A visit to Wakehurst Place is not really a National Trust visit at all. Although the Trust owns the site, it has been leased to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew since 1965, just two years after it was bequeathed to the nation, and for someone so engrained in the Trust’s traditions and culture it looks and feels slightly alien. Kew has perhaps had the knowledge and funds to make more of Wakehurst than the Trust ever could, but I still couldn’t help feeling a little resentful of their takeover. In the first place, they have changed its name for their own purposes, removing the ‘Place’ and turning the house into a bit-part player that doesn’t even make the credits. But most annoying is their decision a few years ago to charge an exorbitant parking fee, which is their way of taxing the National Trust visitors who are supposedly allowed in for free. The parking charge is £10 for any longer than 2.5 hours, which they rather ridiculously call ‘all day’ – while there are probably many planets in the universe with three-hour days, Earth definitely isn’t one of them.
If you can leave your National Trust sensibilities (and your £10) at the door, Wakehurst makes for a very pleasant day out and has a wealth of botanical delights for those with serious interest in and knowledge about the plant world. As well as four National plant collections (hypericum and skimmia shrubs and birch and southern beech trees), the site is home to a multitude of different plant species from all around the world, with distinct Asian, Southern Hemisphere and Himalayan areas, while the large swathes of woodland support a real mix of local and international species. There was a nice phrase in the guidebook that described Wakehurst as a ‘living encyclopedia of plants’. But even for those uninitiated in plant specifics, there is a great variety of sights, from carefully designed borders and walled gardens to the wilder walks amid the glades and valleys leading down to the lake.
The other thing that I also found quite special about Wakehurst is that it is also a journey through time. The High Weald with its sandstone cliffs and ‘ghylls’ (steep-sided valleys) is very much a prehistoric landscape and a walk along the Rock Walk with the yew tree roots exposed and draped over the stones certainly feels like a slightly spooky step out of time. Then, there is the Elizabethan manor house, much altered over the years but still very much of its era, in the external architecture and ornate plaster ceilings. The house is usually open to visitors but is not furnished so its few rooms are mainly of interest for their architectural features and for a display of botanical watercolours by the Bauer brothers, Sarah Drake and John Day.
Pushing further through time, we come to the turn of the 20th century when Gerald Loder and his head gardener Alfred Coates arrived at Wakehurst Place. Together, they made a huge impact on the site, laying out new areas and importing and planting thousands of different species. Sir Henry and Lady Eve Price bought Wakehurst in 1936 and carried on Loder’s work in developing the gardens before bequeathing them to the Trust in the early 1960s.
Under Kew’s control, the development has continued and one of the highlights of any visit is the Millennium Seed Bank, which is a significant conservation and sustainability project. Designed to preserve as many of the world’s plant seeds as possible, the very modern facility is a hive of scientific activity and you can even see the staff in their lab coats working away behind the windows, sorting, cataloguing and drying the seeds before freezing them (at -20°C) in the underground vaults. As well as exploring the best ways to store each type of seed, the scientists also work on how best to wake them up when they are needed again. There is also a regular count to show how the seed storage is progressing. As at 2 August 2017, the bank was said to house 2,224,557,313 seeds representing 38,079 different species from 189 countries. This is still only around 13% of wild plant species, however, so work is very much ongoing and the target is 25% of species by 2020.
After visiting the Seed Bank we immediately embarked on a woodland walk around the estate and it was certainly a giant leap through time to exit the ultra-modern building and shortly after find ourselves in the wild and prehistoric landscape of Bloomers Valley and the Rock Walk. We walked down one side of the estate to the lake and then back up the other through the Himalayan Glade and the Water Garden, and we spotted a few interesting little nuggets along the way, including some of the Tom Hare all-natural willow sculptures that dot the grounds (they are marked on the map so you could follow the complete trail) and manmade bat holes that have been carefully created in dead trees to provide homes for the resident flitters. We also came across a lot of sun-bathing ducks and a few pheasants hanging around the visitors for picnic scraps.
I was a little disappointed that the wildlife wasn’t as international as the plant life. I read in the guidebook that the shrubs in the Himalayan Glade – which would be grazed by yaks in their natural habitat – are managed instead by Wakehurst’s gardeners. But I would have paid the parking fee twice to find yaks lumbering over the hillside!
As ever, my garden visits can only give one seasonal view, but Wakehurst’s guidebook makes much of its year-round sights, from spring bulbs and rhododendrons to summer floral displays, autumnal trees and berries and winter’s vistas that open up when the trees lose their leaves. There is also a specialist winter garden but it is currently undergoing major reconstruction and is unlikely to offer much in the short term.
Speaking of the guidebook, it was also different from what I’m used to with the NT publications. The history of the house and its owners is only covered in a short section at the end of the guide (including a brief timeline for the property), so it is easy to miss the kinds of stories that I always feel are part of a property’s appeal. For example, a hundred years after his ancestor built the house, William Culpeper then gambled away all the family’s money and had to sell (there’s always a profligate lurking somewhere in the histories!) Still, it is the garden and grounds for which Wakehurst is famous and the stories of Loder and the Prices are slightly more prominent, with the Sir Henry Price Memorial Garden and a sundial in memory of Loder and Coates.
All in all, I would recommend Wakehurst (Place) as a good day out and a perfect spot for a varied and occasionally eye-opening walk, but don’t expect a National Trust atmosphere (and any scone-oisseurs among you should perhaps avoid Wakehurst’s offerings). However, not all differences are bad – for example, much as I love the Trust’s fresh home cooking, it was actually a nice change to be able to get fish and chips for my lunch!
Highlights: Rock Walk with its eerie yew roots; Millennium Seed Bank; the West Mansion Border with its colour scheme of orange, to red, to purple, to blue, to white; and my favourite tree, the Japanese dogwood with its red berries that look like raspberries on stalks
Refreshments: Tea (redbush, yay!) with carrot and walnut slice; fish and chips; tea with scone and jam
Companion(s): Mum, Dad and Peter