"Head to Sissinghurst – and quickly!" advised a woman at Chelsea last week. "Summer's come a month early and the garden is peaking." Sadly, I couldn't. I had to go to Paris for business. A week later, however, I could think of nothing else but Sissinghurst. The idea of seeing that famous garden in full bloom – "the best it's ever looked" according to the Chelsea lady – seemed like the perfect antidote to travel weariness.
So, with the realisation that most of England's rose gardens might be peaking, I decided, on the spur-of-the-moment, to hire a car to do a 'Rose Tour of England' for a week. It was folly really. Expensive. Time-consuming. (What about all the emails and work waiting?) And what if it rained? No accommodation had been booked, either. Basically, all the components for a travel disaster.
Five phone calls to hotels, and five "Sorry, we're full" responses later, The Rose Tour was drooping before it started. Then, a break. "You may like to try Jill at King John's Lodge in Etchingham," suggested one hotelier. "She doesn't advertise, and she's without internet or email at the moment, so she's fairly off-the-grid..." "Perfect!" I said, "what's her number?"
This is how I stumbled across one of the most magnificent B&Bs, hidden within one of the most magnificent small gardens in southern England.
Owned by Jill Cunningham and her late husband, the 500-year-old Tudor-and-Edwardian mansion King John's Lodge was purchased as a run-down wreck and restored by the couple. A glorious garden soon followed. "My husband did the design; I did the planting and weeding!" said Jill modestly, since I suspect she did most of it. The word 'beautiful' doesn't seem to adequately cover it. The garden is, well, a spiritual experience.
Awoken at 5am on the first morning by the birds and sunlight, I wandered outside with camera in hand. Down to the roses beds, past the long pond and the ancient espaliered fruit trees, across the bridge and then into the wildflower garden where the birds were chirping contentedly. There was a stillness, and a magic, to the garden that was moving. I still think about its beauty four days later.
So here are a few pix of King John's Lodge to persuade you to stay there if you're visiting Kent or Sussex, especially in late spring or summer. Jill is one of the loveliest people I've ever stayed with. I adore her. You will too.
King John’s Lodge
Sheepstreet Lane, Etchingham,
East Sussex, TN19 7AZ
Tel. 01580 819220