The village of Ardingly is perhaps best known for the South of England Showground, Wakehurst (the rural arm of Kew), and its large reservoir. But in fact, it’s a village that dates back many hundreds of years with a rich past and lots of reasons to visit.
You can be forgiven for squeezing your way up and down Ardingly High Street without appreciating its heritage. Just north of Haywards Heath and west of East Grinstead, the Romans and Saxons both passed through here and played their part in turning what was probably thick woodland then, into the village it is now.
Whether or not the village was actually referenced in the Doomsday Book seems to be up for debate, but it has been said that the “The Lordship of Ardingly” formed part of the territory of William de Warrenne, who apparently married the daughter of William the Conqueror!
There was certainly a church at Ardingly back in the 11th century and parts of the current St Peter’s church date back to the 14th century. It was probably in the mid-13th century that Ardingly ceased to be forest and became enclosed land after “free warren” was granted, and the village sign still marks the site of the original tollgate.
You’ll find dozens of old and listed properties dotted around the village, like the timber-framed 17th century Old Knowles in Church Lane or 16/17th century Great Lywood Farmhouse just outside the village (where the gardens are open to the public).
Wakehurst Place (now known as Wakehurst)
Wakehurst sits at one end of the village. The name is believed to derive from Saxon and land at Wakehurst was bought in 1205 by William de Wakehurst. You can visit the Elizabethan house that was built by Sir Edward Culpeper in 1590, and although parts of it have been rebuilt, one original wing still remains. The gardens were largely created later from 1903 onwards, by one Gerald Loder who was a passionate plantsman and sponsored many expeditions to eastern Asia. In 1963, the then owner left Wakehurst to the nation and the Royal Botanic Gardens took up a lease from the National Trust in 1965.
Today you can explore 500 acres of beautiful ornamental gardens, woodlands, and nature reserve as well as the world-famous Millennium Seed Bank – the largest wild seed conservation project in the world. Wakehurst is also home to the UK’s tallest Christmas tree which you can see all the way from Turners Hill on a clear winter’s night! If you’d like to know more about Wakehurst, why not have a look at our Wakehurst Highlights.
At the other end of the village is the independent school Ardingly College founded in the 19th century and famed for its Gothic-style building, built in an H shape from red brick. Its beautiful quadrangle courtyard looks over the 37 arches of the 19th century Ouse Valley Viaduct (also called the Balcombe Viaduct) and the High Weald countryside and it’s quite a view!
146 old Ardinians and two former staff were killed in WWI and 88 died in WWII, so the school chapel has its own war memorial.
The old railway
Sadly, the Ardingly branch railway linking Haywards Heath to Horsted Keynes closed in 1963 but the track, tunnel, bridges and station buildings are preserved for the nearby Bluebell Railway which runs a fleet of vintage steam trains and carriages – and on a quiet day, you can hear them!
A relatively modern addition (created in the 1970s), the 198-acre reservoir which is a local nature reserve has retained a sense of tranquillity – despite its activity centre (which seems to offer everything from fishing to kayaking and triathlon training). There are a number of medium length walks you can enjoy along the “Kingfisher trails” and around various parts of the reservoir, one of which takes you straight to the Gardeners Arms!
If you want to walk the other way (starting from just next to the reservoir activity centre café) there is a 4 km loop which will take you to the feet of the Balcombe Viaduct and, if you don’t mind a short, steep bit of road walking, on up past the stunning Balcombe Place (built in the 1850s). As you turn off up the main road and up the private track, past parkland and back towards the reservoir, you enjoy views to your right of the viaduct and the South Downs. It feels so unspoilt and you could be forgiven for thinking yourself a character in Jane Eyre.
The South of England Showground
No mention of Ardingly is complete without reference to the many agriculture events held at the Showground. From the three day South of England Show every summer (with livestock, equine displays, falconry, wine, and beer tasting, and all things agricultural) to Christmas and craft fairs and antiques events, Ardingly has a round-the-year choice of traditional activities.
For a small village, Ardingly packs quite a punch and if you’re looking for something to do on a cold winter’s day, you could do a lot worse than a lingering walk, a long, leisurely lunch, and a bit of shopping at the showground!