The autumn and winter months are a magical time of year at Leonardslee. As the trees start to turn, their vibrant pinks, yellows and reds contrast with the green of the famous rhododendron collection. Don’t miss the Rock Garden or the oak and acer walks – the Acer palmatum ‘Osakazuki’ was looking spectacular on my visit – and enjoy the reflection of the amelanchiers and others in the lakes.
The gardens are open throughout the year – tickets can be booked in advance.
Sited in a natural valley, Leonardslee is 5 miles south-east of Horsham just off A281. It’s about 90 minutes from London and 30 minutes from Brighton.
For the last three years, Leonardslee has undergone a massive regeneration project. The new owner, Penny Streeter OBE and CEO of the Benguela Collection Hospitality Group, has succeeded in keeping the spirit of the place. I have visited too many gardens which have taken on a generic form and lost their individuality.
Sir Edward Greaves, physician to Charles II, was given St Leonard’s Forest by the King. The land then passed to the Aldridge family. In 1801, the Aldridges sold part of the estate – Leonardslee – to Charles George Beauclerk. He built St Leonard’s Lodge and began the layout of the garden.
William Egerton Hubbard, a Russian merchant, bought Leonardslee in 1852. He commissioned T.L. Donaldson to replace the Lodge with a two-storey Italianate house and continued to develop the gardens. In 1876, Hubbard’s daughter, Marion, married Sir Edmund Loder and they moved to Floore in Northamptonshire.
Sir Edmund had been brought up in Sussex, not far from Leonardslee, and was the epitome of a Victorian gentleman. Fascinated by the sciences, he had studied astronomy, zoology and botany, was an accomplished sportsman and had travelled widely throughout Asia, America and Africa shooting big game. He also went on several botanic expeditions – he brought back over 250 species of cacti from Mexico and also Alpine plants from the Dolomites.
In 1888, William Hubbard sold Leonardslee to his daughter and son-in-law and they moved back to Sussex. No longer interested in cacti, Sir Edmund gave his collection to the Royal Botanic Garden at Edinburgh and started experimenting with rhododendrons. He crossed R Fortunei with R Griffithiannum and in 1907, the first seedlings flowered. It was a massive success. Sir Edmund continued to create many hybrids at Leonardslee many of which can still be seen today.
As well as starting a zoo at Leonardslee, Sir Edmund also built a Musuem to house his large collection of skeletons. The contents make difficult reading: rhinos, hippos, apes, elephans, human skulls, flightless birds, bears, camels, horses, goats, giraffes, walrus, buffalo, deer, moose and zebra.
After Sir Edmund’s death in 1920, the gardens were neglected until his grandson, Sir Giles Loder, revived them. But with rising costs and fewer visitors, the Loders decided to sell the estate. And in 2010, the gardens were closed to the public.
But in July 2017, good fortune returned to Leonardsee. The South African-based entrepreneur Penny Streeter OBE was driving past the entrance with her son. On learning that the estate was for sale, she decided to buy it. With her team, Streeter began an extensive programme to restore the gardens and two years later, they have reopened the gardens to the public. And what a treat!
There’s no right or wrong way around the gardens with many paths criss-crossing the estate. Just make sure you leave yourself enough time to explore the 240 acres. Don’t miss the Rock Garden to the west of the house.
Sir Edmund commissioned James Pulham & Sons to design this area of the garden for his collection of ferns, azaleas, rhododendrons and Alpine plants. Oval in shape, the local sandstone is joined with artificial ‘Pulhamite’ – a patented mixture of sand, cement and rubble – and planted with azaleas, rhodendrons and dwarf conifers.
Beyond the Rock Garden, to the south, is the Wallaby Enclosure
and the entrance to the vineyard.
Streeter already owned several successful vineyards in South Africa and at the nearby Mannings Heath Golf and Wine Estate. They wanted to expand the business and the open fields at Leonardslee were the perfect site. It was planted in 2018 with a combination of 25% Pinotage and 75% Pinot Noir. Pinotage is a grape crossing of Cinsaut and Pinot Noir and can be harvested early with its thick skin preventing it from rot. Johann Fourie, Benguela Cove’s South African winemaker comments: ‘The idea of planting Pinotage in the UK has been taking shape in my head over the past year. Firstly, it’s quintessentially South African, inherently a part of who we are. It would also add to the historical significance of such a garden.’
Various wine tasting experiences can be booked online.
Keeping below the house and heading north take either the Lower Walk, the Middle Walk or the Top Walk to the Dell.
This was laid out as an American garden by the Beauclerk family and is planted with mixed trees and shrubs including rhododendrons, dogwood, magnolia, cedar and redwood. Here lies the Memorial Table, in memory of Sir Edmund Loder.
Take any of the numerous paths down to the lakes and cross over the Clapper Bridge with the stepping stones to your right.
Again, there are lots of alternative routes along the east side of the wonderfully named lakes: the Skunk Cabbage Pond, the Leucothoe Pond, the Mossy Ghyll Pond and the Engine Pond and Waterfall.
Don’t miss the maples and
the newly created New Pond Walk which twists through the Old Park with its herd of Fallow and Sitka Deer. And if you are visiting in the Spring, enjoy the Camellia Grove leading back towards the house – and the bluebells.
My only criticism of the stunning Leonardslee experience is the map. Difficult to follow and lacking detail, please design a new one!