The Lowdown On Highdown
by Hanna Lindon
Secreted away behind the coastal town of Goring is one of the most magical public gardens in Sussex. Hanna Lindon explores this hidden gem.
Highdown Gardens is a hidden haven of rare shrubs, overflowing flowerbeds and blossom-rich fruit trees that backs onto open downland between Goring and Ferring. Established more than 100 years ago and now deemed to be a National Plant Collection, it attracts visiting plant enthusiasts from all over the world.
Spring is a spectacular time of year to visit the garden. Daffodils and tulips pepper the lawns, blossoming shrubs fill the air with perfume and the woodland walks are carpeted with bluebells. This visual extravaganza is all the more incredible when you learn that the soil at Highdown is only at best fifteen centimetres deep and sits above pure chalk. The challenge of creating a garden in this difficult growing environment was what motivated horticulturalist Sir Frederick Stern when he bought the land and nearby house in 1909.
“Stern had always been interested in horticulture,” explains head gardener Gary Prescod. “When he bought Highdown Towers, he found that there wasn’t much accurate information available concerning the best plants to plant in an alkaline chalk garden. It became a passion of his to discover what worked – he was one of the first people to really understand chalk gardening, and even ended up writing a book about it under the simple title ‘A Chalk Garden’.”
Gary has only been heading up the Highdown Gardens team since taking over temporarily from Jo Hooper in January, but he already radiates enthusiasm for the job.
“The garden appeals on so many levels to so many people,” he says. “If you just fancy a walk through an area of pretty spring bulbs then it has a lot of visual appeal – but if you’re a passionate horticulturalist then it’s one of the best places in the country to see mature shrubs.”
Highdown Gardens’ founder, Sir Frederick Stern, was both ambitious and wealthy. He sponsored expeditions headed by his era’s key plant explorers, who brought back rare species from all over the world. Stern nurtured them from the seed and many have now grown to be the finest examples of their kind in the country. A hornbeam, Carpinus turczaninowii, raised from seed collected in 1914 by Reginald Farrer, for example, is agreed to be the largest in Britain.
What really made the garden special, though, was Stern’s hands-off attitude to pruning. He let his plants grow naturally with only minimum interference, and today visitors can see century-old shrubs that are closer in size to trees.
“Nowadays, gardeners tend to keep everything pruned and contained, so for a plantsman to see the natural forms and ages of these plants is quite something,” says Gary. “You can see examples of Pittosporum grown from seed just after the First World War that are now six or seven metres tall – that is just so rare.”
The garden takes up around ten acres of downland in total, with several distinct areas for visitors to explore. Gary’s favourite is the old orchard. “This part was dug up during the Second World War’s Dig for Victory campaign, but it was quickly replanted afterwards and now many of the trees and shrubs are around 70 years old,” he explains. “It’s at its best during the autumn when all the trees are producing fruit. Most people walk straight past this area, but every time I go in there I see something new – something that stops me in my tracks.”
Continuing onwards down a spectacular avenue of Himalayan birch bark cherry trees you come to the Chalk Garden. Originally a quarry, this sheltered little haven played host to Stern’s first experiments with growing on chalk. One of the plants he seeded here was a Himalayan musk rose, which cascades down the chalk cliff in a frothing sea of white flowers in June. Take the old stone steps up from here, passing an ornamental pond full of koi carp, and you come to another rose garden.
“There are hundreds of varieties of roses across the garden and some of the examples are a century old,” says Gary. “Others are unique to Highdown. Perhaps the most famous is ‘Wedding Day’, which Stern grew from seed and which first flowered on the anniversary of his wedding. The original is in the garden, but nowadays you can find this variety of rose everywhere.”
From here, the path runs past a bluebell-decked beech wood and into the Middle Garden. Thronging with spring bulbs and blossoming trees, this area is at its most beautiful in spring. Look out for crocus and snowdrops early in the year, followed by daffodils, scillas and tulips. Raised beds host chalk-hating plants such as camellias and rhododendrons and a tall Pittosporum hedge divides the area from the Lower Garden. This is Highdown’s triumphant finale – a kaleidoscope of colourful herbaceous plants giving way onto groomed lawns, where open air theatre performances take place throughout the summer.
Keeping Highdown looking its best is no easy task. Many of the original trees and shrubs planted over 100 years ago are now fragile. The gardens are council owned and free to the public, so funding is inevitably tight, and the small team of gardeners and volunteers are tasked with managing the public as well as creating planting strategies and general upkeep. As a visitor, though, Highdown Gardens are perfectly peaceful – an idyllic place to sit back, relax and smell the flowers.
All Photos: Steve Speller and Jon Topman