The story of the garden at Leonardslee can be said to have begun when the twenty-seven-year-old Edmund Loder, athlete, big-game hunter, traveller, artist and winner of the School Prize at Eton, met and married Marion Hubbard, whose father lived at Leonardslee. This was in 1876. Some years after, Loder, who was soon to add botany to his many other interests, bought Leonardslee from his father in law. No sooner had he moved there than he set about planting the garden, while at almost the same time his brother, Gerald, began to plant the garden at Wakehurst.
The situation at Leonardslee offered immense possibilities. It is still one of the most beautiful spots in the south of England, with the view from the house over a series of old Hammer and Furnace, through vistas cut in St Leonards Forest, towards the Sussex Downs in the direction of the Roman camp at Chanctonbury Ring. Soon Edmund Loder was deep in the world of the experts of that time and his garden could show a collection of second to none in the country. Year after year he produced hybrid plants of the highest quality. In one field, particularly, his zest and perseverance were spectacularly rewarded: by crossing R. griffithianum with the R. Fortunei, he produced a hybrid which was to sire some of the finest of all for gardens in the milder parts of England – the trumpet-flowered, deliciously fragrant R. Loden. The flowering in 1907 of this remarkable new strain created something of a sensation. The varieties King George, Pink Diamond and Princess Marina are three of the finest. It misfit be said that it is these Loderi rhododendrons, many of them now of tree-like proportions, that make the chief fame of the garden at Leonardslee today.
When Sir Edmund, a man of tireless energy, died in 1920, a gardener at Lconardslee said, ‘He used to near kill me some days in the garden, but now I don’t know how I’ll get on without him.’ Sir Edmund was one of those great Victorian gardeners who, breaking away from the convention of his time -carpet-bedding and the like – recognized the possibilities of wild gardening in the way we understand it now. He had the eye of an artist and used it to create magnificent garden pictures with all the colours of the plant palette he had at his disposal. And yet, as he boldly planted the surroundings of his house with drifts of azaleas, rhododendrons and camellias, he took care not to destroy the wild character of his garden’s woodland setting, and the best specimens of the existing trees were jealously guarded to give shelter and background to his new plants and more exotic plantations.
, of course, are the plants which must always be most closely associated with the garden at Leonardslec, though there are many other varieties there for both the horticulturist and the amateur to admire; it is a garden full of treasures which thrive in rather the same growing conditions as there are at the garden at Nymans, ‘in another part of the forest’. Both domains lie in the thickly wooded part of Sussex which, in ancient times, was the thick forest in which St Leonard, it is said, killed the dragon. The lilies of the valley which carpet the ground every spring are said to have sprouted from where the monster’s blood was shed.
The soil of the gardens at Leonardslee is a deep loam over sandstone and free from lime. The situation is well sheltered from the north, and the average rainfall is 28 inches a year. In short, it offers ideal growing conditions for camellias and magnolias, as well as rhododendrons. But besides these three great families of plants there are endless other interesting specimens at Leonardslce, such as miliums, growing in drifts in the woods, odd fhrce-petalled, three-leaved Wake Robins, which naturalize well in acid soil. There are Banksian roses, both the double and single varieties, growing on the house walls and filling the rooms inside with their scent. There are maples with bark like lacquer and maples (Acer Senkaki) with bark like coral; there are stewartias withlike camellias. But it is not intended, in these notes on Leonardslee, to name each of its shrubs or address each of its trees by name.
In the shelter of a wall C. reticulata Captain Rawes had grown over 16 feet high and was covered with deep rose flowers. The whitenobilissima was already over, but donckelarii, so much more beautiful than its cumbersome name, was fully out, with its pink and white variegated flowers a joy to see. Some years ago Sir Giles and Lady Loder planted a trial ground of camellias where visitors to Leonardslee can now admire, and compare, several hundred clearly labelled varieties flowering side by side.
Camellias are, of course, members of the Theacae, the tea family. ‘Thea’ is how the sixteenth-century Dutch pronounced the Chinese word T’e, for which the classical Mandarin word was Ch’a – and whether one was in the army or not this has a familiar ring. Some plants of Thea sinensis grow and flower in the coolat Leonardslee.
One interesting corner of the garden is devoted to the raising of dwarf conifers, those fascinating little trees which are so well suited to the smaller gardens of today. Two that especially take the visitor’s eye are the flat-growing Pinus strobus prostrata, and Thuja occidentalis ‘Hoveyi’. with pale gold-green. But the visitor who is interested in taller conifers should direct his or her steps to a particularly beautiful part of the garden called Mossy Ghyl. This is reached by stepping-stones over the stream. There the air is scented with azaleas, and a fine specimen of Picea breweriana excites the admiration. By some, Brewer’s weeping spruce, with its lacy, pendant foliage, is considered to be the most beautiful conifer of all.
From the Ghyl a path leads downwards towards the old park and lower lake. This, we are told, was the setting used by Rudyard Kipling for the end of his story Steam Tactics. Kipling lived in Sussex and knew the garden at Leonards-lee well. ‘She . . . emerged into a fern glade fenced with woods so virgin, so untouched, that William Rufus might have ridden offas we entered.’ ‘Untouched’ – lor the planting of rhododendrons, camellias, and azaleas in the framework of old St Leonard’s Forest has been so thoughtfully carried out as to appear quite natural, and Sir Edmund was an artist in the way he clad the landscape of Leonardslee with colour. Ninety years afterwards one can acclaim his taste and foresight. The gardens are some of the loveliest in England, and stand as a memorial to his creative skill.
The present owner, Sir Giles Loder, has said of Leonardslee, ‘We . . . continually take a section of the garden in hand: cut down any old straggling plants. . . and replant with young up-to-date material. A garden must never stand still, and one has to look ahead for the future . . .’ For gardeners everywhere it is good to know that Sir Edmund’s taste and knowledge and devotion have been passed on to his grandson, who continues to love the gardens and look after them in spite of changing times and increasing difficulties.
OPEN End of April-beginning of June: Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday, 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. Weekend mid – October for autumn colouring.
LOCATION On A281 in village of Lower Beeding, 1 ½ miles south-east of Horsham.