Published: 00:02, 23 April 2017
In a quiet, picturesque corner of Kent, there’s a wall with a secret.
Make your way through the village of Rolvenden, and head down the grand, gravel drive to Great Maytham Hall and you might feel yourself inspired by the beautifully blooming gardens you find there.
If so, you’re in good company because author Frances Hodgson Burnett found herself so inspired by a gate in the walled garden there, that she wrote her book, The Secret Garden.
The American, who also wrote Little Lord Fauntleroy there, rented the grade II listed house in 1898 when the garden was overgrown and the gate was hidden in the undergrowth. But a robin sitting on a nearby branch led her to the rusty gate – and the story was born.
Although the gate itself was bricked up by Sir Edwin Lutyens later, the summerhouse where she sat and wrote is still there.
Lutyens, an architect and key exponent of the Arts and Crafts movement, designed the house and south-facing gardens as they are today in 1909 for owner John Tennant, who, it is said, picked the house because he hated rain.
Estate manager Kim Horwood, who with a small team keeps the site in peak condition said: “The story is he looked all around the country and was told this had the least rainfall. I don’t know who told him it, but it was good enough for him.”
Sitting in 17 acres, it has formal gardens including a rose garden, terrace and fish pond, as well as lawns leading down to a breathtaking view across the Weald, a kitchen garden and old apple store. Beyond the walls are woodlands to explore and towards the front entrance there are bluebells, now blossoming under the cosy tree canopy.
The house is now 13 flats, with five properties in the grounds and Plum Tree Cottage, and is a venue for weddings, but is rarely open to the public.
But not all its visitors are aware of its literary secret. “We tell them about The Secret Garden and they say ‘Ooh’ and go off and look it up,” said Kim.
There are plans afoot to reinstate the gate which inspired Frances – but don’t tell anyone!
Frances Hodgson Burnett’s story, The Secret Garden, is set at the turn of the 20th century and centres on an orphaned 10-year-old girl, Mary Lennox, who had grown up in India, cared for by servants and had become spoiled and selfish.
Sent to Yorkshire to live with an uncle she has never met, at his isolated house, Misselthwaite Manor, she explores the gardens and a robin draws her to an area where she discovers a door to a locked garden. She befriends a boy, Colin, who is confined to a wheelchair and takes him to the garden – the first time he has been outdoors for years. The fresh air has a miraculous effect on his condition. The 1987 film adaptation starred Billie Whitelaw and Derek Jacobi.
Great Maytham Hall will be open for the National Gardens Scheme on Wednesday, April 26, between 1pm and 4.30pm. There is limited parking and an entrance fee of £6 for adults. It will also be open for NGS days on Wednesday, May 24, Wednesday, June 28, Wednesday, July 19 and Wednesday, August 23. For details call 01580 241346, email email@example.com
To find a garden near you in Kent open under the scheme, visit ngs.org.uk