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The garden at Alfriston Clergy House

Poppies and other flowers are seen growing in the garden at Alfriston Clergy House East Sussex
Poppies in the garden at Alfriston Clergy House East Sussex | © National Trust Images/Gary Cosham

Sir Robert Witt, the chairman of the National Art Collections Fund, was the property's first tenant and largely responsible for the terraced parts of the garden that you see today. During the time of his tenancy, it was popular to see the garden as an extension of the house and so gardens often appeared as a series of intimately linked rooms surrounded by hedges and trellis, the concept of ‘garden rooms’. Each ‘room’ often had a theme and a title as they do here at Alfriston.

Autumn’s bounty

With traditional apple tree varieties in the orchard laden with fruit, and pumpkins peeking through their cover of leaves, this is the perfect place to rest and reflect as the days draw in.

‘Tiny but beautiful, with an orchard and a sweep of lowland river behind it’

– Octavia Hill, National Trust founder

Veg harvest

Autumn sees a bumper crop of pumpkins at the bottom of the kitchen garden, just in time for Halloween. The long green leaves of the leeks are standing proud, waiting to be made into a deliciously tasty and easy leek and potato soup.

Traditional apple varieties

The apple trees in the orchard are all traditional old-fashioned English varieties such as Lady Sudeley and Charles Ros, and their boughs are now laden with fruit.

The Alfriston apple is a favourite, and was raised in the late 1700s by Mr Shepherd of Uckfield and originally named Shepherd's Pippin. It was renamed 'Alfriston' in 1819 by Mr Booker who lived in that village, and it is a favourite Victorian exhibition variety, much sought-after for its handsome fruit and excellent keeping qualities. The fruit is a large bright green-yellow rectangular shape, and it cooks down to slightly acidic purée.

The medlar tree

The medlar tree is a very decorative addition to any garden but also bears an unusual-looking fruit. It is covered in a mass of large white flowers in May, followed by the appearance of its flattish fruits. If the fruit is to be eaten raw, it should be 'bletted' for two to three weeks, by which time the fruit is deeper brown in colour and the flesh softer.

To 'blett' the fruit it needs to be picked and spread on straw or sawdust somewhere cool, and allowed to ripen further off the tree. Alternatively, the fruit can be made into a pink jelly with a very distinctive flavour.

Garden features

The Witts terraced the garden toward the river and created the brickwork paths that lead around the garden rooms. During a walk around the garden, you will see many different amphora and large urns, which were brought to the property by Sir Robert Witt, tenant of the Clergy House from 1907 to his death in 1952. According to a letter by his son John, these amphora and urns were brought back from Naples by his father on his various excursions. They bring a Mediterranean feel to a typical cottage garden.

Garden rooms

Box tree garden

This area of the garden is a medieval-style square bounded by yew hedges and divided by paths. At the centre is a sundial commissioned to mark the centenary of the Clergy House, sitting on a balustrade from the old London Waterloo bridge.

The orchard

After losing most of the trees in the 1987 hurricane, the orchard was replanted with traditional varieties of apples such as ‘Lady Sudeley’, ‘Crawley Beauty’, ‘Monarch’ and the local Alfriston apple.

The orchard in July at Alfriston Clergy House, East Sussex
The orchard in July at Alfriston Clergy House | © National Trust Images/Marianne Majerus

Herb garden

This part of the garden is filled with plants that have been used in herbal medicine for centuries, all having been mentioned in Nicholas Culpeper’s herbal of 1653. Some are purely decorative now, and many are toxic in the wrong doses, but most are still used by modern herbalists today. Notable highlights include field scabious, devil’s bit scabious, agrimony, ox-eye daisy, achillea, bugle and bistort. Bugle was used for throat infections and the root of bistort was used to stop the flow of blood.

Vegetable garden

Currently divided into eight raised beds retained with railway sleepers, a variety of vegetables are grown throughout the year and include potatoes, runner beans, sweetcorn, rocket, courgettes and leeks.

Sundial surrounded by topiary yew hedges at Alfriston Clergy House, East Sussex
Sundial surrounded by topiary yew hedges at Alfriston Clergy House | © National Trust Images/Marianne Majerus

Rose garden

The roses in the borders have been chosen for their perfume and are a mix of albas, gallicas, bourbons, rugosas and hybrid musks. They are underplanted with campanulas and other cottage garden favourites.

The west-facing front of the 14th-century timber-framed Alfriston Clergy House, East Sussex. The deep eaves of the thatched roof cast shade on to light-coloured walls. Crosses of an old graveyard lie in front.

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