The late seventeenth century Woolbeding House and its associated 2,000 acres of beautiful countryside in the West Sussex Rother Valley were acquired by the National Trust nearly 60 years ago. However, its rather splendid gardens have only been open to the public since 2011.
Even now they are not easy to visit.You can only see them on Thursdays and Fridays from late April until the end of September. You must pre-book by phone, and then take a complementary minibus from the local town of Midhurst. There is no parking on or near the site, as a result of local planning policy, and the only access from the main A272 road is by a busy, narrow, lane that is unsafe for pedestrians.
You might at this stage perfectly reasonably think “why bother?” However, once you’ve been you will see why locals keep coming back and why so very few people go away disappointed.
The restricted visiting times reflect the historically private nature of the property, which was acquired without any endowment from the Lascelles family in 1958. Given the dilapidation of the house and its surrounding garden and grounds at that time it was logical to let it to private occupiers. Fortunately the choice fell on the well known philanthropist and connoisseur Sir Simon Sainsbury, who died in 2006, and his lifetime partner Stewart Grainger who between them created the present gardens. Stuart survives him and still uses the house at weekends.
No expense was spared, although little money seems to have been wasted either. The best authorities and experts, especially Lanning Roper and more recently Julian and Isabel Bannerman, were engaged to design the gardens. These factors alone however can’t explain Woolbeding’s extraordinary success. Just as importantly, both partners had an exceptionally good eye and very considerable organisational skills. These were enhanced by a charming, albeit steely, determination to make something of exceptional quality.
Even now it is clear, from talking to the gardeners, that the success of Woolbeding’s gardens is a consequence of collaboration and mutual respect between all those involved involved. These gardens, an essentially private celebration of the couple’s lives together, match in quality, and one could even argue in importance, the better known achievements of Sir Simon’s business career in the family firm and his public munificence.
You currently enter Woolbeding through a fairly formal Bannerman designed courtyard garden centred on a series of pools, cascades and stone tanks and troughs. Water, often in motion, is a continuing theme throughout the gardens. You might even, however fancifully, think the deity of the local River Rother constantly commands monuments and sacrifices to be created there. Next follows a reception area adapted from old barns, which also sells good simple food.
The main gardens lie to the west of the house and are principally the product of the Lanning Roper years in the 1970’s. There the old walled garden has been divided into rooms with statuary, yew hedges, paving and walls. Two long borders extend the westwards axis towards an avenue of trees across the road.
The components include a herb garden, a vegetable garden, a garden centred on a fine copy of an original renaissance fountain now in the V and A, a pool garden and an orangery designed by the architect Philip Jebb. The area offers fine borrowed views of All Hallows church, around which the grounds wrap on three sides. The planting is exceptional in terms of both quality of upkeep and selection of varieties and colours with a bold and sophisticated use of complementary colours and variation in tone and intensity. While the design may be conventional, its quality and execution are of the highest standard.
The loss of two exceptional trees has been marked by the erection of structures that memorialise them. The storms of 1987 felled largest tulip tree in Europe and a domed folly designed by Philip Webb now stands in its place.
A William Pye water feature, in which you can see the house and garden reflected, commemorates the far more recent loss of an enormous cedar of Lebanon.
From the upper garden one takes the appropriately named Long Walk to the south through meadow and parkland to arrive at an entirely separate, Bannerman designed ,pleasure ground. This is constructed around an artificial and very pretty lake within a sloping valley with paths on either side. The feel is romantic and recalls the later eighteenth century, indeed putting me in mind of our recent visit to Painshill.
At the nearer end a charming, although not totally convincing, ruined abbey provides a suitably melancholy approach.
In the middle a yellow Chinoiserie bridge crosses the water. At the far end a summer house, rather gothick in appearance, straddles a cascade from which water pours into the lake. A ruined hermit’s hut and various similar structures have been placed near the paths around the lake.
Near the summer house a grotto contains a river god with water pouring out of his urn.
The whole constitutes significantly more than the sum of its parts and recalls, as well as playing games with, all that is best in the tradition of the eighteenth century landscape.
Capability Brown called himself a “placemaker”. The Bannermans can fairly do the same. Although they would probably have been too modest to make such a claim the partnership of Simon Sainsbury and Stewart Grimshaw may well be deserving of the title. At this moment in the history of Woolbeding, the property is in transition from a totally private place to one with limited, even if growing, public access. Now seems the perfect time to visit.