Book Review: Secret Gardens of the South East- A Private Tour. My BBC Local Radio book of the week

By Barbara Segall

Photos by Clive Boursnell

Published by Frances Lincoln, autumn 2022

Hardback RRP £22

ISBN 978-0-7112-5260-8

One of my favourite things is to jump in the car and travel to a garden I’ve not seen before. It doesn’t matter if the garden is large or small, there’s always some planting combination or landscaping idea I jot down in a notebook, hoping to replicate it in my own garden one day.

The gardens of the South East of England are still a mystery to me. My car hasn’t ventured that far yet. But I’ve just read Barbara Segall’s exciting new book featuring 20 gardens in that region, and I’m getting out the map book already!

Balmoral Cottage, Kent. Topiary created from cuttings.

One particular garden in the book struck a chord with me. Balmoral Cottage in Benenden, Kent, where the owners grew many of the plants from divisions and cuttings from their parents’ gardens. Charlotte and Donald Molesworth bought the cottage nearly 40 years ago. Barbara tells the story of how Donald, a professional gardener, had been working next door at The Grange, the former home of Collingwood ‘Cherry’ Ingram – the plant hunter credited with returning endangered cherries to Japan.

Barbara writes, “That moment when you meet your future down a little lane, see a gate and opening it find the rest of time ahead of you…..? Well, that is literally what happened when Charlotte and Donald Molesworth found and bought Balmoral Cottage in Benenden in 1983.

For eight years Charlotte had been living in and teaching art at Benenden School, and on walks around the village, often stepped along the rough track leading to this tiny house, which had the best sunsets imaginable. Probably named Balmoral to celebrate a visit of Queen Victoria to Benenden, it was the gardener’s cottage for the Grange.

The Molesworths brought with them to Balmoral Cottage the first of many animals to share their garden lives, including bees, rescue dogs, donkeys (there have been nine) and companion sheep, hens and a cockerel.

They knew that they would need plenty of plants to make their garden and, being thrifty and resourceful they brought many plants from their parents’ gardens. From Donald’s family came woodland trilliums, dog’s-tooth violets and narcissus pseudonarcissus which have self-seeded and spread down each side of that original track. Charlotte’s mother’s garden was packed with old fashioned roses, cottage-garden plants and topiary, so her contributions included double white primroses and several thousand box cuttings.”

I love the fact they have created a special and unusual garden on a shoestring. They avoid buying anything new, scouring reclamation yards for potential items for recycling. “It’s our policy for helping Mother Earth,” they say. It’s resulted in a garden that makes you feel anything is possible. It’s not dependent on how much money you have, but on ingenuity, patience and skill. A very reassuring message for any would-be gardener, and one I welcome entirely.

Gravetye Manor, East Grinstead, West Sussex

I’ve picked out just one of the 20 stunning gardens explored by Barbara Segall in this richly detailed book. There’s a lovely mix of the extremely grand to the small and intimate. All are privately owned. Some have been in the possession of the same family for many generations, whilst others have recently been acquired and transformed by new owners. There’s a wonderful diversity of landscaping styles and a range of planting from traditional herbaceous borders to fashionable and contemporary prairies.

Sussex Prairie Garden, near Henfield, West Sussex
Sussex Prairie Garden. Curving paths through the grand spiral of the borders bring you up-close so you can experience the undulation of the plants and their blocks of colour from within.

Barbara is a totally engaging writer who draws you into the gardens and skilfully sifts out the essence of what makes them special. Not a word is wasted and reading her books is so easy. It’s a pleasure to skip through the pages and be transported to these glorious places.

Town Place, near Sheffield Park, East Sussex

The book includes visitor information about the gardens profiled as well as several others in this garden-rich area of Kent, Sussex and Surrey. Some open for the popular National Gardens Scheme, while others are open privately, and in some cases, for just the occasional day for charity.

Arundel Castle, Arundel, West Sussex. Caught in the early morning mist, the windows of Arundel Cathedral provide a dramatic borrowed landscape to the annual allium, rose and salvia extravaganza.
Arundel Castle team and bulb-filled borders sweeping up to the battlements. I particularly liked seeing the teams of gardeners included in the book. Credit is due for the wonderful work they undertake, looking after these special places.

Special mention must be made of the photographs by Clive Boursnell who initially visited 40 gardens and travelled 12,500 miles for this stunning project. Sadly, only 20 could be included in the book. But he talks about the warm welcome he received at every garden, as he travelled about in his camper van, capturing the atmospheric dawn and dusk photos. He turned up during a daughter’s wedding that was taking place in one garden. The owners, not phased by his appearance in the middle of a celebration, made sure he could get his photos of a particular rose trellis at its peak. Such small details and asides give an insight into the characters behind the gardens, their passions and their personalities.

Long Barn, Sevenoaks, Kent. The barn wall provides a strong backdrop as well as a hotspot for California glory (Fremontodendron californicum). Together with the lime-green touches of Euphorbia characias subs. wulfenii, they offer a counterpoint to the closely clipped hedging and lawns on the main lawn.

Barbara writes: “I hope you will find much pleasure in the book and visit the gardens when possible…opening garden gates to find untold beauty.”

I know that I enjoyed every page and can’t wait to investigate the gardens further.

Clinton Lodge Gardens, Fletching, East Sussex. The view through the Cloister Walk arcades, clad with white wisteria and Clematis alba Luxurians, to the Wild Garden, with its spring tide of Narcissus poeticus Pheasant’s Eye and white tulips.
Munstead Wood and the Quadrangle, Godalming, Surrey. The main flower border, some 61 metres long, blooms in waves of colour following Gertrude Jekyll’s original iconic, complicated drawing.
87 Albert Street, Whitstable, Kent.
Malthouse Farm Garden, Hassocks, East Sussex.

The publishers are giving away one book in a prize draw to readers who leave comments below. One name will be randomly selected. Sorry, only open to UK entries due to postage costs. The draw closes at 6pm on 21st October.

I wrote about Barbara here:

And Barbara’s previous books:

Thank you for reading my blog. I hope you enjoy these words and photos from Barbara’s latest book. It was my book of the week on local radio gardening shows earlier this summer.

29 thoughts on “Book Review: Secret Gardens of the South East- A Private Tour. My BBC Local Radio book of the week

  1. Karen I am very sorry that you have been very bad, I do not know if physically or psychologically or both. I sincerely hope that you have fully recovered and are in good health or on the right track to do so. I am here for whatever you need. I have been absent and without internet since August until last week when I returned from the country house. I’ll tell you.
    Karen I love Barbara’s book, the gardens she shows in fabulous photos and the stories she tells about them are wonderful. It is a book to disconnect from the world and get inside the gardens that it teaches and walk through them. I think I have already chosen it as my Christmas present this year: I love it and it is fantastic. Karen health, strength, encouragement, hope, positive thoughts and lots of love for all your family, Mr B and especially for you. Take care a lot. I wish you the best. Very loving greetings from Margarita XXX 😘🙏❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello Margarita. Thank you for your lovely kind words. I’ve had covid for three weeks. I managed to escape it for two years, but it finally caught up with me. I have been quite ill, but luckily, I’m up and about now and back in the garden! Hurray! I feel the vaccines helped me stay at home and not have to go to hospital. I escaped by a whisker. The book truly has been wonderful to read while I’ve been stuck in bed. There are really fabulous inspirational photos and Barbara’s voice is a very comforting and knowledgeable voice. I feel it’s always best to read up about gardens before visiting them. You always get much more out of the visit if you know the background history- such as the topiary being created from thousands of cuttings from their parents’ gardens. I’m so glad you are back from the country and able to get the internet again. Thank you for reading the blog, and for your wonderful supportive words and kindness which is always appreciated. Health, strength and love to you in return. Take care. Lots of love, karen, Mr B, Meg, Monty and all the hens. Xxxx 🥰❤️🙏


    • Thank you John. Thanks for reading my blog. I’m just trying to persuade our gardening club to run a coach trip down there! That might be the answer for the petrol side of things. Do hope we get some stability in the cost of fuel. Hope we haven’t had our heyday with regards to travel. My grandmother travelled from Wales to work in Leicestershire and to marry, and then never left the farm she lived on her whole life. She marvelled at my international travel for work and holidays and always wrote to me wherever I travelled to. My grandfather never flew on a plane- so never travelled abroad. I’m going to be optimistic and hope for the best. Thanks again for reading the blog and leaving a comment. All the best. Karen


    • Thank you Amelia. I’m highly recommending the book. Loved reading every page and dreaming of a road trip to see them in person. Reading about gardens before visiting adds so much to the enjoyment of the trip. Thanks so much for reading the blog and leaving a comment. Have a great week in France. All the best. Karen x

      Liked by 1 person

    • Must say, the sat nav has taken me on some right round about journeys to get to places. I don’t now trust them. My grandfather was a great road traveller and showed me how to read a map and make a list of directions before setting off. I think of him before I make any long journeys. His patience and kindness lives on. Thanks for reading my blog and leaving a comment. The book is a complete delight and I’m very happy to recommend it. Have a great gardening week. Karen xx


  2. My goodness Karen. What an enticing book. I can’t afford it just now, but I can request it at the East Leake library, just as I have the Charles Dowding’s new NO Dig book, which apparently resides in West Bridgford.

    I hope to hear things are going well for you. You are missed!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Suella. Isn’t it an enticing read! I’ve literally got the map book on the kitchen table now! My husband has offered to drive me, but it will need careful planning as the dates the gardens open requires a kind of spreadsheet! Thanks for reading the blog. All’s well now, although I have been very poorly, as you have probably heard. Take care xx


  3. It’s books such as this that go a long way towards making up for the fact that, living “across the pond” as l do, it is doubtful that I’ll ever be able to see these gardens in real life. So l will have to enjoy taking “the private tour” offered in Barbara Segall’s book! Thanks for reviewing it for us!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Mary. Books as well written and presented as this one really do bring the gardens alive. I must admit, I spend a lot of time enjoying gardens vicariously through the eyes of wonderful writers like Barbara. Like you, there are many places I probably won’t be able to travel to now. But I enjoy reading about them anyway. And the best writers have the ability to transport you there! Thank you for reading my blog and for leaving your kind comments, which are always appreciated. Karen x


    • Thank you Kate. Barbara definitely has the gift of searching out the best gardens and writing in such a natural engaging style you just feel as if you are whizzing along a lane to visit each one. The book is magical. I too loved the Secret Gardens of East Anglia, and Columbine Hall was a worthy inclusion in that book. Such a beautiful, romantic garden. Just glorious all times of the year. Thanks for reading my blog and for leaving a comment, it’s always appreciated.


  4. A very tempting book, Karen – and gardens! Although I’ve visited many in the South East over the years, I’ve not come across most of these. I love your reviews and, with this one, I feel as though we’ve started to explore some of the gardens together. That would be fun! xx

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Mary, wouldn’t that be wonderful! You’d be able to tell me all the plant names! Do you remember when we travelled to Chelsea flower show together and stood looking at the “opportunia” cactus. I still smile at the memory. Thanks for reading my blog and for your patience and kindness. It’s always appreciated Xx


  5. Great review Karen, you have made me wish to buy this book! I would love to see the list of the original 40 gardens that Clive Boursnell visited to photograph. I think Long Barn was Vita Sackville-West’s garden before she and Harold moved to Sissinghurst and I have only seen early photographs from Vita’s time there so I would love to visit it now. I know Arundel, Munstead Wood, Great Dixter well from many visits over the decades and have visited many of the the NGS and other gardens that Barbara writes about. In fact this review has prompted me to check if Sussex Prairie Garden is open today. The weather has been so glorious lately that if it’s anything like my garden the grasses and late summer perennials should be at their absolute best. Sarah in Sussex.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello Sarah. Oh how wonderful to live near enough to just pop in to the Sussex Prairie Garden! Do let me know if you managed to visit, and what it looks like at the moment. Isn’t it lovely to read the stories behind these gardens and delve into the history. It always enhances a visit to know the background to the gardens and how they were created. I’m a very keen NGS visitor. Mum and I have visited all the ones in Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire, and now I’m the county speaker for them raising funds for the charity. Thank you for reading my blog, and for your kind comments. All the best with your gardening and garden visiting. Karen


    • Thank you Paula. It always enhances the enjoyment of garden visiting to have the back story, so to speak. Barbara manages to select all the best bits that get right to the heart of how and why the gardens were created, and in doing so reveals so much about the owners. It’s a fascinating read all round. Thanks for reading my blog and for getting in touch. All the best. Karen


  6. What a lovely couple Charlotte and Donald sound, and what an interesting collection of gardens Barbara has visited for her book. The Golfer and I had a long weekend in Sussex/Kent over 10 years ago and I recall visiting 13 gardens or NT properties while we were there – it took a lot of planning! A recent television programme alerted me to the gardens at Arundel Castle which were definitely not there when we visited, so they are a must for a future visit (amongst others, I am sure!) By the way, you did say you would email but I haven’t heard anything, so just checking all is OK with you?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I also like to wander around a new garden, to see plants unknown to me, combinations anew. As a National Trust member I also like to see the kitchen gardens. ☺️

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Karen’s lovely review! And the link to her site! I have asked her if she has a link to her radio Leicestershire mentions. Lovely to talk with you today. Bed now! B x

    Barbara Segall Subscribe to me on Substack +44 (0) 7540 106216 +44 (0) 1787 312046 Primrose Cottage Edgworth Road Sudbury, Suffolk CO10 2TG

    Available from bookshops and


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