Last updated on September 3rd, 2023 at 02:41 pm
You know you’re getting on in years when your kids suggest visiting a garden for pleasure. It’s even worse when they know the names of the plants. Anyway, after far too long apart, the Memsahib and I made the great trek in a south-easterly direction to meet the no longer nippers for a weekend. The journey was made all the more exciting when, half-way along the M40, a myriad of pretty coloured lights suddenly appeared on the car’s dashboard. There was no warning of the warning lights, I thought. Do you sometimes hanker for simpler times, when the absence of automatic alerts meant there was nothing to worry about? Until you broke down. Still, I can’t remember feeling stressed, as a student, chugging along the motorway with a pair of tights replacing the fanbelt, an egg broken into the radiator, a coke can wired round the exhaust pipe and a tin of hydraulic fluid in the boot ready to top up the shock absorbers. But then I cannot remember visiting Emmetts Garden either, which my offspring assured me I had. Apparently, I have also forgotten turning back from Legoland with some unreasonable dad excuse. How do youngsters remember – and know – so much?
Understandably, we had all been looking forward a great deal to seeing one another. Because I am English, and therefore emotionally repressed, all I will say about that side of things is that it was absolutely splendid. Visiting Emmetts Garden was also a jolly good idea. The sun shone, we had an ice cream, a picnic, a very pleasant walk, nattered a lot in that companionable way you do with people you love, and enjoyed it very much indeed. I must have been happy, because I even bought something from the National Trust shop, something I hardly ever do.
Emmets is perched high on a sandstone ridge. Whilst considerably larger than our own tiny patch of planet, relatively speaking, it is not an enormous estate garden and there is little formality to it. To be sure, there is a wonderful rockery, a magnificently vibrant border and a charming, romantic, rose garden; but the highlights, for me, were the stunning vistas across the Weald of Kent, the trees, many of them rare, and the wildflower meadows. Frankly, the meadows just made me want to lie down in them. There was an appealing ‘discovery cabin’ too, which looked like something from a Grimm’s fairy tale. Like all gardens, though, Emmetts offers a different experience through the seasons. We visited in early June, but it is particularly known for its spring bluebells and tulips.
Apart from the views, which were someone else’s creation, Emmetts owes it all to a chap named Frederic Lubbock, a banker who bought the place in 1893. Don’t hold his profession against him. He was passionate about plants, was Fred, and imported rare species from all over the world. The rose garden was designed, in Italian style (apparently), for his wife, Catherine. Why bother with a mere bouquet when you can give the good lady an entire garden, eh?
After Fred died in 1927, Emmetts was purchased by an American geologist, Charles Boise. He made a few changes, including extending the rock garden (as you’d expect), and generously left the estate to the National Trust when he died in 1964. It was interesting to read on the National Trust’s website that the next Big Occasion in Emmetts’ story seems to have been the Great Storm of October 1987 – an event I remember very well. Nearby Sevenoaks had to change its name. At Emmetts, the winds took out 95% of the woodland. A new gardener, turning up for his first day shortly afterwards, found the property hard to recognise from the place he had attended for his interview.
The house at Emmetts is not open to the public and seems to be one of those places divided into flats that no one should be able to afford.
We should explain the name. ‘Emmet’ is derived from the Anglo-Saxon for ant, æmete. Apparently, the place was once covered in large anthills. Perhaps this refers to native southern wood ants, which are about 10mm long and build large, dome-like, nests that can grow to 2 metres above ground (and the same beneath). ‘Emmet’ is also a term used in Cornwall to refer, usually (but not always) in a derogatory manner to tourists, or incomers. Tourists are like ants, then. Elsewhere, you may come across the label ‘grockle’ for ‘tourist’, which I have always thought was a reasonably affectionate expression. Sometimes, tourists are called ‘tourists’, or ‘visitors’. These words may be boring, but everyone knows where they stand. In North Yorkshire, you may come across ‘offcumden’ – an incomer – a term that, for some reason, often strikes me as hinting at a degree of narrow-minded prejudice.
In any event, we were emmets at Emmetts in Kent – and, I suggest, happy to be so.
Here is more information about Emmetts Garden from the National Trust. And they should know.