Kemptown is a sophisticated neighbourhood of Brighton a mile east of the Palace Pier. It boasts quiet streets lined with impressive whitewashed four-story homes giving a taste of quintessential Regency Brighton. I often enjoy a weekend walk around Kemptown, and a browse in its village shops, before hitting the beach. Now, there’s a more unusual reason to visit the area. To discover a secret garden most residents and locals don’t know is there. It lies secluded behind this light-blue ivy-covered door in the historic Kemp Town Estate…
But first, a quick history lesson. The Kemp Town Estate in modern Kemptown was the first upper-class housing development in Brighton for the fashionable rich. The boundary is hard to define but roughly it runs from Lewes Crescent west to Rock Street. Many of the most beautiful homes can be found in Lewes Crescent and Sussex Square. Most of these buildings are now flats, but there was a time each was a single-family home. Some shared a garden that could be accessed by a tunnel linked to the owner’s property. Number 32 Sussex Square, was one such home, originally connected to a vast outdoor pleasure garden. Today, although three times smaller than it was originally, it’s the setting for a secret sculpture garden.
Ta da! Welcome to the Secret Garden Kemp Town. It’s a special sight to stumble and offers the perfect refuge from the crowds in summer. It’s the only kind in the city where major outdoor works of sculpture are shown in a secure setting. When it opened a few years ago, the only way to see inside was on a Heritage or Brighton Festival open day. Since this year, it’s now open every Sunday from June to September.
Traveller tip: When I visited to write about it for my guidebook, Secret Brighton, I was invited in via the blue door pictured above on Bristol Place. Now, visitors enter via a much grander entrance around the corner on Bristol Gardens.
We have a man called Dr Anthony Dale, founder of the Regency Society, and his late wife, Yvonne to thank for saving this gem. They bought it in the 1950s to save it from development and their wishes were that it never be sold and that it always remain a haven for the community in the form of an arts venue. Together with Regency Society chairman Gavin Henderson CBE, also the former artistic director of Brighton Festival, they came up with the idea of creating a sculpture park run by a board of trustees, which would secure funding to realise their plan and continue their work.
What was once mainly lawn has been completely redesigned by the venue’s resident gardener, Nick Dwyer, to feature beds filled with plenty of seasonal colour and traditional perennials mixed with contemporary architectural plants, as well as apple, mulberry, quince and medlar trees. There’s also a lovely, covered area built against the garden’s west flint wall used to host gatherings, and a bench from the West Pier on the lawn.
Disclaimer: I got so carried away taking pictures of the garden and space itself, I forgot to take many of the actual art, which makes it all the more important you visit!
Oh wait, before I go and in case you were wondering, yes there is food on offer so you can have a little picnic in the garden. Seriously amazing cakes and reasonably priced drinks – think £1 for tea and coffee! – are from the special cafe run by the lovely Siobhan of TABLE. It’s worth visiting The Secret Garden Kemp Town for her cakes alone!
Find The Secret Garden Kemp Town at Bristol Gardens, Brighton BN2 5JE. Open every Sunday 11am-5pm, from June to September.