William Robinson (1838–1935) was a famous gardener and highly successful author who challenged many of the commonplace gardening traditions of his time, and whose ideas for gardens attracted widespread interest in Victorian England because they were in tune with an increasing taste for simplicity as epitomised by the British Arts and Crafts movement. William Robinson is renowned for his ‘wild’ and ‘natural’ gardening, and a resurgence of interest in the English Cottage garden. His preference for natural planting design translated to any space, large or small, and his ideas and expertise still influence gardeners and landscape designers today. Robinson was ahead of his time. He possessed a forward-thinking approach to ecology and sustainability, and was passionate about the protection of public parks and wildernesses and of the importance of green spaces for our health and wellbeing, as well as the importance of having trees in the landscape. He is credited with the introduction of the mixed herbaceous border, and the planting of large drifts of native hardy perennial plants both in and beyond the borders of the garden.
In 1884, Robinson, using the proceeds of his successful writing career, purchased an Elizabethan manor house, Gravetye Manor, near East Grinstead in Sussex, along with surrounding pasture and woodland which he gradually added to. Robinson completely redesigned the existing garden in his signature style and began work on the surrounding estate. Much of the estate was coppiced woodland giving Robinson the opportunity to experiment on a vast scale with planting on the edges, and in cleared spaces, in the woods. Planting in meadows, woodland, and in and around water is taken for granted today, but was revolutionary in Robinson’s time, as was his interest in plants’ habit of growth and their cultural requirements.
The woodland surrounding Gravetye Manor contained both broadleaf woodlands and conifer forest, and included Shagswell Wood, Giffard’s Wood, Hastings Wood, and Bushy Wood. During his time at Gravetye Manor Robinson added hundreds of trees to these surrounding woods, creating diverse woodland habitats, with both non-native conifers as well as native trees and he added many species, including some native to North America, India and China, given by friends or purchased by him, or imported from around the world. Warren’s Wood, to the north-east of the manor house, was established by 1841 but was planted with pines by Robinson in 1890 and to the north-west in 1892, on a former open field, he created Pine Wood, followed by Cedar Grove in 1904.
In the spirit of experimentation he moved on to using any plant that could be naturalised, including half-hardy perennials and natives from other parts of the world, and often started hedges and trees from seed – with mixed success. In areas of coppiced hazels and chestnuts Robinson records planting Japanese anemone, lilies, acanthus, and pampas grass, along with carpets of bluebells, cyclamen. He also planted 100,000 small Iberian narcissi around the lakes which lie just below the main house, and introduced ornamental trees and shrubs such as Fothergilla, Stewartia, and Nyssa into the woods. He formed a lifelong friendship with Gertrude Jekyll who shared many of his design principles, and from 1910 Ernest Markham was employed as his head gardener.
In February 2010, the lease of the Grade 1* house and Grade 2* iconic garden was purchased by Saphos Hotels owned by Jeremy and Elizabeth Hosking. Gravetye Manor is now a Michelin starred country house hotel and restaurant. Tom Coward, who had worked alongside Fergus Garrett at Great Dixter, is head gardener, and he has focussed on presenting the gardens in a way Robinson would have enjoyed, ensuring colour in the flower beds from late March until the end of October, and undertaking restoration projects which pay homage to Robinson’s experimental style.