Kemp Town Enclosures

Kemp Town Enclosures

by Russell Miller

For the first time in nearly 200 years, a private communal garden in Brighton is to be opened to the public in June this year, under the aegis of the National Garden Scheme, says Russell Miller.

Kemp Town Enclosures were laid out in the 1820s for the benefit of the residents of Kemp Town Estate, and were then developed by Thomas Read Kemp, a property developer and politician. Despite being instrumental in creating the glorious Regency terraces which are today so much a part of Brighton’s heritage, Kemp was obliged to flee Britain in 1837 to escape his creditors and died in exile in Paris, in 1844.

The gardens, which cover 3.24 hectares (7.5 acres), are owned collectively by the freeholders of the 105 Grade I listed houses that make up the estate. They were originally landscaped in the Regency style in 1828 by local horticulturist Henry Phillips, assisted by surveyor Henry Kendall. More than 20,000 plants – including semi- mature trees and shrubs – were ordered and gravel paths laid to fulfil Phillips’ master plan.

A tunnel connecting the gardens to the Esplanade, and Brighton’s famous seafront, was added in around 1830. A sign on the wall of the tunnel still claims a Constable is on duty, “to keep the place free from the intrusion of all Persons whose conduct or appearance seem to justify their exclusion.” The bell with which he could be summoned is no longer there; neither, indeed, is the Constable.

The tunnel is also rumoured to have provided inspiration for the rabbit hole in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Carroll (the Reverend Charles Dodgson) often visited Brighton to meet his friend, the Reverend Henry Barclay, who ran a boys’ prep school at 11 Sussex Square, facing the Enclosures, sometime between 1871 and 1888.

Among other distinguished visitors were William IV and Queen Adelaide, and later Victoria and Albert, who enjoyed walking in the gardens on their visits to Brighton. The entire garden was set aside for the exclusive pleasure of King Edward VII when he was convalescing in Brighton and staying with his daughter, Princess Louise, the wife of the Duke of Fife, at 1 Lewes Crescent (now Fife House) in 1908. The lavatory specially installed for the convenience of the King in Fife House is still extant.

The changing style of the gardens after the Regency period was driven by a desire to embrace the new and exotic plants which became available in the late 19th century, brought home from around the world by British plant hunters exploring the world’s fauna in the wake of the expansion of the Empire. The gardens today provide an oasis of tranquillity for those fortunate enough to possess keys and their guests. It is to share their good fortune that the gardens are being opened in June as a first step towards a continuing, and greater, commitment to community engagement in preparation for celebrating their bicentennial.

Kemp Town Enclosures: South Garden, Lewes Crescent, Brighton, Sussex BN2 1FH

The garden is open on Thursday 6th June Bookings from 12:00 to 15:30, with guided tours every 30 minutes.

Garden open till 17:00

Pre-booking essential, adults £7.50