps for me the wildness needs to be tamed. However this is only a personal preference and it doesn’t take away from the magnificence of the garden which needs to be seen to be appreciated.
One area that didn’t appeal was the exotic garden which replaced the original rose garden. I would have loved to have seen a beautiful rose garden which would have worked so well in such a lovely setting, however I’m not a lover of exotic plants and the jungle effect felt more film set than garden and not somewhere I would choose to spend time in.
Christopher Lloyd was known for throwing the rule book away when it came to colour schemes and this is evident in the planting combinations. I felt impact was lost with the use of too many colours together, many of which I felt weren’t complementary. I love a good clash of cerise and orange but this can be diluted with the introduction of more insipid hues. The colour schemes didn’t make me stand back in awe but made me feel slightly disappointed as I was hoping for more impact. I am not a lover of too much yellow in the garden and there seemed to be a lot, so maybe this influenced my reaction to the colour schemes.
Great Dixter is a garden that must be visited to be appreciated as it is the immersion in the plants that is a different experience from most gardens open to the public. Every visitor will form their own opinion of the garden and that’s what makes it so great as it dares to be different. As I have mentioned there were certain elements that didn’t appeal to me, but that’s purely personal preference, as a place to visit the house and gardens are fascinating and I left with a warm and fuzzy feeling that there are still places like this to visit in England.
Great Dixter house and gardens are open from March until October, pay a visit and see what you think.