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Leonardslee Lakes and Gardens (Horsham)

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Gardens in West Sussex. Address: Lower Beeding, Horsham, West Sussex, RH13 6PP Tel: +44 (0)1403 891 212

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      23.06.2010 18:58
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      Leonardslee Lakes and Gardens

      Leonardslee Gardens is one of the largest woodland gardens in England at over 200 acres. It's been owned by the Loder family since the late 19th Century and the current owner is in the process of selling up, which prompted a recent visit from myself. The gardens are currently open every day, but once sold, will be closed to the public.

      ~ On arrival ~

      Despite being situated in Horsham, West Sussex (not too far from me), and not being much of a morning person, I didn't arrive until about midday.

      There's ample parking, which is just as well as when we arrived it was very busy. There were 5 or 6 people taking the entrance fees and guiding you to the next available parking spot which all went smoothly.

      ~ Entrance ~

      We stopped briefly in the small entrance lobby to buy a guidebook, as this was the only thing which included a map of the gardens. Through here you come to an area where local craftsmen are exhibiting their wares, from benches to little doorstops. Lovely, but so too were the prices, so we headed straight on into the first attractions.

      ~ Victorian Cars and Doll Houses ~

      Various members of the Loder family enjoy collecting vintage cars, and they're all currently on loan here. The room itself is brightly lit and there are information boards in front of each car for those with a passing interest. The collection includes an 1897 Daimler, two Peugeots and a Fisson all from the same era. They've been kept in immaculate condition, as you might expect. For those mechanically minded, one of the exhibits (the 1895 Armstrong) is one of the first cars with an internal combustion engine that was built in the New World. No steering wheels, and a horn that's straight out of a circus are my initial impressions though.

      Moving next door to an exhibit entitled 'Beyond the Dolls House' . this room is far darker than the motor exhibit and was also far busier. In 1998 Helen Holland made a greenhouse and potting shed and dated it from around 1900. With visitors enthusiastic comments the estate grew. I say estate as Holland didn't think small. No ordinary dolls house this, but a country estate of around 100 years ago. She has expanded it beyond the one country house and it now includes numerous shops, a town laundry and pharmacist. Not to mention a pub with a cute little dartboard. Never wanting to own a dolls house growing up, this wasn't of real interest to me. You may think this exhibit is going to be the height of naffness but I would suggest it's worth a look simply because the attention to detail is amazing. From the dining room with the teeny weeny dinner service to the old boy asleep in his bath chair on the lawn, I thought it was faultless.

      Leave these rooms and you come out to the courtyard area containing the Clock Tower Restaurant, a gift shop and toilets.

      ~ The gardens ~

      The gardens main attraction (apart from the sheer size) is the fact that most of the planting has taken place over at least 100 years.

      The guidebook tells me that the name Leonardslee originated from the 'lea' or valley of St Leonard's Forest, which was one of the ancient forests of southern England.

      The whole forest was given by King Charles II to his physician, and passed down through his family until a sizeable chunk of it (the estate as it is now) was sold to the Beauclerk family in 1801. Fifty years later it was sold, or possibly repossessed. The guidebook euphemistically states that "it appears they had problems with their mortgage" in 1852. It has been in the same family ownership ever since.

      If there are any drawbacks to owning such a lovely house and estate, I'm sure far down on the list must be the worry of what to plant in such vast gardens. I doubt that Sir Edmund Loder (grandfather of the current owner) lay awake many nights wondering what to do with the largely undisturbed gardens he inherited. According to my guidebook he set about planting what is described as "an incredible variety of flora in a very short space of time." Really? Perhaps he hadn't wanted to lose the natural woodland character of the setting, because to my untrained eye the "incredible variety" consists mainly of plants such as rhododendrons and azaleas, camellias and magnolias.

      This is understandable as centuries of accumulated leaf mould have left the soil incredibly fertile and lime free. It's logical that the majority of the planting should therefore be of ericaceous plants which will all thrive there. It's also possible that some of Edmunds planting is no longer there, but I couldn't help feeling the guidebook bigged up his efforts somewhat.

      The other main accomplishment which Edmund is credited with is adding fauna to the estate. Maybe not on the scale of elephants and giraffes that were all the rage in Victorian England, but kangaroos and kookaburras, antelopes and wallabies.

      These have long since gone, apart from the wallabies. They were easily one of the most popular attractions, if I dare call them that, with the perimeter fence heaving with visitors cooing over the little marsupials.

      The fencing is such that visitors walk along a little path, with wallabies either side in their enclosures. I say enclosures although I couldn't actually see the far end of the field on one side, it was that big. On the other side of the path is a sort of marsupial maternity ward, where the wallabies who are just about to have their babies, or have just had them stay in safety. This provides a fox proof environment for the joeys until they're a few months old and can look after themselves.

      Maybe it was the hot weather, but despite all the people there, they were all remarkably nonchalant. Most of them were sleeping, although we saw a few which were feeding, one of which had a baby joey in it's pouch.

      Whatever they're doing you won't be able to miss them though, as most of them are albino. Worry not, they're every bit as cute as their pigmented cousins.

      ~ The Loder family home ~

      It's not open to the public, so don't try to get in. From the outside it looks beautiful, and has rolling lawns to the back, although most of the planting is such that probably only the upstairs rooms have views over the valley.

      ~ My favourite parts ~

      If you are to follow the Garden walk, you will appreciate the sense of scale of things at Leonardslee. There are a total of five lakes at the bottom of the valley, farthest away from the house. They are all, however, described as mere ponds by the owners. Each separated by bridges, the Engine Pond was my favourite. A small engine house (not open to the public) is situated on one of the banks, which was used to pump the water around the estate. There was some Hydrangea planting on one of the banks here which was at its most colourful when we visited. If you're lucky you may see some more wallabies here, as the banks are a popular grazing point for them, though we didn't.

      The bluebell bank. Although we visited in early June, the shade from the trees meant they made for one of the more attractive displays. From here you have a good view of the Maple collection which is across the lake.

      The rock garden. Probably one of the more visually attractive areas of the gardens. There are many little winding paths around here. It was designed in 1900 by a firm who used not only large rocks but a concrete like material called Pulhamite. Unless you look very carefully, you won't be able to tell the difference between the sandstone and concrete. Primarily planted with rhododendrons and azaleas, there are however three different types of palm trees. Two of these are unique to Leonardslee.

      ~ Clock tower restaurant ~

      A minor irritation during my visit was queuing for a bite to eat at their restaurant. It probably took about 10 minutes to get to the front of the queue, which seemed to be due more to slowness of the serving staff than the amount of people actually queuing. Once at the front though, the staff were very friendly.

      Two jacket potatoes with toppings, a filter coffee and hot chocolate set us back around £14. Some dishes such as their quiche range came with salad which you helped yourself to. There seemed to be a decent enough choice. There is some seating in the courtyard just outside, although being such a lovely day this was all taken. Despite the fact that it was so busy, we still managed to find a table inside easily.

      ~ Recommended? ~

      Having a heavy clay soil at home, most of the Leonardslee plants would struggle in my garden, so to visit somewhere with such differing planting arrangements was certainly enjoyable for me.

      As some of the areas are very uneven, walking can be tricky even for the most sure footed, so I would hesitate to recommend it to those needing wheelchair or even pushchair access.

      I'm also unsure whether this is really the place young children would enjoy visiting. The few families we saw seemed to be enjoying themselves, but there is nothing specifically aimed at keeping younger people amused.

      The gardens, as I've said, will only remain open to the public until the end of June when the estate is sold, as the new owner doesn't have any intention of letting in the public. He has apparently promised to retain all of the current gardening staff though.

      Now is probably the best time of year to visit anyway, given that most of the planting was pretty much at its best, so yes I would recommend it.

      However, if ericaceous planting, in a woodland setting doesn't interest you, then no.

      ~ Prices ~
      Adults £6.50
      Children £4.00
      (There are no concessions)

      When we arrived there were two coaches already there. For information about group parties or coaches, you have to contact the secretary at Leonardslee.


      ~ Where it is ~

      The address is
      Leonardslee Lakes and Gardens
      Lower Beeding
      Horsham
      West Sussex
      RH13 6PP

      Telephone: 01403 891 212
      Fax: 01403 891 305


      The plant centre, which is remaining in the family's ownership is on the A281, 200 yards south of Leonardslee gardens. This specialises in Camellias, Hydrangeas, Azaleas and Rhododendrons.

      From the M23, turn off for Handcross; at the far end of Handcross High Street fork right on the B2110. Continue for four miles to the T junction with the A281. Bear left, and the entrance is immediately on your left.

      Until 30 June 2010 it is open every day 9.30am to 6pm, last admission is at 4.30pm

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