The garden at Scotney Castle is in a setting which must surely be one of the most unusual and spectacular in the country. In an unfrequented valley, its sides clothed with ancient trees, lies a little lake. In the middle of the lake, or moat, is a ruined castle (though it is a carefully and lovingly preserved ruin) around which the garden was planned and over two centuries has grown to maturity.
The Old Castle was built in 1378, in the reign of the unfortunate Richard II, by Roger de Ashburnham. Its structure and arhitectural detail show a remarkable resemblance tot those of another famous Sussex castle, Bodiam, built ten years later. Old Scotney Castle was never meant to be a fortress: it was intended to be more of a fortified house. A detailed history of the Castle, and its occupants, is admirably set out in the official guide book which was written by that great expert of English houses and castles, the late Christopher Hussey, whose family has lived at Scotney since 1778.
Early in the last century the Mrs Hussey of the day decided that the Castle was damp and unhealthy, which in those days without central heating it almost certainly was. She took herself and her young son off to salubrious St Leonards. This son, Christopher Hussey’s grandfather, was a keen amateur architect, and it was he who, when he came of age, decided to demolish the old family home, though preserving it as a picturesque ruin, and to build a new house nearby on higher, healthier ground.
The style he chose for his new house was restrained Victorian Tudor, the material he selected was ironstone from his own quarry in the new part of the garden, and the architect he appointed was Anthony Salvin, already a leading expert on the revival of Tudor architecture for country houses. The new house was completed in 1843, and owes much of its pleasing appearance to Edward Hussey’s inspired use of beautifully textured and coloured local stone.
The Old Castle, though the Tudor portion continued to be inhabited by the estate bailiff till 1905, was thenceforth regarded as an historic and picturesque object in connection with the garden landscape. In other circumstances, it might well have been demolished or left to fall down. Instead part of the seventeenth century range was carefully taken down in such a way as to retain features of interest and increase the romantic character of the scene, and cause the medieval and Tudor portion to predominate. So originated the conception of treating the Old Castle and adjoining hillsides in the way that an artist composes a painting, but with vegetation, water and masonry instead of pigments.
The most spectacular view of the garden at Scotney is from the semi-circular balustrated bastion, built high above the quarry from which the stone for the new house was originally obtained. Under a high canopy of age-old beeches, banks of smaller flowering trees and shrubs cover the steep slope which falls towards the Old Castle in its lily-strewn moat.
Some of the shrubs are of great interest, though the garden at Scotney, unlike some of the gardens described in this book, is not a garden of exotic plants or rarities. Indeed, in such a supremely English setting they might look tawdry and out of place: out of period, certainly.
Two particular plantings deserve mention. First, the largest group of calico bushes (Kalmia latifolia), these make a brave show when they are their full, pink bloom in June. Second are the splendid groups, round the water’s edge, of the royal fern, (Osmunda regalis). This plant is said to get its curious name Osmunda from that of a Saxon Princess whose father hid her in a clump of the fern to hide her from the attentions of the invading Danes. The Old Castle’s walls are hung with roses, pink, white and mauve in summer, and nearby there is a new herb garden which seems in perfect keeping with its ancient setting.
But it is not to admire individual flowers or borders that visitors seek out Scotney. It is for the unforgettable view pf the old Castle, in its moat, from Edward Hussey’s bastion; it is to admire the masterly placing of the trees, an incense cedar (Libocedrus decurrens) in contrast with the horizontal growth of a cedar of Lebanon; and above all it is to experience the deep peace, and sense of time standing still, which pervades the whole domain.
The Hussey family motto, inscribed under the coat of arms on the porch, is Vix ea nostra voco (I scarcely call these things our own). Though Mrs Christopher Hussey still lives at Scotney and takes an active interest in the garden, this is now the charge of the National Trust, so the wording of the motto has in part come true. It is happy solution. For Mrs Hussey herself, to see the garden so well looked after, and so widely appreciated; and for vistors, who have a chance of coming to spend an hour or two, under a very special spell.