The Autumn Equinox has come and gone here at Petworth House and Park, West Sussex. But it still feels like summer. Landscape Manager Martyn Burkinshaw is crouched down amongst the flowers, gathering up seed heads for next year. He looks at home, surrounded by plants, secateurs in hand, kneeling in the dirt.
The silent monotony of attending to the borders is a restorative practice for Martyn, whose day typically involves clearing fallen trees, repairing stone walls and answering questions about the park. “It’s my thinking space,” he says. “The place where I put my thoughts in order for the day.”
Since becoming a team of only two during the pandemic, the repetitive task of deadheading has been relegated down the list of priorities. “The garden’s been a bit neglected this year,” he says, laying down the crispy achillea heads. “Our own woodland mulch has saved on time and water, and helped supress the weeds, but we’ve not had the usual number of garden volunteers. So now everything’s gone to seed.”
Saying this, he turns to the sound of gravel crunching under bicycle tyres. It’s one of the volunteers – there are sixteen in total – here for the seed heads. Martyn piles them onto the bike pannier and sends him on his way toward the tunnel leading into town, now laden with plant material and leaving a cloud of dust behind.
“He’s taking them home to his greenhouse,” says Martyn. Something he wishes he had in times like these. Increasing stock by propagation is vital to maintaining this seemingly natural landscape, designed by English landscape architect Lancelot “Capability” Brown.
Widely considered “the Master of the English Garden”, Brown’s painterly designs proclaim to improve nature by art. But for Martyn, building a resilient future is as important as conserving the cultural heritage. “Climate change is bringing the seasons forward every year,” says Martyn. “And it’s making them more extreme.”
“Some of the native trees, like the common beech, tend to struggle after prolonged drought and intense heat,” he continues. “And start dropping their branches. But non-natives, like the American oaks, Swamp Cyprus and Walnut, seem to be better adapted.”
Introducing species is not a new phenomenon here at the park. The historic deer herd has been here for over 500 years, with a breed lineage traceable back to the middle east. Once hunted by Henry VIII on his visit to the park, the herd of fallow deer now draws a different kind of crowd, more interested in shooting with a camera, than a longbow.
Looking up at the house from the manmade Upper Pond, with the sky taking on a watercolour wash and Martyn attending to weeds in the drain, it feels like life imitating art, as though I’ve stepped into a painting. In fact, JMW Turner’s Dewy Morning immortalizes this very scene and now influences National Trust efforts to conserve the historical identity of the grounds. “We felled the trees on the pond’s island in part to reopen historic views as painted by JMW Turner.” says Martyn. “But also to protect the pond for wildlife and its value as a Capability Brown landscape. The trees had become very overgrown and the island was at risk of erosion.”
Taking in the full aspect of the park, Martyn opines his hopes for the future. “Restoring the historic culverts would be a huge undertaking financially, but necessary to maintaining the pond water quality we’ve worked so hard to achieve. Reintroducing the Sussex red is another.”
Sussex red cattle were kept on the estate when Turner frequented the park over 200 years ago. Bringing them back to graze alongside the deer would help conserve the landscape, keeping down the rough grass and allowing for the wildflowers to come through. “If I’m doing my job right,” says Martyn, peering up at the trees and running his fingers through the leaves of a low hanging branch. “No one should be able to tell we’ve done anything.” A sentiment resonating with the naturalistic designs of Capability Brown that sought to hide the work that went into creating what appears to be untrammelled wilderness.
It’s clear to see that Martyn’s got his work cut out here. But already this Sussex-bred, Sussex University graduate is leaving a lasting impression on the park, now reopened after months in lockdown, and helping to bring Brown’s vision into the twenty-first century.
Top image: Deer at Petworth Park, West Sussex © Gemma Lake