A visit to Woolbeding Gardens requires a little more effort than most properties: it is only open on Thursdays and Fridays in the spring and summer; you have to pre-book tickets so cannot just turn up on the day; and there is no on-site parking (except some disabled spaces) so you have to park in nearby Midhurst and take the free shuttle minibus to and from the gardens. But if you’re wondering whether it’s worth the extra effort, I would tell you to stop wasting time wondering and get yourself down to West Sussex.
They say that variety is the spice of life… and Woolbeding Gardens gives you the whole spice rack. It really does have everything you’d want from a garden: formal garden ‘rooms’, more informal pleasure grounds, water features, beautiful views and, of course, a marvellous medley of plants. There is even an artfully designed swimming pool that fits seamlessly into the formal gardens (and was agonisingly tempting on a very warm summer’s day).
I couldn’t help but compare my visit to Woolbeding with the trip to West Green House Gardens a few weeks ago. While the latter seemed a little neglected in places, Woolbeding was a shining example of a well-loved and well-tended garden. A few hedges needed clipping here and there but you somehow just knew that the gardeners were well aware of this and were probably planning a long day’s trimming in the very near future.
Both the house and gardens at Woolbeding owe their current condition to Simon Sainsbury (then Financial Director of the Sainsbury supermarket business) and his partner Stewart Grimshaw, who took on a long lease of the property in 1972. Woolbeding had been given to the Trust by the Lascelles family in lieu of death duties in 1957, with members of the family remaining in the house until the 1970s, by which time it was in dire need of some attention. Sainsbury and Grimshaw conducted a major refurbishment of the house (including demolishing an out-of-place Victorian wing) and employed renowned garden experts and designers – first Lanning Roper and then Julian and Isabel Bannerman – to create the special place we see today.
The house is not open to the public as it is still Stewart Grimshaw’s weekend home (Sainsbury died in 2006) but there are regular talks throughout the day so you can hear a little about the previous history of the building and its owners. Perhaps its most illustrious period was during the early 1800s when it was owned by Lord Robert Spencer and became a centre of ‘Whiggery’, being visited regularly by Charles James Fox and other Whig politicians. The graves of Spencer and several other former residents and owners of the house can be seen in Woolbeding Church, which is located almost within the grounds of the gardens, its squat tower adding another picturesque aspect to many of the views.
The talk was held on the lawn in the front of the house and alongside the William Pye fountain, which is an ultra modern and very clever piece, with a constant flow of water running down all sides of its wineglass shaped structure (until the wind blows hard and lifts some spray to catch the unwary watcher!) This serves to highlight the sheer variety at Woolbeding as not far away in the formal Fountain Garden is a cast replica of an Italian 16th century fountain (the original is now in the V&A). Old and new are just steps away from each other, but create their own effects in different parts of the garden. Another example of this – which is perhaps rather more quirky – can be found in the southern pleasure grounds, where a classical-style statue of a River God, complete with a cloak made of shells, occupies a damp grotto on one side of the lake, while on the other, you may stumble across Edyth the Elephant lurking in the undergrowth. She really has to be seen to be believed!
The pleasure grounds were a particular highlight for me. There are cleverly designed views all centred on the various follies, which include a Chinese bridge, an abbey ruin, a hermit’s hut, a summer house with cascade, the aforementioned River God (and elephant!) and a secret pooled glade surrounded by statues of the Four Seasons.
But on top of all this, there really is so much more to see around the gardens… the Tulip folly (left, which marks the spot on the lawn once occupied by a giant tulip tree that came down in the October 1987 storms, missing the house by just a couple of feet), an orchid house and other hothouses, a tunnel of hornbeams, a lavender terrace, herbaceous borders, a really pretty herb garden (see top photo), a productive vegetable garden, and an Orangery, where I would have loved to have spent a quiet, lazy afternoon with a good book, before taking a quick dip in the pool outside. I am extremely envious of the house’s tenant, who may be doing just that this weekend, but I am also glad that his and his late-partner’s love of Woolbeding has helped to create somewhere that you and I can also enjoy… if you put in that extra effort.
Highlights: The ‘pleasure grounds’; the William Pye water feature; the Orangery and pool; the herb garden
Refreshments: Pot of tea; tuna and cucumber sandwich, crisps, half a slice of Victoria Sponge and half a slice of Beetroot & Pumpkin Seed Cake.
Purchase(s): ‘A Garden in Sussex’ with photographs by Tessa Traeger and a foreword by Stewart Grimshaw
Companion(s): Mum and Dad