The Garden Group visited a really interesting and unusual garden this month. Penns in the Rocks is situated just over the border into Sussex, very near to Groombridge. It is not easy to find, hidden in deep countryside up a long drive but what a fascinating find! The house takes its name from William Penn who founded Pennsylvania and the huge outcrop of sandstone rocks which sit right opposite the house and form a dramatic feature of the garden. The rocks form part of the same ridge that rises in Tunbridge Wells, trees grow out of fissures in the rock and their roots can be seen twining and twisting like dramatic sculptures. The house was originally a farmhouse but was upgraded in 1732 with a beautiful classical facade that can still be seen today and it easy to imagine a huge turning circle for carriages on what is now the front lawn overlooking the magnificent rocks.
In 1928 Vita Sackville West and her friend Dorothy Wellesley (the wife of the Duke of Wellington), went to see the house when it went up for sale, they both fell in love with it and Dorothy bought it and lived there until her death in 1956. Dorothy built a little temple on top of the hill overlooking the house and there is a plaque in the temple commemorating the famous literary friends who visited the house, including WB Yeats and Walter de la Mare.
The house and estate was purchased by Patrick Gibson, later Baron Gibson, after the death of Dorothy Wellesley. His son Hugh Gibson whose family now live at the house, kindly gave us a short talk about the history of the house and garden. Baron Gibson had a fascinating career as a soldier, businessman, chair of the Arts Council and chair of the National Trust – among many other interests – especially his garden at Penn Rocks. He became of life peer in 1975 and died in 2004.
We were shown round the garden by Chris Sutton, the Head Gardener, who has worked at Penns for over twenty years and his passion and knowledge shone through. It is a beautiful garden, with dramatic landscapes around it and really interesting features including some very old and interesting trees. The walled garden looked wonderful with a formal layout planted at the moment with tulips and forget-me-nots, there were also magnificent magnolia trees and areas of bluebells and azaleas just budding but not quite out. The garden is open through the National Garden Scheme on Sunday 12th May and is well worth seeking out.