An award-winning, Grade II registered garden, Denmans is renowned for its 50+ year-old gravel gardens, horticultural diversity, strong layout and planting design, and peaceful year-round interest.
The contemporary country garden, located on the edge of Fontwell, West Sussex, lies sheltered by the South Downs. It features well-drained alkaline soil, good light, and a mild climate, ideal for growing a large range of plants.
“The diversity of its plants and its unique planting style have resulted in a garden with year-round interest, structure, and colour,” says owner Gwendolyn van Paasschen.
Far from a traditional English garden composed of carefully considered proportions, Denmans – an RHS partner garden – has strong geometric shapes punctuating both the horizontal and vertical planes.
Dating back to the late 1800s, the Denmans Estate– which was owned by Lord Denman – is nothing if not full of extraordinary history, patience, and perseverance. It boasts fusion of horticultural expertise with legendary garden design which can be uniquely identified across the four acres.
The estate changed hands several times before being requisitioned by the WRAF during the Second World War and then purchased in 1946 by Hugh and Joyce Robinson who began to work on the land and gradually change it into the garden that can be seen today.
Mrs Robinson converted what had become a derelict garden into a working market garden, growing fruits, vegetables, and flowers for the markets in Covent Garden, London. In 1970, when she retired, Robinson began to garden for her own pleasure and interest, beginning to experiment with plants and different growing mediums, especially gravel. She developed the ornamental garden, creating gravel gardens, eventually building two dry riverbeds inspired by the winterborne rivers of the South Downs.
She described her garden as “glorious disarray,” a phrase that became the title of her 1990 book about Denmans.
In 1973, the late John Brookes MBE discovered the garden through the National Garden Scheme, attracted by the inventive use of plant material and the naturalistic manner in which they were planted. Brookes was inspired by the ways in which Robinson played with colour and texture.
Brookes took over the old stable block in 1980 and converted it into the Clock House, which became the base for his Clock House School of Design. Brookes went on to live and work from within the grounds of Denmans alongside Robinson for a time as she remained at Denmans until her death in 1996.
“Since Christmas 1984 John Brookes is caring for it, so Denmans will go forward as a teaching garden. It is well to know it is in such good hands,” said Robinson in 1988.
“Joyce had managed to group and contrast her planting in an extraordinary way, on the one hand totally out of control in its exuberance, but on the other hand structured to contain the exuberance. And this is – or was at the time – unique, for it seemed to pioneer a type of decorative gardening from which we have all learned since. And that includes myself,” said Brookes in A Landscape Legacy, published in 2018.
Following a business dispute with a partner, Denmans Garden closed to the public for a period of time. But once the situation was resolved, Brookes attacked the restoration of the garden with new vigour until his passing in 2018 just before the garden reopened to the public. By design there is nothing grand and stand-offish about Denmans; it provides welcoming and intimate spaces that enfold and enrich you every time you visit. True to John Brookes’ design tenets, every curve is strong and related, creating exquisite inter-linking spaces.
This year marks five years since the passing of John Brookes MBE, and Denmans Garden reopening to the public. The gardens have been under extensive restoration by current owner Gwendolyn Van Paasschen and more recently this year with the arrival of new head gardener, Jonathan Arnold.
“Despite being devastated by John’s unexpected passing in March of 2018, the excellent Denmans team has been tireless in bringing the garden back to its former glory, guided by old drawings, photographs, and writings gathered from friends, family, articles, and others. What a privilege it has been to be part of this important garden’s renaissance,” says van Paasschen.
Van Paasschen and Arnold take huge pride in being custodians of these historic grounds, diving into the heavy history of the land, both physically and metaphorically, pulling apart boxes of paperwork, newspaper clippings, photographs, and time capsules to truly understand the heirloom that is Denmans, digging through the gravel planters, discovering the vast variety of plants and the meanings behind their being there.
Arnolds says joining Denman Garden’s has presented a new set of mysteries each day, “finding a plant and wondering why John would have chosen to plant that specific species in that specific place, or whether it’s something that’s just grown by chance and shouldn’t even be there!” Brookes’ way of thinking and imaginative planting still impacts the team five years later.
Having previously worked for Petworth House, the nature of Robinson’s gravel planting was not new to Arnold, and by coincidence neither was the pattern of Brookes’ design as he had been such a huge influence on the private gardens of Petworth House. “It felt like a natural transition. It’s a small team at Denmans, so plenty to do. But we have amazing volunteers who go above and beyond to help with the maintenance. Van Paasschen, who Brookes had referred to as his ‘American friend’, took personal responsibility for the care of the garden when she came to Denmans and feels fortunate to have been able to start the restoration journey with Brookes by her side; from having the opportunity of hiring the existing team together, to then meeting a plethora of people from his life, after his passing.
Members of the Robinson family had revisited and mentioned so many details from growing up on the grounds that van Paasschen now aims to reincorporate these into the landscape, such as “the blue gate, as it was referred to by the families who had lived here before, running from granny’s to auntie’s, using The Nut Walk and escaping through the gate to play with their cousins.”
“Restoring the garden is part hard work, part archaeology and part pure magic!” says van Paasschen, “We aim to research carefully and remain true to the ethos and design philosophies of both John and Mrs Robinson. Brookes and his predecessors poured heart and soul into the earth at Denmans, which is as stunning now as it was in the day.” Every feature holds a multitude of stories, that van Paasschen especially is eager to share.
To mark the fifth anniversary of the garden’s reopening, Denmans has released its new guidebook, From Glorious Disarray to Controlled Disarray, which incorporates the detailed history of the grounds, the influences, and the preservation of the legacies of both Robinson and Brookes.
Denmans Gardens stands strong, encouraging its visitors to stroll through the gardens on the meandering shingle paths, watch dragonflies’ flit on the pond, and sit on one of the iconic, John Brookes blue benches.