Great Dixter - A Pause for Thought

First view of Great Dixter - 'over the garden gate'

Is it possible to have a memory of a place without going there?

This is the central question posed by a book called Losing Site, which I tried to review for Green Places magazine last year. I gave up in frustration because a) I found the book unreadable and more importantly b) I heartily disagreed with its premise that a place can have resonance through artifacts such as postcards.

But I'd forgotten about Great Dixter.

The Long Border

Visiting Great Dixter last week was like going home. Christopher Lloyd was the first garden writer who 'spoke' to me. His words made sense and for the first time I 'got' how magical gardening can be.

His words also form a golden thread sown through very dark times. Some years ago NAH's father died just before we went on holiday to Derbyshire. Much of that time was spent to-ing and fro-ing between our holiday cottage and Darlington;  making arrangements, attending the funeral, dealing with the final part of growing up losing a parent brings.

In the quiet pauses between the bustle, I was reading Succession Planting for Adventurous Gardeners. It was  a healing balm. If we'd been at home I would have spent time in my own garden, but as we were away, Great Dixter and its Long Border was my place of recuperation.

It's one of the reasons why I've not visited before. When so much emotion is invested in a place and what's been written, visiting can only lead to disappointment can't it?

Well, I was wrong.

Despite what the sign says, we were made most welcome!

We may have visited in one of the coldest of Marches and just before the doors opened to the public, but Great Dixter was magical. It's the first time I've been to a place where its feel can be summed up in one word. Happiness.

The team there truly enjoy what they do. Fergus Garrett is inspirational and his enthusiasm flowed from him into we bloggers there for the day. I was struck how Christopher Lloyd's legacy carries on through those left behind. The strive to learn, do better, and experiment is refreshing. It's not always perfect - Fergus readily admits they get things wrong sometimes - but the key importance is it's taken as a positive thing, an opportunity for learning. It's something that's sadly missing in most places I've experienced, particularly work.

As well as feeling inspired and invigorated, I also felt a bit daunted. The team there have so much knowledge* and expertise and I have so little. Thank goodness I have my garden and my blog; they form the backbone of my own learning.

Probably the tidiest garden nursery I've ever seen
It was a fabulous day. I had great company in the shape of blogging buddies and the team at Great Dixter put a fantastic programme together for us. I shall return as soon as I can. I feel the need to simply sit on a wall and make copious notes, just like the woman in the picture.

And I NEED to find one of these:

Helleborus 'Anna's Red'
* = this time I understood all the latin names. When I heard Fergus speak at my first ever visit to the Bath University Gardening Club 4 years ago, I hardly understood any of the plant names he mentioned. I'm holding on to the fact I've improved in the meantime!


  1. By accident, I came across Christopher Lloyd quite early in my gardening addiction. I think his sense of challenging the idea of what does and does not go together, particularly with colour, has helped formed my own way of gardening. I visited Great Dixter a few summers ago and spent hours wandering around, taking in the colour and textures and just enjoying the garden. I agree, happiness describes it exactly. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Gwenfar - and thank you for today's #bloglove :) Yep, challenging ideas has to be good! I loved what Fergus said on the day about giving so much to the team, so that they have the chance to learn and even become better than he. He said he had that from Christopher Lloyd and its such a generous approach. How many 'bosses' encourage a culture that their staff should become better than they? It's a philosophy I've only seen elsewhere in the teaching profession.

  2. The long border reminds me of the purple and yellow long border in the gardens down here at Dartington Hall, first planted by Beatrix Campbel (Edith Wharton's niece) for Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst. Something about tumbling mature perennials over soft coloured stone is very satisfying. Hope you are well, Michelle! x

    1. Hello and welcome! Dartington Hall's on my list of gardens to see :) So nice to see you here after meeting you in Bristol! x

  3. VP, your emotions sound similar to those I experienced on my first visit to Great Dixter in 2011. After many years of reading Christopher Lloyd's books as well as endless written material about the garden I was most apprehensive that it would not live up to my expectations. I need not have fretted as it surpassed them away and above all my wildest dreams. I was not only enamoured by the garden but the house too with its aura of timelessness and felt a profound sense of déjà vu and wellbeing. I'm hoping to return in the next year or so and plan this time to visit Sissinghurst too. Funnily enough that hellebore features on my wish list too.

    1. Now I already had you down for one of those :) The label below the picture is a link to Anna Pavord's article about the nursery which bred the Hellebore and how the owner named it after her. It's a lovely story - another example of generosity: from both the nurseryman and Anna's writing :)

  4. Hi Michelle, your post perfectly sums up this heavenly garden and the ethos of those who work there. Don't think I could ever tire of visiting or volunteering in this joyous haven.

    1. I understand now why you feel that way Naomi :)

  5. I'm glad you had a good time. I suspect I am reluctant to visit for similar reasons, I have built it up in my head and I dont want to be disappointed.

    Ashwood Nurseries have Hellebore 'Anna's Red' but it is a newish introduction and rather pricey - £20ish if I remember right. I think it was named after Anna Pavord.

    1. Hi Helen - for once Great Dixter is a place which exceeds expectations, so I think you're safe to go. It's a blimmin long way away though - perhaps we can manage that time away together after all sometime when you've come back from San Francisco :)

      Yes, I saw Ashwood Nurseries have it and having read Anna Pavord's article, I understand why it's so pricey. The seed is incredibly difficult to germinate. Trust me to pick the one plant, that's difficult to propagate, but then that'll make it even more special when I find it.

      You'll see Catherine from Dixter has commented on the plant's origins. I've decided I'd like to get it from the original nursery if I can.

  6. Hi Michelle,

    Catherine from Dixter here. So pleased (as I said in my email) that you had a good day with us. It was great to meet you all - albeit for a bit of a whirlwind tour. As you say above - you'll have to come back and spend some more reflective time!

    Anna's Red was originally bred by Rodney Windsor of RD plants who will also have it for sale- pricey as Helen says but the result of 15 years (or more) work. (Lynda Windsor, Rodney's wife came down a couple of winters ago when they had just been launched for one of our open weekends with a whole load for sale but unsurprisingly they all went)- here are their details

    Hope that helps


    1. Hi Catherine - so kind of you to comment :)

      Thanks for the information on the origins of 'Anna's Red'. I'm not surprised they all went when you had some. Gaz (who correctly identified the plant for me on the day) warned me it's quite difficult to get hold of, but I think it'll be well worth the wait!

  7. A couple of people have commented via Twitter, which I'd like to capture alongside my feelings about my visit. There's only a few gardens I've visited which have really touched my soul and it seems Great Dixter has reached quite a few of us in that way.

    Firstly Susie White, @cottagegardener said: I feel just same. Felt I'd been to #Dixter through words but my first trip with @GardenEmma was as calmingly lovely as my dream

    and then Sharon Moncur, @SharonMoncur added: It is such a magical place isn't it. Somehow it feels like a home to us too. Everyone is always so welcoming

  8. What a lovely read. Memories of your first visit will never leave you and I doubt they will ever fade - even if you visit 100 more times, you will never be able to recreate the feelings of excitement and apprehension going on inside your mind as you walked through those doors. I wonder did you have butterflies in your stomach? I am so glad you were not disappointed - a reason I often put things off!!
    That sure is a beautiful Hellebore - we will all be looking forward to seeing it take pride of place in your garden!
    Too far away for me to be a regular visitor but if I'm ever in the area Great Dixter will be top of my list!

  9. Great post - I find reading other people's blogs inspiring too..always gaining new knowledge and insight
    Great Dixter will be on my list too, if I ever go to that area

  10. Have not yet visited but have always had a soft spot for Christopher Lloyd's dismissal of tight colour schemes and gardening orthodoxy. 'Succession Planting for Adventurous Gardeners' is also one of my favourite chilly day reads, along with Geoff Hamilton's "The Ornamental Kitchen Garden" - these are probably my top two page-turners and the ones I'd take with me to a desert island.

    Must go to Great Dixter this year.

  11. My visit there was much like yours at about the same time of year. Outstanding in memory as yours was. I liked this post very much VP...really special.

  12. I am too like you,I have read his books and even reproduced some of his ideas in my own garden but still have to visit.I am sure I will be like you and wont be disappointed.

  13. Angie - you are totally right :)

    Lynda - I've been exploring Sussex quite a bit over the past couple of weeks. Well worth a holiday there :)

    TTG - desert island books, now there's an idea for a blog meme for next winter :)

    bren - thank you - so glad you've been there too.

    flowerlady - you won't. Now I need to get to grips with layering...


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