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Woolbeding Gardens near Midhurst: West Sussex’s best-kept secret

PUBLISHED: 14:36 23 May 2016 | UPDATED: 14:36 23 May 2016

Woolbeding’s topiary yew, with the bell tower of All Hallows Church in the distance

Woolbeding’s topiary yew, with the bell tower of All Hallows Church in the distance

Archant

Dubbed West Sussex’s best-kept secret, Woolbeding Gardens near Midhurst remained hidden from public view for nearly four decades until they were opened by the National Trust in 2011. As a new book celebrating the garden is published, Angela Wintle meets Stewart Grimshaw, who created this hitherto private world with his late partner

In 1972, restaurateur and bookseller Stewart Grimshaw and his partner, grocery magnate and philanthropist Sir Simon Sainsbury, were perusing Country Life over breakfast when they saw their dream home for sale. The advertisement read, “On a long lease from the National Trust, a delightful Grade II* listed manor house comprising four reception rooms, a dining room, library, 22 bedrooms, and two bathrooms – in need of considerable renovation.”

The couple, who lived in a crenellated tower in Petworth Park, West Sussex, already knew about the house, which lies in the valley of the River Rother, near Midhurst, having stumbled across it on one of their country excursions.

“The house resembled nothing so much as the abode for Charles Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty and we subsequently learnt that it was still inhabited by two ladies, a mother and daughter, who were related to the Lascelles of Harewood House,” says Stewart. You can imagine Stewart and Simon’s excitement when they later discovered the property had come on to the market, and they hastily secured a viewing.

“It was a beautiful sunny morning and the house and garden looked hopelessly romantic,” recalls Stewart. “Later that day, exhausted after viewing all the rooms – and having strenuously ignored evidence of rising and falling damp, not to mention countless spores, bugs and grubs – we agreed the place was perfect for us.”

Thus started a year of planning and 23 months of demolition and reparation, which resulted in a more modest dwelling. Stewart then summoned up the courage to approach the leading American country house garden designer, Lanning Roper, who agreed to take on the garden.

“He was absolutely charming, with lots of sensible advice about not starting new bits of the garden until we could handle what we had already done, and making sure we had eating areas and firm, wide paths in the right places so the circuit could be done, as he put it, by ladies in high heels,” laughs Stewart.

Eventually, with paths and terraces installed, they began work on the real gardening, starting with the broad vista from the Ionic pillared facade, which they framed with a double pair of long borders planted with white and silver foliage. “Over the years, we began to find that a bit restrictive and with too short a season, so we introduced a range of blue-flowered plants, spring and summer bulbs, and annuals.”

To the south lay a large walled garden, which had once fed the entire household but had been abandoned and was highly impenetrable. “This was the only time we worked from a plan because we envisioned linked rooms to be vegetatively decorated at our whim,” says Stewart.

“We divided the garden into rectangular blocks, comprising an orangery enclosing a swimming pool, a herb garden (structured by box hedges and spiral topiaries), picking borders, a fruit cage and the best room devoted to the real treasure of Woolbeding: a fountain topped by a youth astride dolphins. By far the largest area was allotted to the vegetable garden, part of which was planted with a French-style potager.”

Across the croquet lawn, towards the river, the garden dissolves into informality, the long grass planted with spring bulbs. Here, two gigantic oriental plane trees cover a vast area, but an equally venerable tulip tree came down in the great storm of 1987. It had been the largest in Europe and missed the house by 24in. Its loss was felt so deeply that they erected a domed summerhouse designed by Philip Webb in its honour. The demise of a large cedar of Lebanon also prompted a bolder addition – a steel wine-glass-shaped water sculpture by the artist William Pye.

As they grew in confidence, Stewart and Simon excavated a lake in marshy land across the river, though their plan to stock it with wildfowl was thwarted after a run-in with a pair of black swans in the back of a Jeep on the M1.

Working with Julian and Isabel Bannerman, best known in Sussex as the designers of the Collector Earl’s garden at Arundel Castle, they also created a woodland walk beyond the paddock and cricket field. “The Bannermans’ limitless enthusiasm, tempered by Simon’s natural restraint, resulted in a pleasure ground with a ruined abbey, hermit’s hut, rustic walk, Gothic summer house, waterfall, rills, stumpery and bubbling source,” says Stewart.

Sadly, Simon, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease, died in 2006, though by then plans were already underway to pass the garden back to the Trust, with an endowment for its upkeep. With a heavy heart, Stewart was torn between staying or retreating to his eyrie in Petworth Park. “As I became more attuned to living alone, I finally decided to stay and even started planning a garden to the north – a wide, sloping site comprising three terraces planted with olive trees, apples and pomegranates.”

Once the decision had been made to open to the public, it was immediately evident that easier access was required, and the farmyard to the north provided the solution. A former cowshed was also converted into a small visitor centre, and the Bannermans created a new garden to welcome visitors, featuring a series of descending pools in a gravel landscape.

“Naturally, I was apprehensive about the impact of visitors to our private domain, and before the end of the second day more enthusiasts had passed through the gates than in the previous 35 years,” says Stewart. “But I have found it all hugely enjoyable and we positively encourage guests to engage with the gardeners.”

And his enthusiasm for the garden remains undiminished. What lies ahead? “A boathouse and ornamental glasshouse are looming,” he laughs. “And if I can ever forgive those swans, who knows? I might consider making wetlands for the web-footed.”

The Loveliest Valley: A Garden in Sussex, edited by Stewart Grimshaw, is published by Damiani at £40. The story of Woolbeding and its renaissance is told in accompanying texts by Christopher Gibbs on its history, garden designers Mary Keen and Julian and Isabel Bannerman on the formal gardens and the Long Walk, sculptor William Pye on his water sculpture and garden photographer Tessa Traeger, who has captured Woolbeding in every type of weather, from dawn to dusk.


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