Water Lane near Hawkhurst is one of the area’s most delightful destinations, offering quality seasonal dining, an artisan shop and pantry, and an original Victorian walled garden which is being lovingly restored by its custodians Nick Selby and Ian James. They tell Eileen Leahy all about their vision and what makes Water Lane such a unique place…
One sunny day in late November last year I had the great fortune to discover a charming spot that has since become one of my favourite local haunts.
Water Lane, formerly the Walled Nursery in Hawkhurst, is where I’m talking about and when I first visited, courtesy of a friend, I fell in love with all it has to offer right there and then.
The custodians of this space which was once a thriving Victorian garden kitchen are Nick Selby and Ian James, both of whom are passionate about good food and the great outdoors.
The pair, who are responsible for establishing the gourmet deli and grocer brand Melrose & Morgan, are steeped in experience when it comes to sourcing great suppliers and seeking out the finest seasonal produce. So it’s no surprise they quickly got to work after taking it over in late 2020 with the hospitality side of their project.
They created a pavilion for al fresco dining and cleverly repurposed one of the site’s original Victorian glasshouses as a restaurant, Carnation House, for when the weather gets slightly chillier.
Here visitors can feast on an ever-changing seasonal menu courtesy of head chef Jed Wrobel (left) whose dishes feature much of Water Lane’s homegrown produce, as well as local specialist suppliers. Nick and Ian came across the Water Lane site three years ago when Ian was looking to buy a flower field. When they spotted the former walled garden nursery online, they knew they’d hit the jackpot, as not only was there plenty for Ian to get his hands dirty with, but Nick could also see the potential for what else the land and its period buildings could offer. It was less about a Victorian Garden restoration and more about Water Lane becoming a holistic, multi-tasking ‘place’. Restoring its former glory and reimagining its future.
Now fully ensconced at Water Lane, Nick and Ian are busy with the restaurant but have also been working with RHS award-winning gardener Jo Thompson and RX Architects to realise their overall vision.
As a result, the garden is carefully being returned to growing all manner of fruit, vegetables and flowers, using a no-dig approach and organic methods.
In addition to all this, there’s also a gorgeous shop, the Vinery, on site, where you can browse Water Lane’s curated collection of both edible goodies, unique gifts and tasteful pieces for the home – all sourced from artisan suppliers.
Nick and Ian host a number of regular food markets and seasonal fairs where they invite producers and specialist suppliers to showcase everything from vintage goods to art and ceramics and locally sourced meats, cheese and condiments. Another of Water Lane’s Victorian glasshouses, Pelargonium House, is often used as an additional space for creatives and makers if their terrace area is full. Talking of which, Nick and Ian are busy getting this space ready for summer and I for one am looking forward to dining al fresco with a chilled glass of something lovely in hand. But before the warm days of summer are upon us, let’s hear a little bit more from Nick and Ian first hand shall we? Enjoy…
Have you drawn a lot on your experience of running Melrose & Morgan at Water Lane?
Yes absolutely. We are hopefully and ever so slightly disrupting what people think a walled garden should be. We did the same when we opened Melrose & Morgan in 2004 – no one had heard of grocery shops in a modern way back then.
Ian, you are tasked with overseeing the garden and Nick, you’re in charge of the food offering is that right?
Yes, Ian is in the garden helping our colleagues Linda and Julia stay on top of things. Nick loves to cook and helps our head chef Jed shape the menu. He is also a keen preserver and helps the team capture the garden’s seasonal bounty.
Please can you tell us how Water Lane’s partnership with gardener Jo Thompson came about and how are plans progressing?
We met Jo on Instagram very early on in this project. She popped by and fell in love with the garden like we did. She has drawn up plans for the entire project which is very exciting for everyone involved in the restoration and rejuvination of this special place.
How often does the Carnation House restaurant’s menu change and do you leave head chef Jed to curate it all?
It changes all the time, especially during the summer, when there is so much new produce. In winter, Jed takes inspiration from his favourite cookery writers, such as Simon Hopkinson and Claudia Roden, and the menu changes monthly.
When will you start serving food and drinks al fresco on your terrace this year?
We normally go out to the terrace at the beginning of May when it starts to warm up!
Where do the majority of your visitors come from and are they mainly local are you wanting to attract people from further afield?
They are from all over Kent, East Sussex and London. We have guests coming from Lewes, Eastbourne and Faversham.
We have always been well supported by the nearby coastal towns Hastings and Rye. Lots of customers are coming from Tunbridge Wells as it’s only 25 mins away.
It’s not unusual for Londoners to come and dine with us at weekends, especially when the sun is shining.
Can you tell us a little bit about the markets you run?
We are running bi-monthly Food Produce Markets with stalls selling seasonal vegetables, fruit, cheese and pasture-raised meat, sourdough bread and pastries, eggs, honey, apple juice, wine and cider. We also have our seasonal fairs throughout the year celebrating spring, harvest and Christmas.
We also have our shop in the Vinery which delivers nationwide and a busy schedule of creative and practical workshops and talks that are running throughout the summer.