4 of the best National Trust gardens for autumn colour

PUBLISHED: 12:01 28 August 2020 | UPDATED: 13:31 09 September 2020

Pampas grass adds feathery focal points amongst the blaze of colour at Sheffield Park. Photo: Leigh Clapp

Pampas grass adds feathery focal points amongst the blaze of colour at Sheffield Park. Photo: Leigh Clapp

Leigh Clapp

From the watery reflections at Sheffield Park to the dramatic colours at Nymans, these Sussex gardens are a treat for the senses in autumn

Autumn is a wonderful time to enjoy: crisp and colourful, and a treat for the senses. The golden and russet cloaks, the crunch of leaves underfoot and the elegant fading as plants begin their hibernation make this a special and contemplative season.

Many celebrations and events have had to be cancelled this year due to coronavirus. One of the important milestones reached in 2020 was the 125th anniversary of the National Trust.

As we stroll through the autumnal splendour in our precious landscapes and gardens it’s worth taking some time to reflect on the beauty and resilience of nature, as well as the contribution the Trust has made to open up this heritage to us all. With the help of its supporters, this conservation charity, Europe’s largest, protects and cares for nature, beauty and history for the nation to enjoy.

Sheffield Park's reflections. Photo: Leigh ClappSheffield Park's reflections. Photo: Leigh Clapp

Independent of government, it’s all down to the 5.6 million members, 65,000 volunteers and 14,000 staff that support it. Without this help, the organisation wouldn’t be able to care for the land, buildings, gardens and precious collections that it protects.

In the beginning social reformer Octavia Hill, solicitor Robert Hunter and Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley convened the first meeting in 1895 as a response to a growing sense of alarm that Britain’s natural and built heritage was under threat with the expansion of London.

Octavia Hill was also concerned that the city-dwelling poor should have access to country air for their physical and moral health, particularly relevant to us all today with the pandemic: “the need of quiet, the need of air, and I believe the sight of sky and of things growing, seem human needs, common to all men.”

Nature's mosaic. Photo: Leigh ClappNature's mosaic. Photo: Leigh Clapp

His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, who has been president of the National Trust for the past 25 years, has said: “When our three founders established their new organisation in 1895 it would surely have seemed impossible to them, or indeed anyone else, that a membership of millions of people would one day own and support 250,000 hectares of farmland, 780 miles of coastline and more than 500 historic properties, together with glorious gardens and spectacular nature reserves.

“This remarkable outcome is due not just to their vision, but to their insistence that owning land and property on behalf of the nation was essential if it was to be saved for ever from the threat of development and loss of public access.”

Sussex played a significant part in the birth of the trust, as Alfriston Clergy House was the first property to be purchased. Costing £10 (£1,260 today), the 15th century Sussex hall-house was saved from demolition.

Take a stroll amongst the autumn medley. Photo: Leigh ClappTake a stroll amongst the autumn medley. Photo: Leigh Clapp

It was restored with the help of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, founded by William Morris 20 years previously.

There followed a steep learning curve, with time spent discovering ways to fund repairs, maintain and renovate sympathetically as more properties were purchased or donated to the Trust. Their aim, not only to save important sites, but also to open them up for everyone to enjoy, is still at the heart of the organisation’s ethos today.

Garden gems of Sussex at this time of the year must include the watery reflections at Sheffield Park, the range of plants and views at Nymans, pumpkins in the vegetable garden at Alfriston Clergy House and the hues of foliage at Standen.

Acers are a great choice for colour. Photo: Leigh ClappAcers are a great choice for colour. Photo: Leigh Clapp

Flic Archer, Garden and Outdoors Manager at Sheffield Park, said: “This year with the coronavirus pandemic, people have been more confined than usual. With the restrictions to leisure time, opportunities to visit wonderful spaces such as Sheffield Park and Garden have been limited. Many people might have missed out on the emergence of the spring garden, but fortunately the autumn garden can be just as tantalising.

“True to Octavia Hill’s quote, there is so much opportunity here to appreciate fresh air, wide-open space and big skies. There’s a kaleidoscope of autumn colour too, sounds of running water, and huge mirror reflections.

“Enjoy the freedom to wander the gardens at your leisure, and explore its vast tree collection, from the towering sequoias to the stunning nyssas and acers.”

Burnished vistas at Standen. Photo: Leigh ClappBurnished vistas at Standen. Photo: Leigh Clapp

For inspiration for your home garden, Flic recommends keeping an eye out for Acer palmatum ‘Osakazkui’, Prunus serrula, and Forthergilla major, which provide spectacular autumn colour and are ideal for small spaces, as are Cornus kousa, Cercidiphyllum japonicum and Euonymus alatus.

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“The National Trust looks after a wide range of outdoor spaces from coastline and downland, to gardens and woodland. It is here where we can refresh both physically and mentally during these challenging times,” says Nymans’ head gardener Joe Whelen.

Look up and admire the tapestry above. Photo: Leigh ClappLook up and admire the tapestry above. Photo: Leigh Clapp

“In addition Nymans has the second most important plant collection in the National Trust and includes hundreds of wild origin plants collected by plant hunters dating back to Victorian times.

“In the 1950s the Trust acquired a number of gardens including Nymans and Sheffield Park and Garden to provide access to gardens of international renown. Since that time the charity has welcomed millions of visitors and inspired countless horticulturalists and amateur gardeners,” he explains.

Some highlights to look out for at Nymans include the fine collection of trees and shrubs that form a rich tapestry of oranges, purples, reds and yellows, such as acers, berberis, cercidiphyllum, hydrangea, liquidambar and viburnum.

Sit awhile and revive your spirits. Photo: Leigh ClappSit awhile and revive your spirits. Photo: Leigh Clapp

“Red oak and nyssa in the arboretum have intense hues of red and yellow which link the garden to the woodland backdrop, where native beech, birch, hornbeam and oak trees create a vivid landscape. In the garden the summer borders and South Africa border have been planted to provide herbaceous colour into the autumn and include berkheya, cannas, dahlias, and kniphofia,” adds Joe.

An ethos of sustainability guides the National Trust’s ongoing decisions, with the charity being a key player in the campaign to tackle climate change – the single biggest threat to its precious landscapes and historic houses.

From changing the way the Trust manages its gardens and cutting carbon emissions, to restoring wildlife habitats, it’s adapting in many ways. “The Trust is very good on all up-to-date practices, such as new policies on pesticides and using peat-free plants,” says Amy Page, a gardener at Standen.

Autumnal glory at Sheffield Park. Photo: Leigh ClappAutumnal glory at Sheffield Park. Photo: Leigh Clapp

To help mark its 125th anniversary milestone, the Trust has committed to becoming carbon net zero by 2030, planting and establishing 20 million trees to help tackle climate change, creating green corridors for people and nature near towns and cities, running a year-long campaign to connect people with nature, and continuing investment in arts and heritage.

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