Sarah Salway talks about Kent’s gardens and ‘Digging Up Paradise’


Sarah speaking at her book launch Image ©Sarah Salway
Sarah speaking at her book launch Image ©Sarah Salway

Sarah Salway didn’t intend to write a book about Kent’s public gardens, or become the Canterbury Laureate,  but when the special opportunity arose she grabbed it.

As part of her role Sarah carried out a literary tour of Kent’s public gardens, which has now been turned into a unique book featuring history, plants and poetry, and she has kindly dropped by to share some of the personal stories behind it.

Hello Sarah,

You’re well known as a journalist, novelist and poet so how did you end up writing a book about gardening?

I have always been interested in gardens – as opposed to gardening! I didn’t really have much choice as a child as my mother was a garden historian and the herb gardens at home were open to the public. When I was studying at the London College of Fashion, I went to evening classes on garden history, and kept up the interest ever since. For a writer, they are such a rich source of stories – from the plants to the gardeners to the space itself. Just think how many plots pivet on secrets told in gardens!

Peony border at Penshurst Place - Image ©Sarah Salway
Peony border at Penshurst Place – Image ©Sarah Salway

How did you decide which gardens to include?

It was so hard. They had to be open to public (even for a few days of the year) as I wanted the public engagement element. I wanted 26 so I had to lose some of the gardens I had visited and really loved, but I tried to get a selection of different gardens. I really could have made this book ten times as long for Kent alone, and I love that people are now contacting me to tell me of a lovely garden I have missed out. I hope that they will write their own poems for that garden! But seriously, it does hurt that I couldn’t include all the gardens.

Are you a lover of useful herbs and plants like your mother, the garden historian and writer Elizabeth Peplow, or are you more fond of the ornamental?

Useful, I would say. We have an allotment at Hawkenbury and some of the herbs and vegetables are just so beautiful. The colour of beetroot leaves is just stunning and some herbs like fennel are just magic. When I put flowers in a pot I will always put herbs in too BUT having watched the Big Allotment Show on television recently, I’m trying to grow more flowers to cut. And edible flowers too, of course. I love all the stories too.

So, when you look at plants do you primarily see their colour and shape or do you think of their stories, their folklore and medicinal use?

I do tend to, I read quite a lot but I’m not an expert really and so that has been one of the joys of visiting the gardens and learning so much first-hand. I visited St Johns Jerusalem and Will Gould the gardener was walking me around with me and he showed me Queen Anne’s Lace. Of course I’ve seen it lots of times but what I didn’t know was that right in the middle is a spot of red and it’s called Queen Anne’s Lace because apparently that was a drop of blood from her finger when she was making lace. I keep looking at the booklet of 18th century recipes I picked up at Quebec House and wondering if I’m brave enough to try some of them. I love the idea of making my own wines – is that medicinal?

Chartwell view - Image ©Sarah Salway
Chartwell view – Image ©Sarah Salway

You visited many public gardens and parks whilst doing your research, when you first arrived what did you do?

I always did advance reading but when I got there, I tried to rely on my own intuition as to what particularly caught my interest about the garden. With some of the gardens I went round with the gardener or owner but I always tried to walk around by myself too. At first I just walked around and tried to see what was catching my eye. It may be there were connections between them so if I particularly noticed one red plant, I might then see a tree with red bark and then I would start to look for other red things. Sometimes it would be a puzzle. Why was this tree planted here? Or if I had read about a particularly interesting personality connected with the garden, I might try to imagine the garden from their point of view.

Did you write when you were there?

Always, always. I’m a big believer in my writer’s journal so I would write as many notes as I could and I always tried to find a place to sit down that spoke to me. I remember my garden history tutor saying that if you see a bench in a garden, you should sit on it because it has been put there for a particular reason, that’s the view someone wants you to see. It’s a good tip because you are getting an idea of how the garden can be viewed. Other times I’d lie out on the grass, or sit by a wall. I also took lots of photos.

elephant topiaryOn your blog, you say that you discovered stories that surprised you and made you laugh and cry – do you have a favourite?

For another project I’ve been doing a lot of research on WW1 soldiers, so I was particularly moved by the Belgian soldiers who ended up at Quex House and Gardens. I could really understand how working in the garden must have helped their recovery, it must have felt like a green tranquil paradise after the battlefields and also perhaps a useful gap between their experiences in the war and returning home. The story of one soldier stayed with me. He didn’t say a word during the two years he was at Quex (although he seemed happy there) but started talking again the minute he set foot back on Belgian soil. But there were so many. I think my favourite discovery was the crocus circle at Canterbury Cathedral that was the exact spot where the rose window would be if the tower fell. My favourite mystery has to be whether there were elephants at lovely Chilham Castle!

The labyrinth at Tudeley - Image ©Sarah Salway
The labyrinth at Tudeley – Image ©Sarah Salway

You also said that the garden at Chilham Castle gave you goosebumps, why is that?

Garden design is normally thought to be mostly about plants, but the more I learn the more I realise it is about how it can shape our emotional responses. At Chilham, there’s an eastern avenue of sweet chestnut trees tthat were planted in alignment with the rising sun, and apparently two yew trees have been found miles away that follow this line completely. They follow the prehistoric tracks now called the Pilgrim’s Way. There’s something so satisfying about that. We try to control so much of our environment nowadays almost by fighting it, and it’s humbling to sit in a garden and realise how we have always needed nature for our spiritual needs.

Of all the gardens you visited, which one would you like to own and why?

Good question. I think it has to be St John’s Jerusalem, which – perhaps not surprisingly – is one of the smallest gardens I visited. It has a lovely wild quality that feels so serene. The moat helps, I had daydreams of having a small wooden rowing boat and going for picnics, rather like Ratty and Mole!
But most of all, I came away with such enormous respect for the hard work and generosity of all the people who owned and ran these gardens in real life. I am sure they have little time for floating around on a boat. Or indeed daydreaming. It’s a wonderful thing they are doing for all of us.

Digging Up Paradise by Sarah Salway - Image ©Sarah Salway
Digging Up Paradise by Sarah Salway – Image ©Sarah Salway

‘Digging up Paradise’ reveals your own creative responses to the gardens. Did you find other writers’ literary responses to gardens influenced you in any way?

Yes, I think so. There is some brilliant pure garden writing but it was the nature garden writers and poets that made me look much closer than I had been doing. I also think that some of the nature writing is some of the bravest writing now. We can become quite cynical and worried about talking about the spiritual side of things and when they talk about the spirit of a place , it made me realise that’s what I was interested in – what does this place, this garden, mean and, wider still, where is our place in the world. It’s a search for what matters to us.

And finally, Digging up Paradise is unique mix of history, plants and poetry – where can people find it?

You can buy it from the publisher’s website – Or of course, order it from any good bookshop.

Published by

Rachael Hale (Homes and History Magpie)

Freelance home interiors and Kent history writer. Member of the Society of Authors. Find me via Twitter - @rachaelhale1 Read my home interiors and history blog -

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