Visits with interesting plants

Visits April 2019 – Leonardslee Lakes and Gardens

Leonardslee Lakes and Gardens

On the 6th of April 2019, Leonardslee Lakes and Gardens in Horsham, West Sussex, re-opened for the first time since 2010. I went along for a press preview.

Leonardslee Gardens were once described as the finest woodland gardens in England and attracted up to 50,000 visitors a year, but they were closed to the public in 2010 and had suffered from neglect for seven years, until being sold and restored.

Background to Leonardslee house and garden

The first house at Leonardslee was built in the early 19th century and the gardens were begun at that time. Sir Edmund Loder, who bought the estate towards the end of the century, was largely responsible for what we see now. A keen plant collector, he travelled the world bringing back a collection of rare, unusual and in some cases unique shrubs and trees that make this such an important garden. He was particularly interested in rhododendrons, azaleas, camelias and magnolias, but also planted many tree species such as acers and oaks, and even introduced a mob (the collective noun, I’ve just discovered) of wallabies!

His descendent, Robin Loder, sold the estate when he and his wife retired, and the new owner closed the gardens to the public in 2010.

After that, it seems the garden wasn’t maintained and fell into disrepair, until it was sold again in 2017 to Penny Streeter, owner of the Benguela Collection vineyard and hospitality group, who has undertaken one of the most extensive garden restorations of recent times.

One of many mature rhododendron at Leonardslee

The restoration project

The whole 240 acre estate had fallen into disrepair over the 7 years it was closed, and as the gardens are grade 1 listed, all the work needed to restore it had to be approved. Ten miles of pathways had to be rebuilt and 10,000 trees had to be catalogued, inspected and in many cases worked on by tree surgeons. A team of 20 gardeners carried out the work, recording 95 champion trees (a champion tree is an exceptional example of the species because of its size, age or rarity). The lakes were full of silt and had to be dredged, and acres of overgrowth had to be removed. Wild orchids were discovered in one newly cleared area.

What is there to see?

The view across the gardens for the terrace of the house

The gardens are set in and around a steep-sided valley and this seems to be a major factor in its success. Not only does it undoubtedly create microclimates enjoyed by the plants, but for the visitor there are vantage points (not least the terrace by the house) from where you can enjoy fantastic views across the garden and into the surrounding countryside. From these you get a sense of the size and layout of the garden and the size and the maturity of some of the shrubs and trees in a way that isn’t always possible when you’re walking underneath them. If you’re even slightly fanciful, you could forget you’re in West Sussex and imagine you’re exploring a natural landscape in some far-flung country – well, it did double up as north India in the 1947 film ‘Black Narcissus’.

Although the valley is natural, the series of 7 ponds at the bottom of the valley is man-made. It’s no less lovely for that, with its waterfalls and landscaped surroundings. The surface reflections of bordering trees and shrubs help to create a peaceful atmosphere that is very much part of the charm of the garden.

With so many camelias, rhododendrons, azaleas, magnolias, and bluebells, it’s predominantly a spring garden and May will probably be peak season, but there are plans to sow a 5 acre wildflower meadow, introduce wildflowers in other parts of the garden and sow an American meadow which will feature late summer bloomers like echinacea. This seems like a reasonable idea to extend the visitor season and a natural way of introducing colour. Hopefully it won’t jar with what is essentially a beautiful woodland garden, albeit one which still carries some echoes of those years of neglect.

Top left, magnolia, to the right and beneath, two rhododendron, bottom right an arch-trained European lime grafted onto an English lime root, and bottom left Rhododendron irroratum ‘Polka Dot’

There is also a new 35 acre vineyard being planted with pinotage and pinot noir grapes for a new English sparkling wine.

The garden has clearly been missed by many residents of the area who visited regularly in the past so the restoration and re-opening will be very welcome locally. But restoring a garden with this sort of history and with so many rare plants will have much wider significance and it will be exciting to see how it develops in the coming years.

For more information on the garden and opening times, visit the website

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