Penshurst Place

“Learning lessons is a little like reaching maturity. You’re not suddenly more happy, wealthy, or powerful, but you understand the world around you better, and you’re at peace with yourself. Learning life’s lessons is not about making your life perfect, but about seeing life as it was meant to be.” – Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

I was in Kent again last week. The seasonal stirring in my bones to escape The Big Smoke and get myself out amongst hills, fields, big skies and trees took hold and I planned a long country ramble culminating in a garden visit and then a drink in a pretty pub garden with a friend and his dog. Prior to getting on the train, I had my fortnightly session with my lovely chiropractor. She’s a very high vibe young Aussie and well read on all things health and vitality. She told me about a book she had been reading all about true health and the body’s ability to self-heal, written by a fellow chiropractor, which asks: “How does your ailment serve you?” As she was working her magic to realign my poorly spine and pelvis she asked me this exact question. I lay there for a minute and thought about it. How has my back problem served me? How can it possibly have done anything positive?

And then I had a flash of realisation. Yes, it really has. Six months ago, I had several episodes of such excruciating pain that I was unable to walk and thus forced to seek out a chiropractor. Since then, the regular treatments and subsequent improvements in pain, have made me very conscious of my posture and how long I sit for. I now start each morning with a series of yoga stretches which get everything moving after lying flat for 6-7 hours and help me feel slightly zingier when my alarm goes off at stupid o’clock for work. It has made me realise how much my entire nervous system has been affected by pain/posture/misalignment (and I’ve lived with pain issues on and off since my mid-twenties). And, most importantly, it has helped me feel better about being still, taking rest and making time for myself – I now meditate every day, do Pilates and yoga more often and generally feel more in tune with body, as opposed to taking it for granted and popping heavy duty painkillers in order to keep going. So yes, oddly, my pain really has served me well. I have truly learnt lessons from it and made big improvements to my life.

Whilst rambling around the stunning hills and fields of Kent, I had plenty of time to think about the other  ‘negatives’ in my life and how might I spin them to make necessary changes. It’s going to take a while with some but it was clear that the morning had provided one of those epiphany moments where something pings deep inside you and you are finally able see a situation in an entirely new and positive light. Very cheering. And inspiring. Just like my outing.

It was one of those autumnal days without a cloud in the sky. Where you leave the house in a sweater and seriously regret it by lunchtime. Especially if you are hiking around the countryside with two bottles of water and several camera lenses in your backpack. The leaves were just turning and the hedgerows were rich with the reds and purples of hips and berries making their annual appearance. Hawks circled high above the newly harvested fields, hares darted across the road in front of me and fields of nonchalant sheep barely acknowledged my passing.

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‘Sir Philip Sidney’s Oak’ by Patrick Nasmyth. Painted 1820-1830. Courtesy of V&A collection.

My yomp ended at the seriously pretty Penshurst Place. Ancestral home of the Sidney family since 1552. It had been a hunting lodge for Henry VIII during his time courting Anne Boleyn whose family owned nearby Hever Castle. He gave Penshurst to Anne of Cleeves as part of the divorce settlement and it was then passed to Edward VI who gifted it to his loyal estate steward and tutor, Sir William Sidney. His grandson, the poet (and all round Renaissance chap) was Sir Philip Sydney. An enormous oak, the Sidney Oak, the girth of which suggests it has seen over 1000 years of life, is the tree he is alleged to have sat beneath to pen one of his most famous works, Arcadia. Very sadly this wonderful tree died in 2016. But, pleasingly, growing in it’s place there is now a sapling which self-seeded from one of its ancient ancestors acorns.

The gardens themselves are an entrancing series of rooms created within over a mile of meticulously clipped yew hedging. Whilst I was there, three gardeners were atop tall tripod ladders pruning the hedges in the Jubilee Border. One of them told me it usually takes six weeks to prune everything but this year they are in the process of reducing the height of some of the hedging in order to encourage a more formal feel and also add some stability to these ancient yew structures, so it will take even longer.  I had a stab of serious job envy – imagine the satisfaction of standing back to admire one’s work after completing all that!

The ‘rooms’ comprise a rose garden, a grey garden, a Union Flag garden filled with a variety of red, white and blue toned seasonal blooms, the Italian Garden with its rose-filled geometric parterres, fountain and statuary, a blue and yellow border, a huge rectangular pond filled with waterlilies and koi carp and an amazing long peony border which sadly wasn’t in flower during my visit. My favourite areas were the nut garden and the abundant orchard where the history of the place truly is tangible; some of these fruiting trees are clearly centuries old. It was pleasing to wander amongst them hearing the occasional light thud of ripe fruit falling into the long sun-dappled grass and know it has been thus, every September, for hundreds of years. I can only imagine how beautiful this part of the garden is when blousy with blossom and scented by bluebells in spring. I will definitely be returning.

The gardens are definitely not a plantsman’s paradise, they don’t challenge; the design and the planting invite neither gasps or gripes. After all, it is Grade I listed, for very good reason. But what they do so beautifully is to be prettily refined, gently unassuming and totally in keeping with their place in both landscape and history. A gorgeous, tranquil sanctuary to delight the eyes and calm the soul. The perfect place to visit when you need to feel more ‘Pollyanna’ about life.

Here is a selection of pics from my day out. For further information on Penshurst Place please visit their website – https://www.penshurstplace.com

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