Get involved: Send your news, views, pictures and video by texting SUPIC to 80360 or email us.
A force of nature
Sarah Raven is not one for putting her feet up, especially not at this time of year.
Spring has sprung on Perch Hill, the farm and garden she runs with her husband Adam Nicholson, and her days are a whirlwind of glamorous tasks.
“Mulching, sowing, cutting – it’s frantic at the moment.
We’ve just built a cow barn and been lambing for the first time, and we’re about to start doing work on the farmhouse, which has become very crumbly.”
It’s nearly two decades since the couple bought the rundown farm on the Sussex Weald. They’ve since turned it into the rural idyll they’d always dreamed of and have used their profiles as gardening expert and author to build a thriving business from it. But this isn’t enough for Raven, who, like so many driven people, frames her industrious nature as a failing.
“We’re nowhere near ‘there’ at the moment,” she says briskly.
“We’re still very much on the journey. Perch Hill is pretty much our life’s work. I’d like to be less busy but I find it hard.”
Familiar to millions as Monty Don and Chris Beardshaw’s companion on Gardeners’ World, Raven has written heaps of books and newspaper columns on gardening and cookery, and runs a long list of courses at Perch Hill.
She has just finished fronting BBC Two series Bees, Butterflies And Blooms, on protecting dwindling numbers of species, a topic on which she has also published a book. “Wild flowers are tremendously important to me personally because I spent the happiest times of my childhood botanising with my dad (the late Cambridge academic John Earle Raven) but they’re important to all of us.
Unfortunately, the younger generation and even mine [she is 49] have lost sight of that.
We don’t realise what we’ve got and because we’re not paying attention to them, they’re disappearing all the time.”
Raven worries about the disastrous effect this is having on insect numbers. Even in the two-acre garden at Perch Hill – a riot of colourful dahlias, gladioli and zinnias – butterflies are a rare sight.
“I practically clap when I see one and yet it’s one of the most butterfly-friendly gardens you could have. In my childhood, I’d walk through my parents’ garden and create a cascade of butterflies. Now it’s rare to see pollinators.
“I think we’ve lost touch with the countryside and we need to fall in love with it again because otherwise it’s not going to be there for very long. That’s what I wanted to do with the book and TV series – to open people’s eyes to the incredible riches and beauty on our doorsteps.”
Immediacy is one of the things Raven loves about television. Being a TV presenter doesn’t interest her, she says.
“I’m a teacher really and I find telly is the most fantastic way of educating, which sounds pompous, but it is.”
Her courses at Perch Hill teach everything from floristry to vegetable-growing – “I’m a logical person and I think that makes me a logical communicator” – and she also guides people around the farm and gardens.
Perch Hill is a place of pilgrimage among gardeners and urbanites dreaming of relocating to the country – something Raven has capitalised on with her mail-order shop, which sells homewares, gardening supplies and various other covetable pieces of rural kit.
Every photo in the catalogue is, of course, styled and shot by her. I wonder how the couple’s teenage daughters, Molly and Rosie, feel about curious members of the public wandering around their house?
“They enjoy it. They often serve cake and work on the gate. It’s very much a family business. My husband is often there too. We wouldn’t like people coming all the time because it’s our home, but it’s good fun. It makes us all tidy up and make things look lovely.”
One suspects that ultimately, her family have very little say in the matter. In Perch Hill: A New Life, Nicholson’s account of becoming an amateur farmer, Raven is portrayed as something of a superwoman, the ballast to her husband’s bumbling charm.
When the couple featured in a 2009 TV series about the revival of Sissinghurst, the Kent castle of Nicholson’s grandmother Vita Sackville- West, it was Raven who appeared to be calling the shots. It’s an impression she does little to dispel during our conversation. I ask her if growing up in Sissinghurst a place so steeped in family history, made her husband yearn for a place all of his own?
“I think for Adam, yes, there was a sense of starting from scratch with Perch Hill and making something that was his. Not so much for me.
For me it’s more about my work than creating a ‘place’.
I do what I absolutely love here and I’m incredibly lucky.”
Raven isn’t doing any TV this year, choosing instead to plough all her efforts into Perch Hill. She’s also working on two new books, one on the writing of Sackville-West and the other on food.
Do the couple discuss each other’s respective writing?
“If I’m worried about something I’m working on I’ll always read it to Adam and we tend to discuss what book he’s going to do next. I’m quite good at thinking what’s marketable and what’s not.
But he’s a much better writer than me and I wouldn’t dream of advising him how to write.”
The family are living at Sissinghurst at the moment – “I stop noticing it’s Sissinghurst and just think of it as home”, she has said of the grand pile – while work is carried out on the Perch Hill farmhouse.
“We’re trying to make it more family-friendly,” she explains.
“We have five children between us [Nicholson has three from his previous marriage] and it only has three bedrooms.
There’s a lot to be done.”
* For details of all upcoming courses at Perch Hill, or visiting details, go to www.sarahraven.com
Comments are closed on this article.