Finding Saffrons

Saffrons; we fell in love at first sight.  We had looked in vain for over two years for a “character” property with a good-sized garden, a south aspect, an outbuilding for a studio…and enough bedrooms to accommodate my husband’s growing brood of grandchildren.

There just didn’t seem to be any…

When the brochure came through our letter slot it seemed too perfect to be true…and it was.  Our untouched “gem” hadn’t had any money spent on it since before it was sold with its  three acres in 1930.

It was held together with plumber’s tape and promises…the surveyor thought that we were mad…we were in love.

The large garden, like the house, was very neglected.  The hedges were full of bindweed and there were large patches of brambles and nettles carpeting the southwest corner.

Looking back, I would have taken things a lot more slowly, but, naturally, we just couldn’t wait.  (My next garden will be better thought through…when I go to the “Great Garden in the Sky”…)

In our efforts to clear away the weeds and debris I think that we unwittingly stripped away the cover that provided habitat for the birds and other creatures who had happily settled into their small Eden.

The birds were affected somewhat, but it didn’t seems to bother the bees.  I had never seen so many bees in a garden.  Honey bees, naturally, but also lots and lots of wild bees…enormous bumbling bumblebees, Buff-tails, Red-tails and Brown-banded Carder bees.

(Of course, I didn’t know their names then; that came later thanks to Dave Goulson and his book A Sting in the Tale…)

“we discovered the enamelled surround of an entire cast iron bathtub”

Every summer Stag Beetles would appear (and still do) which came, we found, from the various piles and stumps of rotting wood that dotted the property. 

There were also lots of strange “soupy” holes that I came across when I was digging.  I now realise that they were the very rotten remnants of dead tree stumps, most of which seemed to have succumbed to the Honey Fungus, which was everywhere…

Clearing along the south boundary we found deep stacks (going well into the ground) of plastic bags for compost and whatever.  Those and stacks of york stone seemed to provide hibernation places for a large population of toads.

Catherine slays the bathtub…

As we explored we found artifacts of the property as it had been in the 1920’s when it had its three acres.  There was half of an ornamental yew hedge that ran east-west and ended in the west boundary beech hedge.

There was also evidence of a grass tennis court: a pretty blue stained net support and two lawn rollers.  The owners before us had planted an apple orchard over the court area….as one does…(garden pentimento).

When we were clearing grass from paving stones in part of the garden near the back sheds, we discovered the enamelled surround of an entire cast iron bathtub which had been buried up to its rim…?  Digging it out was extremely satisfying…

There were bowls of clay pipes, musket balls (from, we assume, when troops were stationed all around here during the war of 1812), a lead circus animal, a partial toy soldier, a model Royal Mail van (in relatively good condition considering that it had been buried since the 1950’s)…and a silver demitasse spoon missing its coffee bean finial…

Garden Treasures

There were also trenches filled with old bottles, some turned quite lovely colors from being buried.  It turned out that the trenches were the remains of the foundations for glass houses (the 1920’s owner had been an orchid fancier) which dotted the property.

Of the glass houses there remained one, by the side of the house, very large and very lethal with its randomly-falling guillotine blades of glass.   Birds nested in it quite happily and there was a little peach tree and also a delicious fig inside which I watered and harvested at my peril!

The lethal greenhouse

“hold on; I’m an American, I should follow my own instincts”

Sadly we couldn’t save the fig when the greenhouse was finally taken down (no; it was not pretty and victorian; just utilitarian, a fortune to restore, and way too big…), and then when we did, we discovered a flight of brick steps going down into the ground…mysterious…

I hoped that there might have been evidence of the original well, because when the house was built in 1908  the road it now fronts was only a footpath, so the house would have had to have its own water supply; but we never discovered it, much to my chagrin during periods of drought when a well would have been pretty useful…!

The crowning glories of the garden were the mature trees along the south boundary; two beeches one green and one gorgeous copper, a walnut, an ash, two Lawson Cypresses and several mature Leylandiis (which gradually met their unmourned demises).

Every single one had a tree protection order (T.P.O.).  There was also a yew right in the middle of the lawn and a really miserable Colorado Blue Spruce.  Our county tree officer, fortunately, agreed with me that that sort of tree belonged in the mountains of Colorado or on a large estate and not in a middling Sussex garden.

We cherish the trees.  Older properties like Saffrons and much older ones still, so often have lost their surrounding grounds and mature trees with them.  I know that we are fortunate to have found a spot that has just enough land with it…

Enough space to make a nice garden, but not enough to get in over our heads…which would be oh so easy to do.

I remember at one point early on thinking that I would make an “English perennial border” along the western boundary.  Fortunately, that didn’t happen.  I thought, “hold on; I’m an American, I should follow my own instincts”, which I did, for good or not.

And that, two decades later, has been enough…

Flower Beds, Himalayan birches late July

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