The National Trust is the UK’s largest conservation charity. Founded in 1895, this highly-respected body was set up with the aim of protecting sites of natural and historical significance for future generations to enjoy. Staffed by a team of 9000 and supported by a volunteer force of 65,000, the Trust looks after more than 300 historic houses and buildings around the country as well as 180 parks and gardens. As testament to its outstanding work, National Trust sites attract millions of visitors each year. Some of the most significant of these sites can be found in South East England. Here’s a run-down.
*Please keep in mind that certain restrictions have been put in place for these sites due to current lockdown rules.
Bodiam Castle, Bodiam, East Sussex
Bodiam Castle is a magnificent moated fortress built in 1385 to repel French river marauders during the Hundred Years’ War. Although most of the interior no longer remains, large sections are well preserved including its gatehouse, towers and battlements. Saved from demolition in the 1820s and partially restored, it was eventually donated to the National Trust in 1925, which undertook further renovations, adding roofs to the gatehouse and towers. Today the castle is a Grade I-listed building and Scheduled Monument.
Nymans, Slaugham, West Sussex
Also in the care of the National Trust is a wonderful array of gardens and estates – Nymans, near Haywards Heath, is one of the most popular examples in Southern England. Set around an historical Regency-era house, this Grade II-listed site comprises more than 200 acres of well-kept grounds in which can be found an exotic array of rare and unusual plant species. The estate was purchased by the influential Messel family in the late nineteenth century before falling under the stewardship of the National Trust in 1953. Highlights include a famous Walled Garden and a woodland nature reserve. There’s also an on-site museum that showcases a dazzling collection of 17th century tapestries.
Scotney Castle, Tunbridge Wells, Kent
Scotney Castle is an impressive country house featuring more than 750 acres of Grade I listed parkland that’s graced by picturesque formal gardens that are designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Their centrepiece is a partially-ruined medieval manor house known as the Old Castle. Coated in wisteria and clematis, it sits on an island in the middle of a lake that’s bounded by sloping woodland and well-manicured gardens. The new castle was built in 1837 and is set in an elevated position overlooking the estate, acquired by the National Trust in 1970.
Sheffield Park and Garden, Uckfield, East Sussex
This stunning park and garden was designed by Capability Brown in the eighteenth century and later developed by owner Arthur Soames. The gardens were originally part of the privately-owned Sheffield Park House. Today they vividly showcase the horticultural ingenuity of times past, comprising glades, wooded areas and five hand-dug lakes linked by waterfalls. The park itself spans more than 250 acres and has become a haven for wildlife. Visitors have access to a three mile trail which wends its way through the estate and a shorter circular path that runs along the waterside meadows of the River Ouse.
Cissbury Ring, Findon Valley, West Sussex
Cissbury Ring is located in the South Downs National Park. Dating back to the Iron Age, this expansive hill fort covers more than 60 acres and is the largest of its kind in Sussex. In addition to a pair of well-defined ramparts and a large ditch that fringe the site, Cissbury Ring includes an elaborate system of flint mineshafts, many of which are interconnected. Unsurprisingly, the fort is designated as a Scheduled Monument and is maintained by the National Trust.
Petworth House, Petworth, West Sussex
Backed by the pretty medieval town of Petworth, with its warren of narrow winding streets, this majestic Grade I listed country house dates from the late seventeenth century. Baroque in style, it features a thirteenth century chapel and an assortment of grand state rooms displaying a wide variety of priceless paintings from the likes of Rembrandt, Holbein and Gainsborough. The Carved Room is one of the main attractions though, consisting of intricate wood carvings from famed Anglo-Dutch sculptor, Grinling Gibbons. A deer park and formal gardens designed by Capability Brown also form part of the 700-acre estate.
Bateman’s, Burwash, East Sussex
Bateman’s is a Grade I seventeenth century Jacobean mansion that nestles in the Sussex Weald. The property was home to celebrated writer and poet, Rudyard Kipling from 1902 to 1936. It was here that he composed memorable works such as ‘If’ and ‘The Land’. Constructed in 1634, many of the house’s original features remain including the mullion windows, exposed oak beams and a row of six tottering chimney stacks. The rooms have also been left largely untouched and are adorned with a huge collection of artefacts and furnishings, acquired by Kipling during his travels in India and the East. Also on display are his Nobel Prize and a Rolls Royce Phantom 1. Bateman’s was bequeathed to the National Trust by Kipling’s widow following her death in 1939.
Alfriston Clergy House, Polegate, East Sussex
This was the very first property acquired by the National Trust, purchased in 1896 for the princely sum of £10. Dating from about 1400, it’s a rare example of a Wealden Hall House and was the residence of local clergy until the early eighteenth century. After lying derelict for many years, it was sold to the Trust who embarked on an ambitious renovation project that saw the thatched roof repaired and the interior restored to its former glory. Notable features include a beautiful timber-framed façade, an original oak-leaf carving and a delightful garden that incorporates an orchard and lawned terrace.
Chartwell, Westerham, Kent
The country home of Sir Winston Churchill and its hillside gardens is another major National Trust visitor attraction in South East England. The house and land was purchased by his parents in 1922 and would remain in the family’s possession until the 1960s. Britain’s most famous Prime Minister was especially fond of Chartwell and took a great interest in all aspects of the estate. The interior of the house has been preserved as a museum and displays his many souvenirs, keepsakes and personal mementoes. The 20-acre gardens still include some of the features that the family helped plan such as the lakes, a rose garden, and summerhouse.
Wakehurst Place, Haywards Heath, West Sussex
Wakehurst Place is owned by the National Trust and managed by the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew. On the estate sits an elegant Grade I-listed Tudor mansion built by Sir Edward Culpepper, distant relative to famed botanist Nicholas Culpepper. But the main highlight is the internationally-recognised botanical gardens. Covering 500 acres, they’re home to the Millennium Seed Bank Project – the largest conservation initiative in the world – and several significant collections of plant and tree species. Other noteworthy attractions include a nature reserve and elaborate ornamental gardens. Visitors are able to appreciate the beauty of this lovely estate via a nature trail which takes in the idyllic surroundings.
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