Victorian Walled Garden, Hawhurst Kent

“Our pillars are Food, Flowers and Friends”, Nick Selby, joint owner of Water Lane

Water Lane is a market garden, restaurant and garden shop sheltered within a vast Victorian brick wall in the heartland of England’s orchard, Hawkhurst, Kent. Originally part of the historic Tongswood Estate, once home to Charles Gunther the inventor of the Oxo Cube. Charles and his heiress wife Helen Bell are largely credited with the development of the gardens which, by 1927, were considered one of the top gardens in England. After Charles’s untimely death in 1931, Helen auctioned the outlying portions of the estate, 670 acres in total were sold including many farms, cottages and buildings. The house was requisitioned by the Army soon after the outbreak of the Second World War, and Mrs Gunther moved to a newly built house called Little Tongs. Tongswood and its remaining 260 acres of land was finally sold in 1945 to W. B. Harris, St Ronan School’s third headmaster. The school sold off the walled Kitchen Garden in the late 50’s, which then became a thriving market garden. An ambitious couple then took the gardens on with the idea of opening a garden nursery and café, which they did but only partly successfully, until 22 years ago. Having exhausted their passion, and their funds, they left the garden which quickly became overrun with weeds and ivy.

The current custodians and friends of Aubin, Ian James and Nick Selby acquired the keys to this remarkable piece of English history in 2020, the pandemic and lockdown was their catalyst to “step out of the city”. Along with their local team they set to work, tirelessly clearing and stripping ivy from walls, removing dead trees and plants, whilst living on-site in the run-down Victorian Bothy. Sheer determination and hard work saw them opening the gardens and their kitchen cafe to the public just six months after work began, in July 2021.

“The to do list is long and distinguished, but I prefer not to look at the list”- said Nick, perhaps this is the key to their success.

But how does one’s journey come to this point, to find such a special and unique project, this Secret Garden in Kent with its ancient heritage, mystique and untamed potential. How did Nick and Ian, city movers and dwellers their whole lives, find themselves in the depths of Kent? After meeting in a Covent Garden bar in 1999 Nick and Ian quickly realised they shared a passion for good, well sourced food, as well as a fascination with interesting and historic buildings. Both have creative backgrounds, both visionaries, they had loads to talk about and many dishes to cook! Ian was busy working on an architectural restoration project when they met. The Wapping Project saw the restoration of the beautiful Grade II listed, derelict Wapping Hydraulic Power Station in London’s East End, Ian was over-seeing this. The pump there provided a big area of London with water, including the Victorian hydraulic system that lifted the might bascules of Tower Bridge. Nick, meanwhile, had founded East Photographic agency, a thriving success working with photographer’s and media companies, including Conde Nast, Hermes and Saatchi and Saatchi.

“You get to know a lot about a person through food, how adventurous people are, whether they’ve travelled and where to. Being able to share your food with other people is a joyful thing. So, food was what brought us together”.

They put their experience, along with their shared passion for food, into action when they started a company together. Named after their respective mothers, Melrose and Morgan is a gourmet grocery, championing artisan food producers and celebrating the simple pleasure of preparing food. The first Melrose opened in Primrose Hill in 2004, the second in Hampstead and they then went on to supply Ocado. They were one of the first food companies to shine a light on the journey of food production, bringing awareness of where our food comes from, and the benefits of eating seasonal produce. They were also the first to have an open kitchen in their restaurant, making the chef visible
and part of the restaurant environment; a brave move back in the early noughties, now repeated everywhere. When, after 16 years of hard graft, their journey with Melrose and Morgan seemed to be coming to an end, they didn’t know how they were going to get to the next step; lockdown was the push they needed to move away from the city. As we talk it becomes apparent that they haven’t been scared to push a few boundaries in the past or to challenge perceived rules in how to do things. Clearly, they take this pioneering mentality, and willingness to disrupt the norm to this new project, this time challenging people’s perception of an English walled garden. Sympathetically bringing modernity to Water Lane, their plans include an elegant, tented restaurant, a garden shop and vibrancy back within the walls by introducing a busy events schedule.

“What we’re doing here is we’re turning it into a productive garden, as the gardeners were busy doing when the Gunther’s owned it”, Nick explains. It’s a community project, with the inclusion and collaboration of their locals at its heart.

A beautiful work in progress, they are restoring a valuable piece of British heritage; a mammoth task and an important one. The vast expanse of Victorian brick wall, four glass houses, 30m long sunken melon house, the longest peach house in England and a Vine house, currently home to a nesting Robin and her chicks, all require complete refurbishment to bring them back to their original splendour! A project that takes vision and positivity that both Nick and Ian appear to have bundles of. As Nick puts it, “we have lots of ideas, but thankfully these four walls contain us”.

They have employed the expert help of RHS award-wining landscape and garden designer Jo Thompson. Together they are bringing their holistic vision for Water Lane, a place for all and for many different functions, to life. More than restoring the walled garden they are looking to re-imagine Water Lane, respecting its past as well as modernising where needed and making it an inspirational place to come to in the 21st Century and beyond. Their plans work in phases; in phase 1 they have restored and opened a small kitchen from where they serve delicious home-cooked food supplied by their vegetable garden. Ian has also successfully planted a traditional British cutting garden, you can now buy Ian’s beautiful blooms in their shop along with ethically sourced plants. Further down the way they plan to grow a rose ‘orchard’ with bulb meadow, a quince tree avenue, perennial and stock beds in the south quadrant, follies and wall borders, a giant pergola, children’s natural play, a forest garden and sculpture trail, nuttery and educational spaces. Ambitious indeed, but there’s no doubt these are the guys to make it a success and to do it well.


The restaurant, currently situated in one of the restored glass houses, and on a sunny day spilling outside into the gardens, serves local food as well as their own homegrown garden produce. The Head Chef Jed Wrobel was recommended to them by the chef, restauranteur and writer Margot Henderson. Jed grew up down the road in Bex Heath and has a talent and a passion for crafting wholesome, creative, vibrant food that celebrates seasonality and deliciously simple ingredients. Everything that Ian and Nick are so passionate about. A glut of lovage the week we visited, resulted in a delicious herby butter with fresh, crispy radish to dip into it. Their wood ovens, not only produce the most heart-warming smoky smell, but the most delicious flat breads which are then topped with garden veggies; broad bean, whipped feta and pea shoots the day we visited. They also serve local meat and fish, the sea is but a stone’s throw away with Rye’s bustling fish market; we had clams with fregola, scrumptious! As a local lad, Jed also has an invested interest in the restoration of Water Lane so shares Ian and Nick’s passion for bringing life back here. The plan is to build a bigger, tented space for the restaurant on the footings of where a poly-tunnel once stood, it blew down in a storm shortly after they moved in revealing the perfect site for a future restaurant, seemingly almost on purpose.

Nick’s focus is the general management of the project, working with Jo Thompson and the architects. He also runs the workshops scheme, bringing local people to Water Lane, sharing knowledge, encouraging discussion on how to plant and how to nurture their gardens; a communal way of working that they began at Melrose. “We always wanted this place to be very democratic, here there are cracks in the walls and
bits of glass falling out and it’s not perfect”, Ian enthuses, but within this is the potential for creativity and collaboration. “Giving younger people an opportunity to express themselves and to give them a platform to sell their crafts and produce” is something of a rite of passage for Ian and Nick. Local stylist and art director Gina Portman works with Nick to curate their garden fairs and workshops, she has many local connections and has been able to bring local crafts people in from a wider catchment. They have an up-coming event, ‘Wild about Geraniums’ – In conversation with Cath Kidston MBE and Jo Fairley, speaker and co-founder of Green & Blacks. They provide the opportunity to come along and listen to conversations with enthusiasts and experts alike, acknowledging that not everyone wants to get their hands dirty and take part in a workshop- though there are plenty of those too. Their events are quickly gathering interest and now are regularly sold out, so word it obviously out. It all sounds very exciting and appealing, at lunch we found ourselves discussing how long it would take to commute from London!

 Ian is the Horticulture enthusiast turned Head Gardener at Water Lane. He lovingly tends to his cutting garden late into the evenings. The first seed of interest sewn in childhood, Ian’s parents grew vegetables and had a practical enthusiasm for feeding their family with organic, homegrown produce. He learnt about flowers after Melrose and Morgan, when he went to work for sustainable flower grower guru’s Camila Romain and Marianne Mogendorff at the Wolves Lane Flower Company in North London. With them Ian learnt to propagate, sew and make a business out of selling cut flowers to the surrounding London boroughs. Flowers are still his thing, and he talks lovingly of his rare geranium collection which he’s spent the last year accumulating. He’s happy to admit that he’s been learning on the job since moving to Water Lane and encourages others to give gardening a go and not despair if things don’t work out occasionally, advise we have all taken on board. Ian explains, “people’s desire to know more about their gardens and how to plant and nurture things has become so focused because of what we have all gone through over the last few years, to offer this in a very down to earth, real way is how we want it.”

 They are enthusiastically celebrating the working environment of the traditional walled kitchen garden, bringing the local community together and involving them in their exciting restoration project. They have a group of local gardening enthusiasts, paid in pots of tea and delicious homemade biscuits to help Ian tend the garden, this sums up their gentle, home-grown ethos. They share Aubin’s passion for organically growing their project and taking their time to do things right. Plans and ideas are free flowing and growing much like the garden itself. With local support driving them, advice from trusted people and specialists they have met along the way, their love of delicious food and of course for the old garden and all that the
walls contain, Water Lane is in safe hands. Living the dream? Perhaps ask them in a few years, but taking time to enjoy the journey all the same. Water Lane is a true celebration of the hard grafted, the homegrown and all that mother nature can provide.

“If it can’t tick a box that it’s garden related then perhaps, we shouldn’t be doing it”.

Ian James,
joint owner of Water Lane

 Keep up to date with developments,and to book on to workshops, at Water Lane by following them on Instagram @water.lane
or head to their website