Visit-West Burton House

Sue Marsh reports on our visit to West Burton House in July 2023:

What joy, on a sunny July afternoon, to drive through the lanes to the very special garden at West Burton.  No ordinary garden, this is a gentleman’s pleasure ground, the product of nearly 50 years of love and civilised care.

West Burton House, terrace and main lawn

Sue Middlemas was our very kind hostess and how happy we were taking tea with her on the wide sunny terrace.  Her husband, Keith, was the first Professor of Modern History at the University of Sussex and it was his intelligent, highly civilised, sensitivity that created this beautiful space.  A space enlivened not only by a gentleman’s wide ranging education, but also by the love of his wife, his family – this precious fold of the Downs.

Soon after the Middlemases arrived at West Burton, nearly 50 years ago, Keith and two stonemasons from Chichester Cathedral built the belvedere on the hill beyond the lake.  An elegant rotunda, this is not merely an eyrie to which one might wander on a quiet evening; there is, carved into the back of a seat, the head of a stag, the Cross between its antlers.

This was an image seen by Hubert (c. 565 – 727), a Frankish nobleman, while out hunting on Good Friday, an image that caused him to accept the Christian Gospel and adopt a kinder, more humane, way of caring for animals encountered during the hunt.  Hubert has become the Patron Saint of Hunting in his native Ardennes.

Similarly, around the walls of the delicious gazebo, again built by Keith, are prints by Piranesi (1720 – 1778) showing Italian cities and bought by Keith when he was travelling in Italy researching Communism for one of his many books.  He and Sue had to go to every city shown by Piranesi since the prints were only available in their own cities.

There is, too, a great urn at the end of the lake placed there to commemorate their Ruby wedding anniversary and the statuary between the buttresses in yet another part of the garden are made special by a Northumbrian warrior here, “Alnwick Granny’s sculpture” there.

But, most telling of all in the history of this garden is the Garden of Love that Keith built for Sue’s 60th Birthday.  An ornamental pond, made lively by a fountain, again adapted by Keith, clipped pear trees, and messages of love created from box.   A heart, a cupid’s bow – the whole space brought together by an open sided pavilion, an Islamic moon at the top of the roof’s finial.  A Paradise garden!

Everywhere in this garden the planting is superb -a white garden, sarcocca in an orchard so that, in the depth of winter, scent would fill the air, iris along the conservatory wall, white  roses in the Garden of Love and, elsewhere, surrounding a great astrolabe – but what makes the place so very special are the references both to classical antiquity and the joy of lives well lived.

We were blessed to be there that afternoon, taking tea with Sue and wandering back and forth across the lawns and up and down the allées of hornbeam and wisteria running up to, and beside, the Garden of Love.