From 'Glorious Disarray' to 'Controlled Disarray'

Denmans is a contemporary country garden that lies on a gentle slope facing south on a slightly alkaline loam over gravel beds which ensures very free drainage.  Sheltered by the South Downs to the north and enjoying good light and a mild climate, it is ideal for growing a large range of plants.

The 3.5-4.0 acre garden is a series of spaces that flow one into another elegantly but informally, including outside views in some places and focusing on an interior point in others.  Far from resembling any recognizably traditional English garden styles, Denmans is relaxed and defiantly "country" but its informality is contained with the discipline of carefully considered proportions, strong geometric shapes punctuating both the horizontal and vertical planes, and indisputable link to the countryside in which it is nestled.  The ground plan includes a series serpentine paths which present new sight lines, glimpses and surprises at every turn. By design there is nothing grand and stand-offish about Denmans. It provides welcoming and intimate spaces that enfold and enrich you every time you visit.  True to John Brookes’ design tenets, every curve is strong and related, creating exquisite inter-linking spaces that make the absolute most of its total extent.


What is now Denmans Gardens once was the food production side of a minor estate owned by Lord Denmans at the end of the 1800's and beginning of the 1900's.  It changed hands several times before being requisitioned by the WRAF during the Second World War, the manor house being used as an officer's mess for nearby Tangmere Airbase.

After the war, in 1946, Hugh and Joyce Robinson bought a large portion of the estate, sold off the manor house and "called the rest Denmans".  It took them several years of exceedingly hard work with their loyal gardener, Bertie Reed, to convert what had become a derelict garden into a working market garden.  They grew soft fruits, vegetables, and flowers for the market in Covent Garden.

As the privations of the war years receded and there was more time and resource to devote to gardening, Joyce began gardening for her own pleasure and interest, experimenting with plants and with growing mediums, especially gravel.  She would pack a lunch and spend the day at Hillier's nursery or another horticultural organization, taking notes and learning all she could about plants.  John Brookes considered her to be as knowledgeable and gifted as Beth Chatto and Margery Fish.

By 1970 she and Bertie began developing the ornamental garden in earnest and in the ensuing years developed gravel gardens, planted unusual and interesting plants in the Walled Garden, and eventually building two dry river beds inspired by a trip to Delos and the dried river beds often found along the South Downs. 

The result was a garden rich in diversity and unique attributes that made it as beautiful in winter as it was in summer.  She opened the door to the public through the Yellow Book and sold plants she'd grown to various visitors.  She described her garden as "glorious disarray", using the term in her book about Denmans.

John Brookes discovered the garden in the early 1970's when, as the Director of the Inchbald School of Garden Design, he took his students to look at gardens.  What immediately attracted him was that the garden was not trying to be something it was not but at the same time, it was not it too cottagey either.  He also was attracted by her use of plant material -- not the plants themselves but the manner in which they were planted in gravel and the way she played shape upon shape and texture upon texture.  In 1980 he persuaded Joyce -- or "Mrs. J.H." -- to let him renovate the old stable block which he named Clock House, and he moved in starting his own Clock House School of Design.  Over the years he relaid out the gardens to make the most of her planting approach as well as the garden's topography and views.  He added a pond at the bottom of the garden, a circular pool at the top, and accentuated his curving lines and paths with shapes of roughly mown grass filled with bulbs.

While Joyce was very much a plants woman, John was very much a designer and considered plants, as a whole, the last thing that went into consideration when creating a design.  Their collaboration over the more than ten years they both lived at Denmans, has resulted in a magical and enduring space that has the best of both.  As John would recall  -- Joyce said it took her ten years to relinquish control of the garden and it took him ten years to feel he owned it.

While Mrs. J.H. regarded her garden as 'glorious disarray', John would describe his Denmans garden in latter years as 'controlled disarray'.  For John, Denmans was where he pursued his hobby -- gardening -- and he never drew a planting plan or plan prospectively for his changes to the garden.

The Walled Garden

In contrast to the serpentine plan, the Walled Garden, which was once where calves were kept and later where fruits and vegetables were grown, is more linear and geometric in its layout.  In the early 1970's Mrs. J.H, having decided to retire from farming altogether. began to plant herbs, perennials, and interesting trees and shrubs, several of which still thrive there.  John Brookes subsequently transformed the Walled Garden, giving it a completely new design in the early 2000's with the legacy left him by a close friend.   He gave it an almost Mediterranean feel, with tropical plants and fragrance, using counter-pointing forms, shapes and colours in ways reflective of his own hallmark style.

Gravel gardening

In the 1960's, John Brookes pioneered the idea of replacing the British obsession for acres of striped lawns with relaxed areas of planting through gravel or shingle depending on a garden's location.  He eschewed high-maintenance gardens, including ones that required endless mowing and pruning, in favor of lower-maintenance and more natural -- but well designed and structured -- gardens.  He was attracted to Denmans because Mrs. J.H. was experimenting with planting in gravel, expanding on the practice by creating and planting the faux dry river beds.  Both John and Joyce loved the serendipity of plants popping up in gravel walks and having the luxury of decided what to pull and what to leave -- a look John described as that "self-seeding scattery look I like".

Differential grass mowing

To reduce maintenance further and to accentuate the geometry of the lawns at Denmans, John left much of the lawn to grow relatively long while designating the rest to be mown short and to be used as paths.  Spring bulbs were planted in some of the rough grass as well.

Dry river bed

Flowing from top to bottom of the main garden area and iconic of Denmans, are the two dry river beds that Joyce and Bertie carefully laid out, mindful of the topography of the south portion of the property.  Mrs. J.H. was adamant that all the stone, shingle, flint, and pebbles from which it was constructed be from Sussex, conceding only to have a long piece of Hampshire stone laid across one of the two beds to act as a small bridge when no stone long or wide enough could be found locally.   She planted Sussex natives through the shingle to which John added his own trademark architectural Denman plants.

Water feature

The dry river bed terminates in a beach that merges with a pond which, designed by John Brookes and originally built in collaboration with Antony Archer-Wills.  The pond, which has recently been restored, has a gentle, informal feel to it, though its geometry and proportions are consistent with the flowing lines of the rest of the garden.

Visit the Garden

For more information in visiting the garden, see the visiting page.