Feature: Cheslfield couple open door to the past after bringing award-winning 60s garden back to life

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After reading about the award-winning garden of May Willis, who lived in their home many decades earlier, Mr and Mrs Pemberton spent years reenergising it. When Mrs Pemberton opened the door to find the 104-year-old Mrs Willis waiting outside, a colourful past caught up with the present.

In 1965 May Willis won £1,000 for transforming her Chelsfield garden from a "wilderness into a paradise".

She scooped the much-coveted Evening News Gardening Contest, and just two years later was featured again after winning a yet another accolade, this time appearing on a double-page spread with colour photographs and plenty of floral praise.

Today the garden, at the back of a post-First World War home in The Meadows, is award-winning once more, after years of neglect.

Owners Roger and Jean Pemberton moved in in 1995, having bought the property from another couple. When they arrived, the garden was looking worse for wear.

But after the Pembertons saw newspaper cuttings documenting the achievements of one of London’s most celebrated home gardeners – and how beautiful their plot once was – the couple soon made it their project to bring it back.

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These two pages, as well as a third, were dedicated to the work 

Mr Pemberton, 69, said: "It was in a bad state when we came. But we were left press cuttings and Mrs Willis became our icon, really. We saw how wonderful it had been.

"We made it out mission to get it back to what it was. We like to think it’s a legacy – it’s our passion. We live here and it’s special us."

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May Wallis in her 60s garden

Nearly 50 years later and the garden is looking as good as ever, complete with pristine flower beds, a rippling pond, and an arch of roses leading to a second, cosier space of benches and hidden pathways.

And having spent so long recreating what they had read about, modelling the design on Mrs Willis’ work, Mrs Pemberton was shocked to find her waiting outside earlier this summer.

Now 104 and living in Bexhill-on-Sea, Mrs Willis had been driven up to her former home by her grandson – simply in the hope of having a look around.

Mrs Pemberton, 67, recalls: "We often talk about Mrs Willis and that morning I’d mentioned it in passing, ‘I wonder what she’d think of it.

"Later I went out to do something shopping and saw a man looking at our house. It was Mrs Willis’ grandson. He told me why he was there and I said, ‘Mrs Willis? I know all about her.' He was quite surprised.

"She came in and walked the entire length. She was so happy we had kept it going – it was amazing, very touching."

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Feeding the fish 

Mr and Mrs Pemberton are now members of the National Open Garden Scheme and the London Garden Society, and have even won prizes themselves as well as raising thousands for charity.

A retired financial advisor, Mr Pemberton said there is a great deal more history in the area, with people forging a community there after the First World War as the population grew.

And he and his wife believe in the importance of remembering the past, preserving good moments – especially when they surprise you at the front door.

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Comments (2)

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3:53pm Thu 7 Aug 14

Tonic says...

Cheslfield?! Tonic
  • Score: 1

5:18pm Thu 7 Aug 14

Eagles_Man says...

Tonic wrote:
I think it's near Fanrborough and Oprington.
[quote][p][bold]Tonic[/bold] wrote: Cheslfield?![/p][/quote]I think it's near Fanrborough and Oprington. Eagles_Man
  • Score: 4

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