Wakehurst is a pleasingly placed botanic garden, situated only a few miles from Gatwick and easily accessible from the M23. Visiting gardens in winter usually means fewer crowds but on this bright February day there were a huge number of families and visitors enjoying the space and freedom that Wakehurst provides.
Owned by the National Trust but managed under the umbrella of Kew, the botanic garden at Wakehurst boasts 500 acres of garden, woodland and nature reserve. There are firm, wide paths for pushchairs and wheelchairs and an airy cafe and gift shop. Entry was a bit pricey we thought, at £12.95 per adult but then you do get an awful lot of space to roam around in. Also, if you splash out a little more cash, you can become a ‘friend’ which entitles you to unlimited entry to Wakehurst and one visit to Kew.
Wakehurst Place itself is a Grade I listed mansion, built in 1590 where there is currently an exhibition of botanical paintings to see. The gardens were created by Gerald Loder (latterly Lord Wakehurst & one-time President of the RHS) who spent an impressive 33 years developing the gardens having purchased the estate in 1903. In 1938 the estate was bought by Sir Henry Price, philanthropist and the founder of the ‘Fifty Shilling Tailors’ who later bequeathed the Wakehurst estate to the nation in 1963. It was in 1965 that the Royal Botanic Gardens took over the lease from the National Trust to enable them to manage the gardens and estate.
Wakehurst is home to the Millenium Seed Bank, where seeds from the world’s most threatened wild plants are saved and conserved in the hope that species will be preserved from extinction. Unfortunately at the time of our visit the Seed Bank was closed but we enjoyed looking at the concrete raised beds beside the Seed Bank that replicate different growing environments.
A walk around the grounds began with the new Winter Garden beside the mansion. Designed by Francis Annette, the Winter Garden is dominated by the white-barked Himalayan birch trees (Betula utilis var jacquemontii) underplanted with fiery red and yellow Cornus which would have looked stunning had the sun deigned to shine on us! Scented Daphne and (less scented) Hamamelis (Witch Hazel) line the curved path which leads to a huge swathe of ornamental grasses overlooking the sweeping expanse of lawn. Snowdrops, Cyclamen and Hellebores provide low-level colour along with a great mass of bronze-coloured Bergenia.
From the lawns beside the house the estate continues, its paths winding through a hilly expanse of grass bearing thousands of Crocus tommasinianus beside a stream that tumbles towards pools where in a few weeks time, Primula prolifera (Candelabra primrose) will be flowering. For now, Camellia and deliciously scented Daphne provide floriforous colour.
Willow sculptures beside the path are dwarfed by towering Redwood trees in Horsebridge Wood and in other areas, trees are grouped according to the part of the world they originate from. In the Pinetum, an extra history lesson can be found for those who discover the underground communications station used by Canadian troops during World War II.