Highdown Gardens - a green miracle

PUBLISHED: 15:22 18 September 2012 | UPDATED: 12:14 28 February 2013

Highdown Gardens - a green miracle

Highdown Gardens - a green miracle

Highdown Gardens, near Worthing, was one of the founders of the National Garden Scheme 85 years ago. It is still worth a visit, as Terry Timblick finds out

One of the great odds-defying gardens of England, Highdown was among the 1927 pioneers launching the National Gardens Scheme. This year it made a nod to NGS with special openings in June but in
fact is open free virtually every day of the year.

Dutifully and lovingly cared for by Worthing Borough Council, it can hold its head up, hyacinth proud, amid the drift of glorious private West Sussex gardens owned by aristocrats, county types, the nouveaux riche and, the majority, standard fanatical gardeners just glad to share the results of their nature-aided inspiration and labour in the ever-increasing national garden opening habit.

No garden has probably had a less promising start than Highdown. When Frederick Stern declared in 1910 that he would turn the barren 30ft-high chalk cliff behind his 1820s house into the setting for a garden, many professional gardeners chorused the equivalent of Its a no-grow area! and chortled into their chrysanthemums.

Frederick, a former big game hunter and steeplechase jockey, was clearly made of stern stuff, and, spurred on by a future director of Kew Gardens, he and wife Sybil resolved to experiment to see which plants would prosper on chalk. Soon, plants entrusted to the packed, hard chalk were ailing whereas chalk rubble, broken up to a couple of feet depth, enabled many roots to spread and thrive.

Next to be dug out were geological maps of temperate zones round the world, triggering an intensive search to find new, non-British plants prospering on lime soil.

It was well-timed, being the golden age of legendary plant collectors such as Ernest Henry Wilson, William Purdom, George Forrest, Reginald Farrer, Kingdon Ward, Frank Ludlow and George Sherriff, all personifying the ambitions, sense of adventure, botanical expertise, resourceful funding and tough competitive edge of it all, with easier travel opening up new exotic prospects in many latitudes.

Plants from China, the Himalayas, Australasia, South Africa, South America and the Mediterranean all figured, brought back victoriously like trophies to Europe. For some, such as Paper Bark Maple, limey Highdown was their first taste of English soil.

Lets meet them, survivors and more recent arrivals, on a tour of the compact 10-acre site which overlooks coastal plain and sea and is so enchanting that the rustle of traffic 300 yards away
on the A259 behind Goring-by-Sea is irrelevant.

Gardens manager Chris Beardsley, with back-of-hand knowledge born of nearly 40 years of Highdown dedication, recalls that the gardens contributed to Freds knighthood in 1956 for services to horticulture. On his death in 1967 Lady Sybil passed the gardens to Worthing,

I believe that the Sterns would accept as inevitable the evolution here, as such changes happen to every garden tended with imagination. We aim to mount seasonal offences, says Chris. This spring weve been concentrating on daffodils (a golden avenue guides you in off the main road), hellebores and spring bulbs like anemones, snowdrops, crocuses and bluebells, followed by wild tulips, peonies and bearded irises. Plus fritillaries on the rock garden facing north.

As summer gets going, the emphasis is on the rose garden, on this little plateau above the cave pond, with its grotto feel, and screened by beeches from the south-westerlies. rhe Roses appreciate the heavy mulching, and the star here is probably the Rosa brunonii which originally came from the Himalayas.

Among the shrubs of note at that time are syringa, philadelphus and a wide range of herbaceous perennials.

A must-see in the middle garden is Rosa highdownensis with its wonderfully abundant red clusters.
It came from a seedling raised here by the Sterns.

This month, the spotlight
turns to autumn berries: viburnum, berberis, cotoneaster and Sorbus aria.

As we stroll through an area of wide lawned paths and extensive beds of flowers, trees and shrubs, Chris, without reference to the blue marker system which, via the printed guide adds focus and interest for visitors, picks some more classics.

This lovely sweeping Chinese hornbeam was planted by Queen Mary in 1937 and came from Wisley, and to get a taste of China and India, look at the bamboo pond and surrounding plantings.

An innovation came in April 2000 with the Millennium Garden, a deftly colour-themed side chapel full of quiet beauty complete with patio seat, pergola and water feature.

In the shadow of beeches and evergreens, a mighty composting area is constantly brewing. Every bed in the garden needs annual feeding, says Chris, for theres no escaping the underlying chalky nature of Highdown.

Through its attention to environmental detail green waste recycling and no peat rule included and visitor comfort (free parking, information, toilets, caf and, in the house, a restaurant), Highdown has earnt a Green Flag Award.

Chris, who retires this month, arrived in 1976, the year of the Great Drought, and recalls with a shudder the Great Storm of 1987 and the many Highdown tree and shrub casualties. The gardens ongoing general attractiveness attests to the skill and enthusiasm of its handful of professionals and their guidance of a growing number of active Friends keen, once a month, to keep as polished as possible the great vision Frederick Stern had just over a century ago.

For more information see highdowngardens.co.uk

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