A Mecca for garden lovers has been reborn as an international visitor destination set in a dazzling landscape of seasonal colour. Greg Rhodes meets the team bringing Grade 1 Leonardslee Lakes & Gardens back to life.
In July, one of the greatest landscaped gardens in the UK reopens its doors to the public. Eight years ago, Leonardslee Lakes & Gardens passed into the hands of a reputed billionaire who had harboured plans to redevelop the site to present a more inclusive public offering.
Somehow, that vision never came to be, leaving garden lovers everywhere wondering if they would ever see the gardens' glories again.
That wish has been fulfilled, following the purchase of the 200-acre estate by Zimbabwean entrepreneur Penny Streeter, whose multi-million pound plans for the Grade 1 Listed site stretch far beyond a mere horticultural glory created out of a valley in a tranquil corner of West Sussex.
Leonardslee is a garden destination to delight the public that can be marvelled at once again for its many original features -most, if not all, fashioned to some degree by human hands and ingenuity.
The garden team tasked with bringing the gardens back to life commands a lifetime of experience in horticulture.
"We are piecing together the jigsaw of this unique garden," comments General Manager Adam Streeter, Penny's son, "and need all the skills and resources of a large team to do it."
"The gardens are opening soon but the process of recataloguing the huge number and diversity of plants continues, as does relabelling and electronically tagging everything out there," he adds.
When the head gardener first came on site and met Adam, he declared the mission "quite mad". Everything was green with algae, overgrown and, in parts, impenetrable as years of reported neglect had taken their toll.
"Such a magnificent site but smothered in a layer of weeds and unwanted growth," was the head gardener's verdict.
Knotweed had invaded the site, but thankfully only a small patch, which the team is managing. Silver birch saplings had taken over in areas surrounding the 18th century stately mansion - restored now as the home of Interlude, a fine dining restaurant opening later this year, and a venue for wedding receptions, ceremonies and events.
Bracken and heather had burst through their confines - they were fine in their place but unwelcome in the more cultivated feature areas such as The Rock Garden, Bluebell Glade or Camellia Grove.
"The herd of wallabies that had lived here for decades and had kept the lawns short in earlier days, did well to survive in the gardens for so long and managed to do a bit of pruning as well, but in places, opportunistic species such as silver birch had proliferated," Adam says.
Although a few escaped and have been spotted in local woodland reportedly - one with a joey in its pouch - the herd will once again become a familiar and beloved feature of Leonardslee - especially the albinos.
"This is a very special place," Adam states. "Woodland gardens on this scale and diversity are rare, but the Rock Garden, for example, is exceptional."
With many Champion specimens recorded on the national tree register, Leonardslee enjoys a lengthy flowering season, starting with the towering magnolias, moving through to the camellia blossoms then the full force of colour through April, May and into early June as the vast selection of rhododendrons and azaleas blaze a trail of colour across whole swathes of the valley, along the miles of secluded footpaths and at the entrance of the gardens.
"It is taking the full horticultural year to know and understand what we have here," Adam continues, "such is the diversity."
Since closure to the public in 2010, Leonardslee's carefully constructured views and vistas had lost their lustre as plants, bushes and trees merged into each other.
Many views had taken in the several lakes that an earlier generation of the Loder family, who had called the gardens home for more than 120 years, had engineered from the stream running through the valley bottom.
Gravity-fed, the lakes feed through a system of sluices, with water also being recirculated. The old Victorian pumphouse has been transformed into the Bar and Restaurant by the Lakes, creating a peaceful spot to admire the surroundings of the lower stretches of the gardens.
"Our survey of the lakes revealed Koi and black carp weighing up to 30lb, so we may introduce fishing at some stage," Adam reports.
"Judicious coppicing and pruning are bringing these picture postcard spectacles back to life," adds Adam. "We're slowly but surely regenerating the beauty and character of Leonardslee."
The 13-strong team of gardeners are on a mission of rejuvenation without resort to chemicals or pesticides. "I recruited people with a broad range of skills and all experienced gardeners," notes the head gardener. "I don't have to micro manage them."
"We have worked out from the Manor House, progressively restoring and have developed a circular route enabling visitors to take in the sights in a logical order."
"As a natural site, a little bit of wilderness has its place, but so do manicured lawns, and the place for these is around the Manor House where attention to detail is vital. We've sown extensively up at this top end of the site near the main entrance, where weddings guests will congregate."
"At around ten acres, the lawn areas are not huge. The ride-ons, rough cutters and fine cutters are used where needed," he adds.
The old lawn mowers - the wallabies - may not get a look-in this time round, you suspect, but as a visitor attraction to draw admiring crowds, their future here seems assured.
In and around the house, herbaceous planting, featuring mainly perennial flowers, predominates to create a more formal setting to chime with the grand Georgian architecture of the building, with its newly restored elegant interiors and classical staircase.
Tree management looms large at Leonardslee. Andy McLean supervises felling and pruning on an estate that numbers some 10,000 specimens. "The Great Storm of 1987 cleared so much of course, leaving breathing space for new growth in the years afterwards," he says. "We number more than ninety Champion trees on the estate - twenty-two of those are magnolias recorded on the national register. And recently discovered is a male and female pair of kiwi fruit, twisting their way up to the top of the canopy. You'd walk past them and never know they were there."
Supervising the Rock Garden is Jonathan Bryant. This is Leonardslee's Jewel in the Crown, many say, where at its flowering zenith, vibrant colours drip down from the heights to the path below that meanders through this cosy corner of the gardens.
He is also busy recataloguing the site collection, and has some rare specimens to record. "Our Sicilian Fir (Abies nebrodenis) is a Champion tree, over 20m tall and the biggest in the country," he reports, "but the species is critically endangered."
"We have lifted seedlings and sent them to Kew, Nymans [National Trust gardens at nearby Handcross] and Peasemarsh reserve for them to grow. Only twenty-nine mature specimens are known to exist in their native Sicily, that's how scarce they are."
As a site sheltered from the prevailing wind, Leonardslee has remained largely free of fungal diseases, although sudden oak death has struck recently, as it has across the country, and the team is talking with DefRA on a strategy for managing it. Oaks are in abundance and thrive in the microclimate, so the team will strive to limit the effect of the disease.
Renowned for its collection of rhododendrons and azaleas, the estate nevertheless needs to keep certain varieties under strict control. Highways and byways locally display purple Ponticum - one of the last to flower in the rhododendron season.
National bodies, such as The National Trust, have undertaken measures to remove much of it from their properties because of its tendancy to proliferate, crowd out other plants, resist herbicides and carry the fungal infection Phytophthora ramorum.
At Leonardslee some years ago the far banks of the valley were cleared of it, leaving just a few highly trimmed and shaped pockets, but the team remains vigilant. "Burning it is the best option," the head gardener notes, "so we hope we have it well under control."
The variety has been described as "beautiful but deadly", although many other varieties outshine it in rhododendron's beauty pageant: the magnificent Loderi King George for example, which delivers alluringly scented, creamy white blooms.
Hybridised by the Loders at Leonardslee, it perhaps more than any other variety epitomises the horticultural passion of those pioneering plantsmen who travelled to far-flung Himalayan mountain glades to collect exotic plants for cultivation in their monumental Victorian creations back home.
The new owners are alert to the educational value of Leonardslee, given the "immense quantity" of wildlife on and above the estate. Red kites, buzzards, a resident grey heron, Canada geese, Mallard ducks, coots and moorhens all populate the slopes, gulleys, upper reaches or patrol the skies. Then there are the smooth newts, pipistrelle and long-eared bats, lizards and adders.
Fallow deer roam the more distant, wooded, stretches of Leonardslee, as do the Sika deer introduced by the Loder family in Victorian times. The eight-foot high perimeter deer fencing is necessary though to prevent wild ones encroaching on the estate.
"We are working closely with English Nature ecologists on the most appropriate management programme," Adam says.
Some serious replanning of Leonardslee's existing walkways has had to be undertaken to label it a fully-inclusive family destination. "We have ten miles of pathways on site and much of that was unsuitable for visitors in wheelchairs or those who couldn't walk unaided."
"Some of the tracks were mossy, steep and slippery. We laid a base of crushed concrete along some stretches to create a surface thought safe for visitors, but are now considering other options. People carriers are also available for wheelchair users when needed."
The heavy footfall expected as word spreads of Leonardslee's rebirth will take its toll on paths across the estate, especially those that offer the best photo opportunities. A reserve of top-up surfacing will be ready to apply to keep them safe.
"On smaller walkways we are applying mulched leaves and bark chips. There's a huge quantity of leaf matter generated here, as you'd expect, and we want to put it to good use."
The gardening year is not only about dazzling colours in the earlier months of the year. Autumn at Leonardslee holds surprises too. Softer, natural colours at this time are a draw for visitors and tree planting in earlier generations was well thought out to deliver a stunning landscape as year-end approaches. The collection of acers is particularly captivating.
Leonardslee's various buildings are being converted as the new era in its long life dawns. Luxury accommodation in the former stable block offers the perfect stopover for wedding guests, while a Michelin star-rated fine dining restaurant has been created within the Manor House.
"There is a strong emphasis on home grown fruit and vegetables," Adam stresses, "and the site is ideal for foraging for edible plants, such as watercress."
The vegetable garden will sustain the needs of the restaurant and create opportunities for sales to the public, along with other plants cultivated on site, gardener Linda Ekblom notes. "We plan to offer an internship for an apprentice once these are fully operational."
The extensive former Alpine House has been reglazed and recreated as a tearoom, whilst a farm shop is also under development. Plans for the old bakehouse, an endearing circular structure sited near the entrance by another Leonardslee landmark, the tightly clipped Mushroom yew, are still to be finalised.
Some things stay the same though. The incomparable Doll's House display, designed by Helen Holland, a gem of an experience in its own right, will entertain and amuse those new to Leonardslee as well as some old friends desperate to return.
Conceived by Robin Loder, architect of the aquatic engineering system in the valley, who in the latter years before closure left management of the estate to son and daughter Tom and Mary, this miniature village is a marvel of design and detail - complete with moving characters and its own electricity supply.
Reopening Leonardslee Lakes & Gardens is, to paraphrase wartime politician Sir Winston Churchill, "the end of the beginning" as one of the premier destinations of its kind in Britain continues on its course of redevelopment and evolution.
The new 700-vehicle capacity car park planned is testimony to Penny Streeter's aspirations for the site, as Adam confirms. "We are offering a family-friendly day out, open all year round, and designed to attract visitors from across the UK and overseas."
Like sister site Mannings Heath Golf Club and Wine Estate (featured in the last issue of Pitchcare) vines will populate Leonardslee. "They've been planted in the field behind the Manor House," Adam says. "Sparkling wine should be ready for sale in three to five years."
Something's certainly stirring in this beautiful corner of the county.