Some gardens merely skate on the surface of the mind; others sink a little deeper. Woolbeding Gardens near Midhurst in West Sussex stayed with me long after I’d left. This gem of a garden is hidden away along the narrow lanes of the Sussex countryside. It’s the creation of the late Simon Sainsbury and his partner Stewart Grimshaw.
Early in the 1970s, the pair took on the lease of Woolbeding House, an 18th century property owned by The National Trust. They gutted and remodelled it, creating the Grade I listed house in which Stewart lives today. Their development of the garden has been just as successful. But what is it that makes it so memorable?
Perhaps part of the appeal lies in the subtle blending of the old and the new. While the design and planting are contemporary, they are completely at one with the estate’s 18th century landscape. When we visit this garden, we know (almost instinctively) that it has considerable history. The magnificent stature of the old trees at Woolbeding registers in our subconscious. Contemporary design that didn’t take this into account just wouldn’t work so well.
Simon and Stewart have celebrated the significance of the trees in the landscape with two beautiful commemorative projects. A folly (designed by Phillip Jebb) sits on the site of an ancient and enormous Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) that fell in the 1987 hurricane. More recently, a contrasting, yet equally dramatic wine glass-shaped steel water sculpture (designed by William Pye) was introduced in commemoration of a large cedar of Lebanon (Cedrus libani).
Early in the garden’s re-development, a series of rooms was created with the help of the American landscape designer, Lanning Roper. Set within timeless yew hedges, each room has a character of its own. From the peaceful Well Garden, planted with gentle creams and greens, to the zingy colours of the south facing Hot Borders, the planting is a delight. But, as any plantaholic will notice, Woolbeding isn’t just about visual affect: the planting is both innovative and informed. Take your time to savour the exquisite West Borders and look out for Anenome ‘Wild Swan’, Plant of the Year at Chelsea 2011.
Beyond the ha-ha and the grazing Herdwick sheep we find the Long Walk: a more recent addition to the landscape. Much of the joy of this part of the garden relies on discovery and gentle surprises. To describe it to you in detail would spoil the adventure, but I will tell you that both the historical references (created with the help of landscape designers Isabel and Julian Bannerman) and the quirky elements of fun, work well in this watery woodland setting.
Sometimes the creation of a ‘fantasy’ can disrupt the flow of a garden. It can be one project too far. At Woolbeding it merely counterbalances a fantasy that nature has created for herself elsewhere in the garden: it completes rather than distorts the feeling of the estate. If we walk down the hill to the River Rother we find two enormous Oriental planes (Platanus x orientalis), one of which has layered itself along the ground creating a truly fantastic natural feature. Here, Stewart has planted bulbs and campanula. It must be a magical place to explore in spring.
There is so much to enjoy in this garden and so much that I haven’t space to describe. However, Simon was keen that it should be shared. Very generously, he left a legacy so that it could be opened to the public. I could have told you about the potager with its 1200 lettuces; the lattice-cordoned apples on the back wall of the herb garden; the Mediterranean gravel garden; the greenhouse displaying Simon’s favourite orchids or the recently developed ‘Mary’s Garden’. Instead, you will have to take up this generous gesture and go and see for yourselves.