Sussex’s secret treasure
Given my background of being a professional gardener and designer for 23 years, visiting gardens as a pastime is not high on my list and the sheer pleasure it once held died long ago.
I would more often than not either be disappointed or horrified at the level of horticultural standards or the lack of creative flare that would be shown. So it was with some reluctance that I agreed to visit Woolbeding for the first time two years ago. I’d been recovering from an illness and a dear friend thought it was just what I needed – I doubted it!
I knew little to nothing about Woolbeding, other than the time I’d driven past years ago on the way to a new project. I remember glancing through the gates to the most stunning house and my eyes being drawn to the borders on either side – it was a tempting glimpse!
So to find out that the National Trust had been able to open the garden to the public was a surprise as I’d heard so little about it. The 26 acres of Sussex had been under the patronage of the philanthropist Sir Simon Sainsbury and his Partner Stewart Grimshaw. Together they undertook the enormous project of restoring the house and reawakening an old and tired garden. They took the lease in 1973 from the Trust, now 40 years on we are hugely privileged to see what has been created and the personal journey taken to see the evolution of this contemporary garden.
Above – Looking back across the lawn to the house
Woolbeding sits in the prettiest of vallies and it encapsulates the essence of Englishness. The soft rolling hills creating the valley in which the house nestles and the meandering River Rother with its calming effects glides past the house.
Above – As you enter the garden you arrive at the courtyard. Water gently cascades down the changing levels reflecting light and the surrounding plants. The effect is intoxicating.
When Sir Simon died in 2006 it had already been agreed to open this masterpiece up to the public on certain days, sharing what they had created together. I can’t imagine it being an easy decision initially. When you create a garden, you make something personal, it’s almost a window into your soul, Woolbeding has this in spades. When you arrive at the garden you become aware of entering a private and personal garden and from that instance, for me, I was drawn in. Over the decades, the garden has been carefully and skilfully redesigned, help and advice gathered from the flamboyant and talented American designer Lanning Roper. His good taste and style reflected in areas such as the main borders in the West garden and the Herb Garden with its spiral of box and cross worked cordon fruit trees on the old brick wall.
Above – The herb garden designed by Lanning Roper
I found myself itching to find out what was around the next corner. I would constantly revisit a border and take in the skill that was used to harmonise and contrast the planting.
Above – The borders originally laid out by Lanning Roper.
The heights of the plants and the way the colours and textures work together give a dramatic effect. Colours and textures of the plants playing off each other. Whimsical gestures with the planting of lettuce plants, echoing the carpet bedding style.
Above – Artichokes and Cardoons standing to attention along the avenue with apple trees to the bench beyond.
There were plants used in the garden that I had so rarely seen used before and others that were a new experience altogether. All were so carefully thought about and placed creating a living canvas on which the artist sets the tone. Other designers and artists have been involved over the years.
Above – Annuals jostle for position amongst the more permanent residents
Left Rosa ‘New Dawn’ and clematis” Perle de Azur ‘ make the perfect companions Middle An abundance of Allium cristophii under Rosa ‘Iceburg’ Right the layers of planting in the Green garden Euphorbia mellifera, Eryngium agavifolium, Trifolium alexandrinum Left – The simplicity yet striking effect of the yew hedging and topiary balance so well with solidity of the church tower. Right – Around every corner a visual delight awaits.
William Pye, a lovely man, whom I was lucky enough to work with 15 years ago, was commissioned to design a water sculpture, where once a stately Cedar tree had stood next to the Norman Church. I enjoyed this juxture position of the medieval and the modern. The panoramic reflections that so cleverly reveal themselves along its rim are an unexpected surprise showing the landscape in which it sits.
Above – the water feature designed by William Pye
The Tulip Temple is another homage to a great and majestic tree that was lost in the gales of 1987. A glorious liriodendron (tulip) tree standing over 100ft high, the largest in Europe. Trees like these are so part of the landscape and once lost can never be replaced in ours or the next generation’s life time. So it seems only appropriate that this domed temple, whose influence in its design came from the tree’s destructive flowerhead it remembered.
Above – The Tulip Temple by Philip Webb marks the spot of the old tree
You pass through the temple and step down the steep slope, in which primroses push through the cracks in the stone steps to the lower level by the river and its sinuous banks. Here you are captivated by the most extraordinary oriental plane trees whose ancient branches have layered over time and appear to emerge up through the informal planting of Campanula latifolia and umbelliferies like tentacles from a mystical beast.
I stand at the edge of the ha-ha and realise my time has run out and I’m unable to discover the other design at Woolbeding, the Bannerman’s Woodland Garden. This is my excuse to return. So absorbed have I been that time has worked against me. My afternoon spent at Woolbeding, for me, was spellbinding. I delighted in what I found and saw. The vision and horticultural skill here is extremely high and you feel that the garden is constantly evolving and I do hope this continues. It does not feel like a garden that has become institutionalised and I hope this will never happen.
This garden is about the personal journey and discovery of two visionary men and I’ve been lucky enough to have been allowed a glimpse.
Woolbeding Gardens, Midhurst, West Sussex.
National Trust Open Thursdays and Fridays 10.30am to 4.30pm
You must pre-book your visit on line or phone 0844 249 1895. Transport is provided to and from the Garden from Midhurst (Grange car park)
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