The gardens at Caxton Manor

The house is set in the tranquil landscape

The house is set in the tranquil landscape - Credit: Archant

Leigh Clapp visits the tranquil gardens at Caxton Manor that were inspired by a trip to Japan

Home to Adele and Jules Speelman for 36 years, Caxton Manor near Forest Row is a picturesque timber-framed house dating back to the 15th century, set within a five-acre garden. The presence of water, with a large pond set off by verdant lawns and mature trees, gives the first impression. But looking closer you discover there is a sense of the distant Orient beyond a traditional English country garden. The scene has gradually changed and evolved over time.

“We chanced upon Caxton Manor and fell in love with the beauty of the house and grounds,” says Adele.

There is quite an unusual history to the house. It is believed that the oldest part of the building was the birthplace of the man who brought printing to England, William Caxton, in 1420. But at that time the building wasn’t in Sussex. The house was originally in the Manor of Hadlow but was dismantled and moved to its present location in 1936. Why it was moved remains a mystery.

The name was changed to Millwood Manor, and then later on reverted to Caxton Manor.

In the late 1930s, local builders extended the house, blending the old with the new so that it’s difficult to distinguish the two parts of this characterful house.

The property has another famous connection. In the 1950s it was home to the renowned plastic surgeon Sir Archibald McIndoe, now commemorated by a bronze monument at East Grinstead for his pioneering work to treat pilots who were badly burned during the second world war. McIndoe encouraged local residents to invite the pilots into their homes to aid their rehabilitation, understanding the importance of psychological healing as well as physical. His legacy continues today with the McIndoe Burns Centre at the Queen Victoria Hospital. The peaceful location, park-like grounds and pond of Caxton Manor at the time were probably an inspiration and certainly a respite for him.

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When Adele and Jules arrived, however, the gardens had become rather overgrown, with trees obscuring the gardens and lake. “It was a bit of a mess but had charm with the waterfall, rocks and pond and there were even black swans,” says Adele. Thinning out was needed and the hurricane of 1987 felled further trees. Working with what was there and adding planting and features has been a gradual process for the couple.

In May it is the azaleas and rhododendrons that star as they are reflected in the tranquil waters of the pond. The essence of the garden is a mix of Englishness with a strong Japanese influence that began about 10 years ago. “I fell in love with the serene moss gardens on a trip to Japan, with their use of numerous shades of green texture to symbolise landscape on a small scale,” she says. “I knew the look I wanted with a Japanese style.”

The Japanese influence can be seen not only in placement of trees and shrubs, but particularly in structural elements, such as clipped topiary, an arching bridge spanning the lake, a teahouse, the trickling waterfall adding gentle sound, statuary and a gravel courtyard. An ambience of quiet peacefulness evokes the Japanese ethos and makes for a delightful visit. Take time to stop and admire the whole effect of the landscape along with the smaller vistas, whether the play of light and shade from newly emerged acer leaves or bright splashes of azaleas as they catch in the sun, or watching the giant koi carp as they briefly break the surface of the water.

For the past eight years the garden has opened through the National Gardens Scheme each May. Many visitors return not just to admire the plantings but also for the delicious cakes and teas, sitting out in such a glorious space.

“Children are most welcome and we give them bread for the carp – which the fish take right out of their hands,” says Adele. “We have wonderful visitors and enjoy opening the garden while raising funds for charity, including a donation to St Catherine’s Hospice in Crawley. It’s hard work but great fun, and a real family affair.”

Caxton Manor, Wall Hill, Forest Row, RH18 5EG;

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