The Lost Garden

Some years ago now, we were living in in Brighton in the lap of modern comfort. Nothing could have been further from our minds than moving to the country on the January afternoon that I noticed a small photograph of a farmhouse being put up in the window of an estate agents in Lewes. On a whim I walked in and asked if I could view the house immediately. It so happened that I could. January was thrashing about; biting wind and rain like icy needles. We drove - my mother and I, and six year old Monty - into the unknown as the faded colours of January dimmed and darkness encroached. We arrived at Starnash Farmhouse when all that could be seen was the silhouette of the old house, its windows all aglow with warm light against a starless, pewter sky.

Twelve weeks later we bid farewell to our modernist house in the heart of Brighton and moved into the farmhouse. And so began a new way of life.

We live on a three acre smallholding now, which is just enough for us to comfortably manage and work towards our aim of living a fairly self-reliant lifestyle. Starnash Farmhouse is typical of the Sussex vernacular. It has origins dating back to the Doomsday book, so they say, and the house, which started life as not much more than a shepherd's hut, was gradually extended over the centuries until it became a modest but comfortable farmhouse.

The old house, sturdy as she was, standing defiantly for generations against the winds and rains that scud across the fields all winter, and creaking and cracking under the heat of the summer sun which dries the deep clay in these parts as hard as brick, was in need of some tender care. In 2014, after many years of piling on jumpers for fear or using up our winter oil reserves and wood supplies, we were granted planning permission to extend the house. For us this meant also making it more environmentally sustainable. Despite there being a certain perverse charm to warming up our clothes in the coal aga in a kitchen that frequently smelled like an old railway station, or lashing hot water bottles to one's body beneath an outer carapace of shawls, such eccentricities frankly aren't right in these modern times. Not only is heating a little old farmhouse in the middle of a field frighteningly expensive but one is also acutely aware that the ozone layer would not be viewing our little patch of England very favourably.

The house is set in about an acre of garden set apart from a meadow and vegetable garden by a low flint wall. The garden is laid mainly to lawn and I had been working on a herbaceous border over the years which grew inch by inch as friends gifted me cuttings and plants. The first thing we decided to do to improve the house was to install ground source heating.

So, in September 2014 we dug up the meadow and laid nearly half a kilometre of ground source heating pipework which had to pass beneath the old flint wall and crash through my herbaceous border. It was then laid in a trench across the garden and entered the cellar where we installed the hefty machines which would perform the great workings of sucking out the residual heat from the cold earth to keep us warm in winter.

Golden September sunlight flowed across the meadow and set the apples ripening in the orchard. The renovations had started and there was no stopping now whilst Rik was in the digger. There were foundations to be dug deep into the clay (which changes from ochre to china blue the deeper you dig and is the fine clay used for the sought after Dickerware pottery).

We knew that time was against us and it was all hands on deck to get as much done as possible before winter set in. The ground source heating needed electricity to power it and so we installed 8Kw of solar panels on a pole barn roof.

The sun shone into October and husband Dave (a hands-on architect who builds what he designs) with the team, Rik and Mat, worked all hours to get the ground works in place before winter set in.

The old house, which had floated for centuries on a raft of chalk, creaking and cracking, expanding and contracting with whatever the seasons threw at her was about to have the equivalent of a major hip replacement. With current building regulations it is belts and braces all the way; two and a half metre deep foundations and RSJs which would withstand a whirling tornado.

Then the rains came. Steady and persistent. The wind hurled what it could at the house as she stood, stripped bare with nothing but a duvet as a wall throughout winter to preserve modesty and keep the worst of the weather at bay.

There was nothing for it but to...

As winter dragged on the plumbers worked to commission the ground source heating. We no longer had oil fired central heating, just wood stoves, a single fan heater and hot water bottles.

The garden was lost completely. It was a sea of mud and it felt like a war zone.

We collected plastic bags. A simple trip to the car, or to walk down the drive to catch the school bus necessitated bagging up our feet.

No deliveries came to the house any more. We had to install an American style mail box at the end of the drive as the post mistress could stand it no longer. We were marooned.

Christmas came and went and the incessant rain and driving sleet prevailed but Dave, Rik and Mat worked without stopping into the darkness with just a couple of floodlights to see by, and gradually the extension took shape.

We could have added a modernist extension to contrast to the existing building but we decided that the modest architecture of the house deserved something in keeping. So every old brick was saved and cleaned to be re-used, all the slates that had clad the east elevation were preserved. The brick floors were taken up and re-laid over underfloor heating. During the demolition the original timber frame was exposed and found to be in perfect condition. The existing building has been revealed in every new room of the extension so that each room is partly old and partly new.

Double glazing was a pre-requisite of the design in order to ensure the efficiency of the renewable energy systems we had installed. I had a horror of modern double glazed windows fearing that the the bland plastic, aluminium or polyester powder coated frames stuck onto sheets of flat manufactured glass would jar with the bumbling imperfections of the exisiting house. We opted, in the end, for wooden windows which we primed and painted in the old fashioned way with lamp room grey gloss paint.

Now it is high summer and here is what became of the lost garden. After the ground source heating pipes had been laid and covered over with the poor meadow clay, I sowed a mix of wild flowers and grasses. I have tried this before on undisturbed land but without success. This year however, as Nature established itself over the disruption we had caused we were rewarded with a meadow rich with poppies, field marigolds, red clover, corn cockle, vetch, cornflowers and more...

As soon as the clay dried out just enough to step on it without being sucked down calf deep, I inspected the stretch where the herbaceous border had once been and noticed a few fragile shoots breaking through the tumbled earth. The cultivated plants had been mashed around and weeds were hurrying past them in a bid to gain their space in the border. I dug out every plant that I could save and forked in manure and compost. The greenhouse was filled with seed trays of annuals promising a burst of colour over the summer. By April I was able to transplant the flimsy seedlings into the herbaceous border and sow grass seed where the lawn would once more grow. Then it was just a matter of waiting...

until summer...and here it is - the lost herbaceous border,

And the fruit and vegetables are ripening too...

So there it is; a potted history of how we came to be where we are now. The ground source heating and solar power are working in perfect unison, the sewing machine is whirring away making curtains for our en-suite guest bedrooms, walls are being painted, flooring laid and furniture polished ready to welcome our first guests in a matter of days. It is, of course, a work in progress, as all homes are, but we hope that anyone who comes to stay with us will feel relaxed and comfortable, enjoy eating local and home grown, home cooked food and have a thoroughly good time in this lovely part of Sussex.

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