The gardens and grounds at Wakehurst near Ardingly are somewhere you can visit time and time again, enjoying the ever-changing colours and landscape. Wakehurst has been owned by the National Trust since 1963 but has been managed by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew since 1965. Or in other words, we’re lucky enough to have a little bit of “Kew” in Sussex and the grounds are somewhere you can spend a few hours, or linger away a whole day if you choose.
The house at Wakehurst
The house is listed Grade I and I always feel it gets a little neglected when it comes to publicity. It was built in 1590 and is a beautiful Elizabethan mansion. It originally formed a complete courtyard but subsequent renovations and changes mean that it’s now in an E-shape. It is sometimes open to the public but Covid and renovation work means that it is closed at the moment. Notwithstanding you can’t go in, it’s an impressive and evocative facade as you approach across the lawns.
The Millennium Seed Bank
As the home of “The world’s largest underground seed bank”, the folks at Wakehurst are immensely proud of their work here and for good reason. The Seed Bank houses over 2.3 billion seeds from 97 countries, representing over 39,000 different species of the world’s storable seeds and nearly all the UK’s native plant species. It is the most diverse wild plant species genetic resource on earth. Wow!
The seeds are stored underground, but you can visit the ground floor and see researchers at work as well as various displays and educational areas. Look out for the sculptures outside and the large insects on display.
The gardens were largely created by Gerald Loder (later Lord Wakehurst), owner of Wakehurst from 1903 to 1936, who sponsored many collecting expeditions. In 1987, the great storm wiped out between 15,000 to 20,000 trees across the estate but this resulted in redevelopment with renewed focus on science, education and conservation.
There are three particularly special times to visit (in my opinion), namely: late spring when the Rhododendrons are in full bloom, autumn when you can take some Instagram-able shots of the leaves reflected in the lakes, and of course, their Glow Wild event that blows me away, every time I go.
Much of the grounds are listed as Grade II parkland by English Heritage and they are divided into different areas. These include the Mansion Gardens (understandably near the main house), and thereafter the Asia, North America, Chile, Australian and New Zealand, and the British Isles areas. This means for young children or solitary walkers like me, you can just let your imagination go wild as you become an intrepid and global explorer. In addition to these geographical areas, there is also the Loder Valley (you need a special code from the visitor centre before you set off in order to get in), various sculptures and some fun children’s areas – like the Gruffalo Trail. In short, lots to see and do.
Our Wakehurst highlights
Depending on how fast you walk, you need at least half a day to explore all the grounds, and if you want to make a day of it, there are places to eat behind the main house and in the shop and visitor centre. You will also need the map they provide on entry. Regular readers of SE may know my obsession with maps, and the good news is, this one is relatively easy to follow.
Rock Walk and Coates Wood
As you leave the Millennium Seed Bank don’t be tempted to miss out the area to your right. Follow the path to the spectacular viewing seat in Coates Wood that overlooks Bloomers Valley. On the way, you’ll pass the Dinosaur Trees which look like pine trees but which are actually very rare and were thought to be extinct. These come all the way from Australia!
Although you’re in the British Isles area, it feels more like Canada to me. Next, double back on yourself along the lower path which takes you along Rock Walk. This is fascinating and creepy in equal measure as the roots of the trees spread like octopus tentacles or an invasive alien around the rocks.
Imposing and majestic redwoods stand as custodians to the North American arboretum. The largest redwood is 37 metres high while the oldest dates back to 1870, and there are other trees in this area that were introduced from plant expeditions as long ago as the 1640s.
This area is rather magical and mystical, far away as it is from the main buildings, and in the autumn, the colours are wonderful.
You cannot visit Wakehurst without getting down to Westwood Lake and the Wetlands boardwalk. It’s a great place for those autumn photographs as well as for spotting a kingfisher.
There has been iron ore production in this part of Sussex since the Roman occupation and this little area was probably once home to a busy ironworks centre. Today, 100 species of birds have been recorded here and it’s definitely a place for some quiet reflection.
As you make your way up from the lakes, don’t miss the Tree of Life gates which mark the entrance into the Loder Valley. They were designed and created by a local artist and represent the transition of our ancestors from hunter gathers to city dwellers. Just up the hill from here, you’ll also find a labyrinth cut into the grass.
Explore the Himalayas and the Orient
Westwood Valley and the Himalayan Glade (en route more or less back to the house) feel forgotten, remote and exotic in equal measure. There are echoes of the film Black Narcissi here and in early summer you’ll find some magnificent Rhododendrons in full bloom.
Then as you start to approach the house, dozens of little and less travelled paths allow you to explore the water gardens with their waterfalls and exotic planting. This area always conjures up images of Japan and the Orient for me and by now, you should have a sense that you have travelled the globe.
Glow Wild normally runs from late November to early January and has to be one of my favourite Christmas illumination events!
Thousands of paper lanterns light up the gardens and lead you on a nighttime trail of wild animals and creative installations. The Walled Garden is lit up, and giant animations beam onto the walls of the mansion. And of course, there’s the Wakehurst Christmas tree which is famous for being the tallest living Christmas tree in the country.
Top tip. If you’re travelling from Turners Hill, you can see the Wakehurst Christmas tree all the way from the road to Worth Abbey. Do note that in my experience, Glow wild sells out quickly and you do need to book.
For a small village, nearby Ardingly has lots of attractions, and you read about other places worth a visit here: Visit Ardingly.