Great Maytham Hall's 'real' Secret Garden
Updated: Mar 31, 2023
“The Secret Garden was what Mary called it… when its beautiful old walls shut her in no-one knew where she was. It seemed almost like being shut out of the world in some fairy place… and the secret garden bloomed and bloomed and every morning revealed new miracles.”
Photograph of 'The Secret Garden' at Great Maytham Hall from NGS website
The above quote is from Frances Hodgson Burnett’s much-loved 1911 children’s book, The Secret Garden, and this month sees the release of a new film version starring Colin Firth and Julie Walters. Various famous English gardens have been used as locations, including Iford Manor, Bodnant and Trebah – so a real treat for gardeners, but how many of us are aware that the inspiration for Burnett’s story was a real hidden walled garden, at Great Maytham Hall in Kent?
Frances Hodgson Burnett published in The Critic Magazine, 1904 (photographer unknown)
Burnett (1849-1924) was a British-born American novelist and playwright, best known for her children’s novels. Having lived in the US from an early age, she returned to the UK after divorcing her first husband and the death of a son and, from 1898, rented Great Maytham where, having a particular love of flowers, she set about restoring the gardens. And it was here that she discovered an old walled garden, dating back to the estate’s origins in the 1720’s, overgrown and neglected. And, just as in The Secret Garden, a robin helped her find the hidden door: as she would write later in her short novel, My Robin, published in 1912, it took crumbs from her hand “the instant I opened the little door in the leaf-covered garden wall”.
Front cover of 'My Robin', 1912
In this book, she also described her feelings for the secret walled garden: “It was a lovesome, mystic place, shut in partly by old red brick walls against which fruit trees were trained…. It was my habit to sit and write there under an aged writhen tree, gray with lichen and festooned with roses. The soft silence of it – the remote aloofness – were the most perfect ever dreamed of”. Burnett stayed on at Great Maytham for 10 years, before moving back to the US after the failure of a second, short-lived, marriage.
In 1910, The Secret Garden appeared in serial form in an American magazine and then in book form in 1911. Not initially as popular as her other children's novels, it is now often listed as one of the best children's books of the 20th century.
Front cover of 'The Secret Garden', US edition published 1912
However, the gardens at Great Maytham are not only noted for Burnett’s time there. They became well-known in horticultural circles for the efforts of its next inhabitants, the Rt.Hon. H.J. Tennant and his wife, May. Harold Tennant was an MP while May (1869-1946) was a civil servant, trade unionist, and campaigner - most often for women's rights.
Photograph of May Tennant by M.P. Daggett (date unknown)
Of the two however, it seems that May was the keen gardener, developing the gardens and becoming prominent in the Royal Horticultural Society. During the years of the first world war, and despite suffering from a lack of staff, gardening activity at Great Maytham is noted in the horticultural press.
For example, throughout 1917, The Gardeners’ Chronicle carried advertisements for the sale of several varieties of perpetual flowering Carnations (at 4s per dozen) from ‘The Maytham Gardens’ – and later, in 1921, a ‘pink’ named ‘Mrs H.J. Tennant’ was shown at the RHS, although I’ve been unable to ascertain whether this was developed at Great Maytham or by a more commercial venture.
The press also provides an insight into the extent of horticulture there in the years after the war, as The Gardeners’ Chronicle of November 1919 carried an advertisement from a “temporary” gardener at Great Maytham seeking a new appointment. His advert describing a “well-kept establishment” with “Vines, Peaches, Carnations, Roses, Herbaceous Borders, Lawns, Flowering and Deciduous Shrubs, Rock and Water Gardens, Hardy Fruit and a Kitchen Garden”.
Under the Tennant’s ownership the gardens certainly seemed to have thrived and, by the early 1920’s, The Maytham Gardens were entering RHS exhibitions at both Holland House (the venue for the RHS summer shows held in July) and Chelsea (their spring shows in May). The press records exhibits being awarded Silver Banksian Medals in 1921 for a ‘herbaceous border’ at Chelsea and ‘hardy flowers’ at Holland House, with The Gardeners’ Chronicle describing the herbaceous border at Chelsea as “well-filled with artistically arranged plants… from which many visitors will carry away inspirations for their own gardens”.
At the next Chelsea show in May 1922, The Maytham Gardens received a Silver Flora Medal, again for a ‘herbaceous border’. As well as a description, this time The Gardeners' Chronicle also published a photograph showing a mixed border very much in the style of Gertrude Jekyll with “Irises, Lupins and dwarf Phloxes… these pleasantly interspersed with Lavender bushes in flower” with, at one end, “a blue corner composed of Hydrangeas and Lobelias”. It’s perhaps not surprising that the border was in the Jekyll style: shortly after the Tennants’ move to Great Maytham, they engaged Edwin Lutyens to rebuild the main house with, it’s said, input from Jekyll on the gardens (the 18th century main part of the house having burnt down in 1893 and cheaply rebuilt). Lutyens’ design retained the old walled ‘secret’ garden, landscaped the terraced lawns and surrounding parkland, and created a series of formal gardens – a layout which mostly exists today.
Photograph of Great Maytham Hall's 'Flower Border exhibit' from the Chelsea Flower Show, May 1922 (The Gardeners' Chronicle, June 3, 1922)
At the outbreak of the second world war, Great Maytham Hall met the same fate as many an English country house being requisitioned by the army, and it gardens and manicured lawns mostly destroyed – dug up and planted with various varieties of vegetable under the ‘Dig for Victory’ scheme. After the war, the house stood empty until the mid-1960’s when the buildings were converted into private flats and the gardens restored for the benefit of residents.
Today, however, the remaining 17 acres of the estate’s gardens are open on a few days each year under the NGS ‘Yellow Book’ scheme, which promises parkland; woodland with bluebells; a pond garden with mixed shrubbery and herbaceous borders; interesting specimen trees; a large lawned area; and rose terrace with far reaching views for visitors. The old walled ‘secret’ garden is still there with herbaceous borders and a rose pergola.
Images of Great Maytham Hall's garden from the National Garden Scheme website