SM 01 – Jun 11
Set in a tranquil woodland valley in West Sussex, the Leonardslee gardens are one of the largest and most spectacular in England. A small stream runs along the bottom of the valley, and spreads out at intervals into a series of lakes, and the whole valley has a background of old oak, beech and birch, intermingled with larch and Scots pine. The soil is a light loam overlaying fine-grained Cretaceous sandstone, and ericaceous plants – such as rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias and magnolias – all flourish well here.
Fig 1 – The ‘Main Cliff’ in the Rock Garden at Leonardslee
The first ornamental plantings at Leonardslee are accredited to the Beauclerk family, who purchased this part of the old Aldridge estate in 1801. Sir Edmund Loder – who was also a very keen gardener, with a particular interest in exotic plants that he had seen during his travels overseas – purchased the estate in 1889, and immediately set about planting an incredible amount of flora in a very short space of time. He was also very interested in exotic animals, and stocked the pleasure grounds with antelopes, beavers, kangaroos and wallabies etc. He engaged James 2 to build him a Pulhamite enclosure for his moufflon and mountain sheep, and there are caves inside the ‘mound’ – where they could be penned, or sheltered – that were still used as wallaby breeding pens until June 2010, when the estate was sold, and sadly closed to the public.
Fig 2 – Looking down to the east from the top of the cliff (Photo by Mick Hibberd)
Sir Edmund arranged his plants in large groups, taking care to produce fine colour effects without losing the natural woodland character of the setting, and one of the sections to which he paid particular attention was the rock garden, for which he turned for help from James 2. They excavated the site, leaving two high mounds in the centre, and then planted a ring of conifers round the top to create a more sheltered environment. The entrance path runs roughly down the centre and around the mounds, so they form what looks like a rather squashed figure of eight, and then there is another path around the top of the main ‘cliff’ at the far end, which acts as an excellent vantage point, as can be seen from Figs 1 and 2.
Fig 3 – Looking south from the top of the cliff (Photo by Mick Hibberd)
The rock garden does not cover a particularly large area, but could be described as a ‘confection’ of exotic plants, and looks particularly superb in the spring, when the azaleas are in bloom. The rocks are a mixture of natural and artificial cretaceous sandstone, and, as at Sandringham – discussed in The Pulham Legacy – the Pulhamite imitation is so good that the plant pockets provide almost the only clue that would enable the visitor to distinguish one from the other. In fact, Robin Loder – Leonardslee’s owner until 2005, when he retired and handed over the management of the gardens to his son, Christopher – recalled how he had always assumed that the huge boulders at the base of the rockwork were genuine rock until, one day, he found a rabbit hole under the base of one of them. While trying to plug the hole with netting, he found that the base of the largest boulder was made of brick – ‘and there wasn’t much of that about in the Cretaceous era!’ The planting pockets are home to a variety of flowering shrubs amidst the dwarf conifers.
Fig 4 – Looking down at the central path from the top of the cliff (Photo by Mick Hibberd)
Fig 1 is a picture of the ‘cliff’ at the far end of the garden, taken from the central path, whilst` Fig 2 shows the view looking down the eastern side from the top of the cliff. Fig 3 shows the view to the south, and Fig 4 looks down towards the central path. Having strolled around and enjoyed this garden at their leisure, visitors should not have left Leonardslee without remembering to look in at the wallaby enclosures – another of Pulham’s contributions – shown in Fig 5. They still lived here with their rock breeding pens in 2009, but the exact date on which the ‘rock builders’ visited Leonardslee is not known for sure. In view of the above details taken from the Leonardslee Gardens brochure, however, my suggestion of 1890 must be close.
Fig 5 – The wallabies in their enclosure, inside which are the rock breeding pens