Off the beaten track in Hawkhurst on the Sussex-Kent borders is Water Lane, a one-acre walled garden housing beautifully restored Grade II-listed Victorian glasshouses and a recently transformed peaceful but active flower and vegetable garden and restaurant created by its new custodians, Nick Selby and Ian James.

In what were grounds of the Tongswood Estate, now an independent school, Selby and James have opened an unexpected and magical oasis since they moved in February 2021. Water Lane is part home to the couple – a modest two-bedroom bothy – and part thriving garden business, all of it a spontaneous adventure for the pair who founded the fashionable gourmet Primrose Hill grocer Melrose & Morgan in 2004.

nick selby ian james water lane
Helen Cathcart

‘I’ve always loved gardening,’ says Gloucestershire-born co-founder James, ‘but we lived in a basement flat in Hackney for 22 years with no outside space. Having brought in an investor for Melrose & Morgan in 2018, we knew we’d need a new venture and preferably one away from London after we’d eased our way out of the business.’

A conversation with a friend who introduced them to the floral stylist Flora Starkey led to James researching small-scale flower farming and the realisation that this had career and life potential. An online RHS course and nine months of volunteering at Wolves Lane Flower Company later, and an idea was born.

‘We found this place on Rightmove,’ says Dorset-born Selby, who leads the creative side and the restaurant alongside head chef Jed Wrobel. ‘There was an existing nursery, but it looked like it had been mothballed during lockdown. We loved it when we visited and raced home to write a business plan. We knew we wanted to reinvent it but hold on to its wonderful heritage.’

water lane christmas table
Helen Cathcart

Since they began work in May 2021, they have hand-laid rows of no-dig beds for organically grown vegetables and fruit, overseen by head gardener Linda Herbert, and a large and lush selection of flowers, overseen by James. The imposing glasshouses include a carnation house and pelargonium and melon houses, among others. There’s propagating, drying, growing. Design-wise, what Selby and James bring to this very British rustic setting is their pared-back urban aesthetic, which stops this place ever looking twee.

‘We love juxtaposing old and new with a light modern feel,’ explains Selby. The restaurant, which serves seasonal British food, much of it from the garden, is nestled under a vast peaked tent, which Selby jokingly refers to looking ‘like something Zaha Hadid might have designed’. Tables and chairs, designed by VG&P, are crafted from recycled plastics and hemp – aligning with Selby and James’s sustainable principles.

water lane christmas
Helen Cathcart

An adjacent shipping container and Portuguese-made wood fired oven bring an aspect of theatre. ‘We wanted to capture that sense of looking out and seeing on your plate what we’ve grown right there. There’s also a lovely, cocooned feel you get from being within the walls of the garden.’ Menus have been designed by the Swedish illustrator Malin Rosenqvist and, along with daily menu updates, also feature charming details such as that day’s weather, what food is in season and gardening tips.

Workshops with the Kent-based ceramicist Kate Monckton and flower arranging with Bloom & Burn founder Graeme Corbett have been a huge hit, and food not grown within the walls is mostly sourced from local suppliers.

bloom and burn graeme corbett
Helen Cathcart

With the pair’s pedigree from Melrose & Morgan, a retail space was also inevitable. A shop, inside the vinery by the potting house where the restaurant kitchen has been installed, sells cut flowers from the garden, enamel tableware, oak cutting boards, natural vegetable-dyed napkins and pickled goods alongside nursery plants and festive wreaths to browse. ‘It’s contemporary and thoughtful,’ says Selby. ‘We’ve been careful with what we present. Everything is British and mostly local. Everything should be useful, like gardening tools or utensils for the kitchen. We want to be considerate with consumption.’

water lane christmas cocktail
Helen Cathcart

How we host

Water Lane founders Nick Selby and Ian James share their festive to-do list

Post-pandemic, we’re feeling a great need to be with dear friends around a table. The mood is one of conviviality and warmth for us, less about any ostentatious displays. We’ll be decorating with what we have around us, such as holly branches, evergreens and berries. We’ve also been drying dahlias, which we’ll add to dried seed heads. We love displaying bowls of overflowing seasonal fruits, such as pomegranate and leafy clementines.

We plan to decorate our table with simple runners and modern, pared-back ceramics, along with classic Finnish Hackman cutlery. We’re fans of tradition at Christmas, so a homemade wreath on the door and place settings at the table. A centrepiece is also a lovely thing. It could be flowers or even a simple bowl of pine cones.

water lane christmas tablescape
Helen Cathcart

We always think that hosting should bring with it a little theatre at this time of year, so we like to start with the most evocative sense: scent. The plan is to have beautiful, natural beeswax candles and plenty of fragrant, homemade evergreen garlands to drape along the shelves.

For New Year’s Eve, we go for more of a grazing table with sharing platters arranged at different heights – people can wander over and help themselves. It makes for more of a party atmosphere. We’ll be decorating with a Kate Monckton candelabra, which is handmade locally.

water lane pavlova
Helen Cathcart

A mistake people often make is creating menus that require them to be in the kitchen when friends arrive. If food is mostly prepped, you can just run things through the oven and bring them to the table. Melting cheese pots feel nicely decadent – we’ll serve them with homemade rye biscuits.;