Penshurst Place

I’d not intended to write a blog post on my visit to the gardens of Penshurst Place a couple of weekends ago. It’s scarcely a ten minute drive from my front door, and I’d popped out to take some photographs for Instagram. But since I’m certain to have exhausted everybody’s patience on that particular platform with images from the visit, and having several shots yet to post, it seems they were destined for the blog all along.

I seem to make a habit of visiting places at an inappropriate moment (count yourself lucky I don’t live nearer to you). Some years ago, I managed to drive to Stratford-upon-Avon to see the national collection of pelargoniums at Fibrex Nursery at the beginning of autumn, when half the flowers were shot and petals were dropping like confetti. They must have thought I was bonkers (a suspicion subsequently confirmed) – but it didn’t matter – to me, a significant part of the joy of a pelargonium is the foliage and form of the plant and, at any rate, my favourite section of the collection is the scented leaved plants, whose flowers are the least of their glories.

So, I timed my visit to Penshurst to coincide with the period of about two weeks in spring when most of the tree fruit blossom has departed the boughs, the perennials in the beds are just thinking about shaking a leg and the famously long paeony border is still very much in bud.

The paeony border at Penshurst Place – perhaps a little early...

But the good thing about a garden with formal elements is that there’s plenty of structure in place year round, paths, tree-lined avenues, the old brick walls surrounding the garden, the yew hedges enclosing the garden rooms, and the box topiary adorning the many lawns. Not to mention the sixteenth century Italian Garden with its box parterres and oval lily pond (mainly because I’d dawdled so long that by the time I got to this part of the garden, I was getting hungry and about ready to go home for a sandwich. Or cake – I don’t remember which).

Of course, I can be this cavalier about my visits to Penshurst, as it’s an RHS Partner garden and, as an RHS member, I get in free, and can wander in when the mood takes me. One of the advantages conferred by this fortunate circumstance is that I escape the pressing feeling that I need to see all of the garden at any one visit, and am able to linger about a different area each time I come.

And this time I lingered here, in front of this old cottage built into the walls below the main house.

There’s a wealth of detail here to get lost in.

From this angle, it looks like a typical pretty, rustic Kentish house, slightly unkempt with lots of worn textures and a shady, half-wild front garden. But that’s not quite the whole story, as the following images show.

This wider shot of the area known as the paved garden, taken one October a few years ago, gives some additional context.

Looking back through the smaller of the two red acers towards the wisteria, there’s almost a japanese note in the air.

The wisteria is, upon close inspection, three standard plants whose limbs have been allowed to drop to the ground. Certainly striking – if initially a bit of a puzzle.

While I love this spot for its detail, its texture, and its crazy fusion of styles, to my mind it’s probably the least successful example of that juxtaposition of the formal and the vernacular in which Penshurst excels, especially in the soft landscaping. But with the hard elements – the buildings, the soft red brick, the paving, the containers, the small canal-like pond leading nowhere, the slightly raised terrace with the four box edged beds that should be centred on the house, or something, but is out of whack – there’s a jarring note here, that leads me to wonder, how could it be harmonised? I’m not quite sure I’ve got a solution yet, but it wouldn’t surprise me if billowing clouds of erigeron would soften some of those angular transitions and obfuscate the wonky bits.

From here, a corner is turned to take you along the blue and yellow border which, at this time of year is lime green with Euphorbia polychroma. 

The 'blue and yellow' border – lime green in spring – leading from the paved garden to the entrance and Italian Garden. 

At this point I was keen to take the weight of my feet, and wandered into the rose garden, with its edging of purple Japanese barberry Berberis thunburgii 'Atropurpurea nana' and underplanting of silver grey Stachys lanata 'Silver Carpet', to find a quiet place to sit.

The good news is that, all this being a couple of weeks ago, the paeonies should just about be flowering by now, and by next weekend will be looking fabulous. Worth making a trip, if you find yourself in the area.

Penshurst Place was recently featured in the Guardian as a great day out for the family, recommending the new cycle path which winds through the Kent countryside from nearby Tonbridge. For those fancying a more sedate visit, it’s a few short miles from Junction 5 on the M25. Visit for more information.