Set amongst one of the High Weald’s ancient forests, you will find Leonardslee Lakes & Gardens. It masterfully combines one of the finest examples of an English country garden and the soaring beauty of the Sussex landscape. Only ten years ago, this magnificent treasure was close to being gone forever. But now it’s reopened – preserved by the herculean effort of England’s largest garden restoration.
“Having been shut for nearly a decade, Leonardslee became almost as famous for being a ‘lost garden’. It has been for its historic plant collection,” says its Head Gardener, Jamie Harris. “Certainly, when I was studying horticulture during that period of closure, it was spoken of in the past tense because nobody was sure whether it would re-open again.”
Arranged with a structured informality, Leonardslee presents an extensive plant collection and landscape features which appear entirely natural. With Grade I Listed gardens, parkland, lawns and ‘The Finest Woodland Gardens in England’. The grounds offer an extensive range of flora and fauna. Stylistically, Leonardslee swerves the solemn rigidity of the formal garden or the bombast of classists like Capability Brown. Instead it presents a rustic simplicity which works closer to nature.
How the gardens change throughout the seasons
Spring is very much their feature season, as you might expect from a woodland garden. “The Rhododendrons, Camellias and Magnolias are the stars of the show. They are in such number and variety that they really need to be seen to be believed. There are also carpets of bulbs in Spring such as Bluebells, Snowdrops and Daffodils. We add thousands more to the collection each year. The historic Rock garden is in full swing in Spring. The baby wallabies are emerging from their mothers’ pouches and the whole garden feels alive.”
Although Autumn almost rivals Spring in terms of colour displays at Leonardslee. “The stunning firework foliage show on Acer and Oak Walk and beyond is a big hit with photographers. This display is complimented by the myriad of beautiful bark and berries on the likes of the Sorbus and Betula trees. As these colours and forms reflect in the lakes, Autumn is one of my favourite times of the year.”
Summer is a very peaceful season at the gardens. Walking around the lakes with insects, birds and other wildlife going about their business amongst the acres of wildflowers is a true joy. Harris and his team are currently doing plenty of work around improving and adding to the floral interest in Summer. This includes a major planting scheme around the lakes; with Hydrangeas and flowering dogwood trees.
The next phase of the Leonardslee enhancement works is to develop Winter offerings for visitors. The frosty views, coloured stems and Winter scents will hopefully soon be joined by two Winter Gardens . One down in the valley at the north end of the lakes – another up in the top garden below the mansion.
Plants at Leonardslee Lakes & Gardens
“We need to conserve the biodiversity here and reduce the impact of any developments that we undertake,” adds Harris. “Also, we have around 80 or so Champion Trees [each officially recorded as the tallest or widest of its type in either the county, the country or, in one case, the world]. And a Plant Heritage National Plant Collection for our Leonardslee and Loder-related Rhododendrons. We are therefore very protective of the garden and the plants therein. This is always taken into consideration when laying paths or siting sculptures for instance. However, we also want to make sure that our visitors have as much access to this beautiful and historic landscape. While obviously without negatively impacting upon it in any way.”
Wildlife at Leonardslee Lakes & Gardens
The estate is also home to an extraordinary range of wildlife. Find Foxes, Rabbits, Grey Squirrels, Badgers, Weasels, Stoats, Shrews and Voles. You can often see (or hear) Green Woodpeckers. While Herons thrive on the shallow lakeside water where Carp feed on the surface. It’s also a fine place to spot Wild Mandarin Ducks, Nuthatches, and Treecreepers.
There’s also extensive parkland which offers over 100 free-roaming deer. “Wildlife is abundant in a woodland setting such as ours. I love walking around the lakes and seeing Cormorants and Kingfishers swooping and diving for instance. We’ve recently been designated as a site of particular interest for Dragonflies. Over 30 different species were recorded here last year. And we’re almost as famous for our wallabies as we are our plant collection sometimes!
A real hit with families, our mob of wallabies are looked after by the garden team and are great fun to work with.” These characterful marsupials are quite tame. Although you cannot pet them, they are fascinating to observe – particularly when the joeys are active. “When I first started here, I was asked to do an RHS podcast on looking after the wallabies. I had to do some quick swotting up on wallaby husbandry as funnily enough that wasn’t covered in my horticultural training!”
Located near Horsham, the site of Leonardslee was left alone for centuries. The name refers to the valley of St Leonard’s Forest. The region’s soil was deemed too acidic for most crops in the Middle Ages. It was therefore mostly used for the hunting of animals. When the Weald became a centre for England’s iron production in the 16th and 17th centuries, local sandstone was dug out in the search for vital ores and trees felled to manufacture charcoal. The valleys at Leonardslee were dammed. Several ponds dug to ensure constant flow for a waterwheel; which in turn powered bellows at a forge.
With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, iron production no longer needed to be near its raw materials. Operations like Leonardslee began to fall behind the brutal efficiency and technological advances of larger facilities. After the forge and activity had left, nature began to reclaim the landscape. Ownership of the site changed hands several times. The Beauclerk family created the first ornamental plantings at Leonardslee. It bought together imports from the New World like conifers, palms and giant sequoia, along with rhododendrons and magnolias.
The estate was later sold to the Hubbard family, who built the stunning Italianate-style mansion overlooking the valley today. The next major change came in 1889, when renowned Victorian plant collector, Sir Edmund Loder, purchased the estate. He began extensive planting of plants and trees, even developing new Rhododendron varieties for the gardens. At this time species like Gazelle, Beavers, Kangaroos and Wallabies were introduced. A rock garden was constructed from Pulhamite (a newly developed artificial rock), which included artificial caves for wild sheep. There is also a Pulhamite cave for mountain goats to explore. This is separate from the Rock garden but constructed at the same time.
A new tourist attraction
The following years would see Leonardslee become a popular tourist destination. Visitors wowed by an ever-shifting array of views and imaginative displays. But, after the Loder family sold the estate, all was closed to the public in 2010. The house and gardens were then acquired in 2017 by The Benguela Collection Hospitality Group . (Owners of the acclaimed Mannings Heath Golf Club & Wine Estate nearby who developed a plan to restore the site.) In 2019, visitors were again allowed to lose themselves in this romantic wilderness.
Preserving listed sites
Preserving a Grade I listed garden while meeting the evolving needs of a modern audience is always going to be a big task. But the team at Leonardslee are tackling this head on. “I wonder if the Loder family were finding that difficult towards the end of their tenure here,” ponders Harris. “These days, a garden alone is never going to ‘wash its own face’ as it were. Just look at the likes of Wisley and Kew for instance – see how diverse they need to be with their visitor offerings to keep the gardens viable. Here at Leonardslee we’re no different.
The Grade I listing brings no additional statutory controls in itself. But English local authorities are required by the government to take the protection of the historic environment into account in their policies and resource allocations. The register is also used in influencing management decisions. Also, to improve public awareness of important parks and elements within them and to encourage their owners to preserve and maintain them.” He says they’d never do anything to damage the historic plant collection or subvert Leonardslee’s original spirit. Newer additions have all been done with consideration to the garden and plants. These include vineyard, sculptures and big Winter light shows. And these drive visitor football, helping to pay for the important restoration work.
What to do at the Lakes & Gardens
Today, Leonardslee is returning to its past splendour. There’s also a range of food and drink offerings, including the Michelin-starred Restaurant Interlude. The beautiful woodland gardens now host Anton Smit’s Sculptures’ The Walk of Life exhibition. This compelling trail includes a range of contemporary works and several monumental pieces, all presented in beautiful surroundings.
“I was involved with the siting of the sculptures when I first started here at Leonardslee and made sure that their positioning didn’t impact upon the plants or block any views; while ensuring they provided interesting focal points to lead visitors around the garden. If you walk around an old country estate you’ll find that the statues and urns there were the taste of the owner at the time and these are no different here at Leonardslee today.” Much to the delight of those with fond memories of the gardens, Leonardslee has reopened its famous magical world in miniature at the Beyond The Dolls’ House exhibition.
“For the garden itself, I manage a team of 11 gardeners, two rolling apprentices, plus a handful of willing volunteers to manage the 240 acres here,” Harris tells me. “Elsewhere on the property we have a whole range of staff and volunteers to manage the running of the property, in various roles from a buildings team to buggy drivers to café staff, events managers, finance teams, tour guides and many more besides. It’s a great group of people here and everyone is committed to making Leonardslee the best it can be for our visitors.” In line with Sussex’s wider changing agricultural fortunes, the gardens also host a beautiful vineyard across four acres, which produces Pinot Noir and Pinotage grapes – with the first release of wine set for this year.
From a garden perspective, there might be a misconception that Leonardslee is ‘just Rhododendrons’. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” says Harris. “Although the likes of Rhodies, Camellias and Magnolias are perhaps our feature plants during Spring, there is so much more to see here. Horticulturally there’s the carpets of bulbs, the historic Rock Garden, the Autumn colour, the Champion Trees and so much more. And with the lakes buzzing with wildlife in the Summer, the deer park and hidden woodland paths to explore, the wallaby collection, the sculpture park, the vineyard, the Michelin Star restaurant, the plant sales nursery and the many varied events that take place, there really is something for everyone.”
Leonardslee Gardens is on Brighton Road, Lower Beeding, Horsham RH13 6PP. For more details on flowerings, their extensive range of special events and tickets, head to: www.leonardsleegardens.co.uk
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