Whilst bumbling about on Highdown Hill near Worthing in West Sussex recently, I came across Highdown Gardens. It had been on my radar for some time as somewhere to visit, but until this chance encounter, I hadn’t given it that much thought.
A little oasis of calm
It’s no secret that the Worthing area is relatively built up, so it’s great that just off the A259 / Littlehampton Road there’s a gateway straight up onto the South Downs at Highdown Hill. And as you turn right into the car park at the top of Highdown Rise, you can’t miss Highdown Gardens and the hotel to your left.
Admission is free and when you stroll through the entrance archway, you’re actually entering a little oasis of calm that just keeps on giving. It’s high above Worthing and as such, has something of the mystic about it. If you’ve ever visited the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall, it has that sort of feel. Like you’ve stumbled into somewhere exotic and remote, a bit like wandering into an unexpected botanical garden in the middle of the Himalayas.
Once past the entrance and visitor centre, there are a series of different areas, each giving way to another. In the higher part, you’ll find the Sensory Garden and sculptures, the Chalk Pit, the Rose Garden, the Rock Garden and Ponds, and the Upper Garden. These in turn give way to the Beech Walk and then the Middle and Lower Gardens, all the while as you walk through arches, down steps, around corners, surprised to find more.
The story behind the garden
If you wish to enjoy the gardens for no other purpose than the sensory pleasure that they offer then that’s good enough motivation. But in fact, they have a backstory that touches on horse racing, the suffragettes, fighting at Gallipoli and great plant hunting expeditions across the world. And if that is something that awakens your interest then it’s worth taking a closer look at the people behind the gardens, Sir Frederick and Lady Sybil Stern.
The garden at Highdown was created as an experiment by Sir Frederick and Lady Sybil Stern to see what would grow on the chalk soil of the Downs. Sir Frederick had first come to Highdown in 1909 when he was in his twenties, initially with the idea of training racehorses on the Downs. In these early days, he created a rock garden and in 1914 sponsored a plant hunting expedition to China, known as the Farrer expedition after plant hunter, Reginald Farrer. The trip took Farrer into the remote corners of north west China and the trip marked the beginning of what was to become a life’s work for the Sterns.
During WWI, Sir Frederick survived Gallipoli and fought in what was then Palestine, whilst his future wife Sybil worked in the War Pension Office. They married in 1919 and in the 1920s Sybil was a suffragist activist. Meanwhile, as a married couple, their passion for plants quite literally blossomed. They continued to support dangerous plant collecting expeditions around the world and they set up a laboratory in Highdown Tower to count plant chromosomes. They became experts at plant propagation and creating hybrid flowers and purchased and swapped thousands of seeds and cuttings.
By the 1930s, Highdown Gardens was famous, attracting botanists, plant hunters, gardeners, scientists and even the Royal Family and the Sterns carried on their work throughout their respective lifetimes. Sir Frederick Stern died in 1967 and in 1968, Lady Sybil Stern donated Highdown Gardens to Worthing Town Council. She died in 1972. Highdown Gardens is now owned by the Highdown Tower Garden and Pleasure Ground Trust (or Highdown Gardens Trust) and is managed by Worthing Borough Council (WBC).
Apart from the really stunning garden they created, the result of their work is a significant collection of plants (recognised as a national Plant Collection in 1989 by Plant Heritage). Those original plants that have survived hold genetic material which are thought could be crucial to plant breeding in the future and the “living library” of Highdown Gardens contains rare “mother” plants whose seeds are being preserved for future generations at the Millennium Seed Bank. The gardens still face many challenges, not least as a result of climate change and pollution but significant work is still being done here.
The Plant Hunter’s Trail
I visited in January, not known as the best time to enjoy a garden. Nonetheless, there was plenty of interest. There were flowering Camelias, brightly coloured barks juxtaposed against blue skies and sculpture, and the bright yellows of Aconite. I was also stopped in my tracks by what I believed must be someone’s floral perfume (although there was no one about) but on reading up, I think must have been Sweet Box – a flowering shrub and a member of the Box family native to China. Water features, bamboo, the first snowdrops and tentative daffodils were also in evidence. And if you love these early signs of spring, the gardens are holding a Snowdrop Tour in February as part of the 2022 National Gardening Scheme Snowdrop Festival.
For the keen plant lovers, there is also a Plant Hunter’s Trail you can follow (with full details on the Highdown Gardens website) where you can discover the backstory of the individual plants themselves. Like the Buddleja found in Gansu in 1914 in the Middle Garden or the Korean Hornbeam Bonsai tree in the Chalk Pit. It was sown by Stern from a packet of seeds from a 1915 expedition and from this, Stern also propagated a second, planted by Queen Mary in 1937 which is also still there.
Whatever takes you to this part of Worthing and West Sussex, Highdown Hill, and Highdown Gardens create an exceptional little corner with much to offer from history, folklore and legends, to corners of mindfulness amidst the flowers and great sweeping vistas. So be sure to stop by and take in that which so many before you have enjoyed.