Highdown- Heritage Garden at our Doorstep
Highdown Garden in Worthing is one of the best green secrets in the Sussex. It is the biggest and finest chalk garden in the UK with wonderful tree and shrub specimens and a mecca for anyone who wants to know what they can grow if their garden is chalky and therefore alkaline.
It is also a very atmospheric garden, a labyrinth of small and larger spaces with different levels including a fish pond, a larger pond at the foot of the chalk cliff and lawn areas for children.
Originally the area was a lime quarry in the 18th Century where chalk was burnt to produce lime for agriculture and building. (The lime building is still in the garden.)
In 1909 Sir Fredrick Stern, a rich Edwardian, bought up the site and tried to turn it into tennis courts. However glare from the chalk cliff put players off and Stern went about trying to solve the problem by lowering a workman on ropes to try and dig out planting pockets in the chalk to plant and hopefully cover up with plants the whole of the cliff face. When this failed a love affair ensured, as Sir Stern spent the rest of his life leaning and experimenting with plants to create a garden that would grow on chalk.
He sponsored some of the great plant collectors of the day to go to China and other far flung places to bring back seeds so he could continue his experiments. For example, as you enter the garden a huge avenue of Pittisporums welcomes you. They were planted right at the beginning of the birth of the garden in 1909.
In the 1960’s another passion was born. Gary Prescod as a child used to grow plants on his little balcony in South London. He went on to study Natural Science at Cambridge University and the Chelsea Physics garden. He is now Head Gardener at Highdown and loves the place.
“There is myself and two other full time workers plus we have an apprentice at the moment and a volunteer two days a week who was the daughter of the Head Gardener who worked here many years ago.
“This is the finest chalk garden in the UK and we have the National Collection of Sir Fredrick Stern Introduced Plants here.
We have the largest Catoneaster in Europe and the biggest Himalayan Musk Rose outside of China.”
He points to an absolutely exquisite and delicate tree. “And that is the largest Chinese Weeping Hornbeam in the UK” . The sun pours through the delicate leaves. “The seed was brought back by Reginald Farer in 1913.
We have a lot of berry trees for Autumn interest as it is mainly a Spring and Summer garden in terms of colour.
He brings my attention to an enormous shrub about 12 foot high with masses of red berries. That is a Viburnum beechulifolia. Earnest Wilson, nicknames Chinese Wilson, brought that seed back with him 100 years ago.” The birds don’t like the berries so some of the clusters stay on the branches till the next year’s flowering.
And that is Euonymous grandifolia salicifolius which George Forrest brought back in seed form in 1914.”
The mature specimens in the garden reads like a Who’s Who of early 20th Century plant collectors and many of the mature trees were grown from the original seeds.
“Chalk is very difficult to grow on. The top soil is often only inches deep and roots find it hard both to penetrate and then find any nutrients. Then the water and nutrients constantly drain out. We mulch as much as we can but still in Summer the leaves can look faded as the plants dry out. There are some surprising exceptions to what one thinks one can grows here. That for example!”
He points to a lovely specimen of an Arbutus uendo, the Mediterranean Strawberry tree with it’s viivid smooth bark that is normally considered an acid lover.
“This Yew tree is a rare yellow fruiting variety and every Autumn the branches turn yellow as birds try to wipe the poisonous seed from the fruit they want to eat.”
For the local gardener who puts their spade in the soil and hits chalk this garden has huge amounts to offer.
You can see smaller plants like Liriope, Dianthus, Stocks, Knuatia, Wall flowers, Geraniums, Sarcococca and Epimedium and shrubs like the Euonymous europa. Unusual plants like Virginia Pokeweed and Canary Island Echiums as well as mature trees like Gleditsia Sunburst, Pittisporum, Holme Oak plus a rare Afganistan Judas Tree can all be seen in the garden and it will give you confidence to go out and buy them.
There is even a blue floretted Hydrangea aspera velosa that dates back to the 1920’s.
Because bulbs are shallow rooted Daffodils and Cyclamen go well as well as Winter Aconites and there is a huge collection of Snowdrops. In fact for the first time Highdown will open its gates on a Sunday in February to offer a Snowdrop tour.
Gary is passionate about the garden and has recently applied for Heritage Lottery Funding.
“My wish is for this garden to be properly conserved so that everyone can recognise its importance. For example that huge Acer grisem over there was grown from seed brought back by Chinese Wilson. Of the 100 seeds that were then grown by the Veich Nursery, which specialised in exotic and rare species, only a handful remain. And they are dying out in China which makes its preservation that much more important. We have recently get Kew Gardens Millennium Seed bank involved.
“We want to create a Visitor’s Centre here, interactive stations for children and label the plants to help inform people of the rare specimens they are looking at. Also there is so many documents that relate to the garden that I don’t have time to go through and archive. Apparently there were over 500 species of plants here at one time. We have so little time we haven’t even got a proper audit of what is still growing.”
Unbelievably, entrance to Highdown incurs no cost and is upkept by Worthing council, as in 1967 Sir Stern’s widow passed the garden onto the people of Worthing so they could enjoy it for free. (Their beautiful flint mansion is now the hotel that can be seen next door.)
The garden receives up to 30,000 visitors each year but it is so intricate that it retains an intimate feeling.
Winter -1st October to the end of March
Monday to Friday 10-4.30pm
Summer – 10-6pm including weekends