Leonardslee is one of the largest and most spectacular landscaped woodland gardens in England. They are particularly noted for their spring displays of rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias, magnolias and bluebells, with the flowering season reaching its peak in May. Leonardslee is situated at Lower Beeding, near Horsham, West Sussex.
Following the sale of the estate in July 2010, the gardens are no longer open to the public.
The gardens, which are overlooked by a 19th-century Italianate house, were started in 1801 and cover 200 acres of a steep sandstone valley, in which there are a series of seven man-made ponds, some of which once provided power for the Wealden iron industry. Victorian plant collector Sir Edmund Loder purchased the estate from his parents-in-law in 1889 and planted extensive collections of Rhododendrons and Azaleas and many species of trees. The garden is listed Grade I in the English Heritage Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest in England. An unusual feature, for England, is the colony of wallabies which have grazed the grass in the gardens for over a century. A rock garden near the house was built c.1890 by the famous Victorian landscaping company James Pulham and Son, who also built a mound containing artificial caves for mouflon, now used for the wallabies. The gardens, which also contained a collection of Victorian motor cars, a miniature exhibition called Beyond the Doll's House, and a display of modern outdoor sculptures, attracted some 50,000 visitors per year.
The name Leonardslee derives from the lea or valley of St Leonard's Forest, one of the ancient forests of the High Weald. In the Middle Ages the soil was too acidic for agriculture and so it remained as a natural woodland with wild animals and deer for the chase. There was extensive felling of the forest trees in the 16th and 17th centuries when the Weald became the centre of England's iron industry, producing cannon and cannonballs, firebacks, hinges, horseshoes and nails. The local sandstone was rich in iron and the ore was dug from surface pits. A wood to the south of Leonardslee is still called Minepit Wood and its surface is pockmarked with ancient ore diggings. Most of the forest trees were felled for charcoal, which was used to reduce the ore and to generate heat to smelt it. The valley streams were dammed to provide a head of water that powered, via a water wheel, bellows that blasted air into the furnace, which was called Gosden furnace. Such a furnace would typically operate non-stop day and night and so it required a great deal of water to keep it going. A string of ponds was therefore created through a series of dams in the long, steep-sided valley to act as reservoirs; these would be drained as necessary to keep the flow of water going over the wheel. With the demise of the Wealden iron industry in the 17th century Gosden furnace was silenced, leaving behind the ponds, which later became a picturesque feature of the gardens, and allowing the woodlands to regenerate.
King Charles II granted the lands of St Leonard's Forest to his physician, Sir Edward Greaves, and from him they were passed down to the Aldridge family. A portion of the Aldridge estate was sold in 1801 to Charles G. Beauclark, who erected a house called St Leonard's Lodge on the site of the present mansion. By this time the denudations of the iron works had been replaced by more than a century of natural regeneration. The estate was now lightly wooded, mainly with oak, beech and chestnut, with some ancient pines and larch plantations. It was the Beauclerk family who were responsible for the first ornamental plantings. They seem to have run into financial difficulties, and in 1852 they sold the estate to the Hubbard family, who built the present Italianate style house, designed by Thomas Donaldson, the first Professor of Architecture at University College London, which was completed in 1855.
Edmund Loder from Flore, in Northamptonshire married Marion Hubbard in 1876 and bought the property from his parents-in-law in 1889. He planted a large amount of exotic flora in a short time and also introduced gazelle, beavers, kangaroos and wallabies. He had a rock mound with caves built by James Pulham to house mouflon, and these are now used as shelter by the wallabies. The Pulhams built the rock garden c.1890 using a mixture of natural and artificial cretaceous sandstone. The rock garden is of moderate size and surrounded with conifers to provide shelter. The last Loder to own Leadonardslee, Robin Loder, made four new lakes and new plantings on the east side of the valley.
In February 2010 it was announced that estate had been sold by the Loder family to an international businessman and that after the 2010 season, from April to June, the gardens would be closed to the public. The gardens were duly closed on 30 June 2010.
- Leonardslee Gardens website
- Sussex and Normandy Gardens
- James Pulham at Leonardslee
- Gosden Furnace, Lower Beeding, WIRG database
- The Pulham legacy
- Great Gardens of Sussex
- Leonardslee Gardens
- West Sussex County Times article about re opening
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