Tempted by free garden admission for RHS members, we visited Parham Park in West Sussex, located midway between Pulborough and Storrington on the A283, over the weekend. As the old Michelin guides used to say, it’s worth the detour.
The house itself is predominantly Elizabethan, with later additions, and was rather well restored in the inter-war years by the Pearson family with the help of the architect Victor Heal, using traditional materials and craftsmanship.
While few of the contents are utterly exceptional by the standard of great houses such as Petworth or Chatsworth, many are very interesting. Perhaps the most important, now Stubbs’ significant paintings of a kangaroo and a dingo have gone to the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, is Robert Peake’s large equestrian Portrait of Henry Prince of Wales, glorious in its complicated iconography and jewel box splendour, of around 1611. There is fine furniture and a collection of sixteenth and seventeenth century paintings by artists such as Paul van Somer, Larkin, Lely and Verelst that would be the prized exhibits of most provincial galleries.
Most importantly though, the house taken as a whole, has a lovely, soft, quiet atmosphere enhanced by generous displays of flowers freshly cut from the gardens. It is a remarkably pleasant experience to move through its rooms and this almost certainly is a result of it remaining a home to Lady Emma Barnard, a Pearson descendant, and her family.
However, perhaps the greater glory of Parham lies in its grounds and gardens. The house is surrounded by a park, full of ancient trees, deer and abundant insect life including rare crickets that justify its SSSI status; and looking just like everyone’s idea of what an English country house park should look like.
There are about seven acres of pleasure grounds adjoining a cricket pitch on which a fairly leisurely game was taking place during our visit. There is a lake, viewable from a wisteria covered mock bridge at one end. A very pretty early nineteenth century classical summer house overlooks the said lake, and there is a turf and brick maze constructed in 1991 with a design based on the much earlier embroidery in the house itself. Again the sum of the parts constitutes a much greater whole tied together by trees, bulbs, grass and hedges as well as the buildings.
The four acres or so of walled gardens are a very pleasant, well tended place to pass an afternoon (there’s a photo gallery at the end of this piece that shows why). They are distinguished by exceptionally healthy looking plants and trees (even on a Sunday one gardener was working away watering, weeding and staking to keep them thus) contained within a formal structure of walls, paths and hedges with a number of buildings and a fine statue of a river god. The edges are pleasantly softened and despite obvious care this is a garden that lacks the scrupulous formality and sharp edges you can sometimes find in the National Trust. Within the compartments there are orchards, low box hedges with vegetables within the beds they enclose, and long borders of predominantly blue, purple and soft yellows. Last Sunday there were irises at their best. Apparently later in the year even more roses and lupins come to the fore. The general impression is of plenty, verging almost on opulence and evoking the gardens of a hundred years ago.
Finally, there is a garden shop and by the time you get hungry the Great Kitchen serves rather good cakes and teas. If you’re within driving distance Parham really is worth visit. For opening hours and more information have a check on the website http://www.parhaminsussex.co.uk .