07 September 2012

Great Barn Restoration at Great Dixter

As any garden designer knows, the composition of a garden is more than just plants. There are other elements to consider: water, the form of the land, climate, paving, and buildings. In the not-too-distant past gardens were designed around structures from which the garden could be viewed and appreciated, the buildings and the gardens integrated into a unified whole. Without one, the other would be incomplete. Great Dixter is that kind of garden with that kind of house but it's the Great Barn that was in the spotlight last weekend.

The Great Barn, Great Dixter
The Great Barn, with medieval timbers and triple-cowled 19th century oast house, is a massive hulk of a structure brooding over several parts of the garden. It gives the Barn Garden its name and when viewed from down in the Sunk Garden, the enormous undulating sea of roof tiles is almost imposing yet you never feel engulfed by it.

The white cowls of the Oast House pivot with the wind and are a reminder of this garden's past as a working farm. The medieval farmer who sheltered his beasts in the barn over winter and the 19th and 20th century hop workers processing the season's harvest probably wouldn't recognize the garden today, but they would know that structure without a shadow of a doubt.

South face of the Oast House
It's fortunate for us and for the history of the area that these buildings were preserved when the Lloyd family bought the tired estate in 1909. Edwin Lutyens designed the gardens around them - the barn, cattle troughs, hovels, bothies, cart sheds, even a pig pen, were all woven into the fabric of the garden and are integral notes in the composition. Perhaps even more fortunate was the desire by the current Trust to restore these wonderful edifices to their former glory instead of following the trend of commercial conversion to tea rooms and gift shops.

Don't get me wrong, I've been to plenty of gardens with fancy stable blocks converted to tea rooms and gift shops and, for the most part, all have been well done and they work for those gardens but covering the interior of Dixter's wonderful old barn with sheet rock and plunking in a lino service counter burdened with cakes and packaged sandwiches just isn't Dixter. Christopher Lloyd was adamant that the place not be mothballed and sealed in aspic when he died, nor that it become too commercialized or institutionalized. Head gardener and Trust CEO Fergus Garrett is determined that Christo's wishes be honored and the character of Great Dixter be respected in every aspect of managing the gardens, right down to the care of these magnificent old buildings. The world needs more like Fergus, I say.

Fergus called the restoration of the barn "the icing on the cake" of a multi-million pound restoration scheme focused on the buildings that has been ongoing since Christo's death in 2006, including the acquisition of Dixter Farm down the track, which was restored and made into an education center and student accommodations. Now there's a worthy conversion for you. With a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and donations from friends and private contributors, the barn project began in late 2011. I was fortunate enough to be there to see it before work began, then to visit as it was ongoing, and finally to see the fabulous new restoration opened to the public.

Opening of the Great Barn 3 Sept 2012
One of the things I love about Dixter is their stewardship of the land. With an eye to the future oak from the Dixter woods was harvested years ago, milled, and set out to season so it could be used in the restoration. Some was used in the house to replace rotting 15th century timbers, and as much as possible was used in the barn. The coppice woods are still managed and the poles, peasticks, twigs, etc. are all still used in the gardens. Students this year even learned how to split sweet chestnut and make ladders and hurdles, all with hand tools. In keeping with this form of management that honors the ancient traditions, an area of the barn was set up to demonstrate these hand-crafts and the products made there are put to work in the garden or made available in the shop. All using locally sourced materials, all made by traditional hand-craft, right there under the beams of the medieval barn. How cool is that!?

But enough talk, there are lots of pictures to see. If you're in East Sussex this autumn, a stop at Dixter is a must. The house and garden - and now great barn - are open until 28 October and believe me when I tell you there will still be plenty to see in the garden.

The Great Barn and Oast House in Spring 2011 before restoration began
Great Dixter 04.20.11 087
Spring 2011
Sept. 2012
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Brimstone would have been kept in the curved niches to feed the fire (middle door) under the drying floor
The restored hop press. Dried hops were pressed into bags hanging from below.


Hop workers wrote the start date of hops harvest on the joists, which have been preserved.

Fergus addresses the crowd on opening day 3 Sept 2012
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Exterior of the barn and oast before restoration, Spring 2011
Great Dixter 009
November 2011
September 2012, seen from the Solar Garden
The garden side of the barn offers shelter for visitors and a mess room for the gardeners. Fergus shares a moment with Rachael and James, the first two Christopher Lloyd Scholars (notice they're all wearing primary colors. I love that!)
Testimonies to enduring craftsmanship and sensitive stewardship: early morning light touches the 15th century Great Hall, 19th century oast and medieval great barn with a pale setting moon (top right) smiling down. Try imagining the garden without them. 4 Sept. 2012
The garden at Great Dixter is open Tuesday - Sunday and Bank Holiday Mondays from 11-5 and the house is open from 2-5 until 28 October and will re-open 1st April. See their website for admission cost and special events and study days throughout the year.

Links to videos of the project can be found here and here. Watch them. But be warned, you just might fall in love with the place.

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