Obituaries: Sir Giles Loder Bt

FOR MOST of this century the Loder family has been synonymous with West Sussex gardening. Members of its various branches have owned tremendous gardens at Leonardslee near Horsham, High Beeches near Handcross and Wakehurst near Haywards Heath. While all three survive and flourish, only Leonardslee remains in the family's ownership, due largely to the commitment and sensible management of Sir Giles Loder.

The names Loder and Leonardslee are familiar to gardeners all over the world who may never have been near the garden to which Loder devoted much of his life; for both are attached to several varieties of rhododendron. One, Leonardslee Giles, was specifically named for the baronet who inherited the estate when he was only five, kept it going during the testing middle years of the century and continued the work on rhododendrons that his grandfather Sir Edmund Loder, the second baronet, had pioneered.

To grow rhododendrons successfully you need a large woodland garden on acid soil. To create such a garden is one kind of achievement: to sustain and embellish it in adverse economic conditions is another, requiring immense reserves of patience and dedication.

Giles Loder had those qualities in abundance. Born at the beginning of the First World War, he scarcely knew his father, Captain Robert Loder, Sir Edmund's eldest son, who was killed in action. The baronetcy passed directly to Giles when Sir Edmund died in 1920.

While he was at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, in the inter-war years, his mother Muriel ran the estate. His lifelong fascination with machines led him to take an Engineering degree at Cambridge, where he also became interested in sailing and boat design. When the Second World War broke out he was first commissioned in the Surrey and Sussex Yeomanry but was moved to the Vosper shipyards to work on the technical and design aspects of new vessels for the Royal Navy.

A few months before the war he had married Marie Symons-Jeune, the daughter of Captain Bertram Symons-Jeune, a 1930s garden designer best known for his work on naturalistic rockeries. Her inherited expertise and interest in horticulture made her an invaluable partner when, returning from the war, he devoted himself full-time to running the garden and the estate.

Loder never lost his interest in sailing and owned several boats, continuing as an active yachtsman until he was obliged to give it up at 65. Family holidays with their two sons would often involve navigating the waterways of Europe. A member of the elite Royal Yacht Squadron, he was a regular at the Cowes regatta, where he sometimes skippered the 12-metre yacht Kaylena, belonging to a friend.

At Leonardslee, Giles and Marie Loder decided to enhance the plantings of rhododendrons and magnolias by introducing hundreds of new varieties of camellias, which they especially enjoyed. They built two large greenhouses so that they could extend the range to tender varieties. Both sat on many RHS committees and were holders of the Victoria Medal of Honour, the highest accolade of the RHS.

His was a tremendous presence in the circle of knowledgeable enthusiasts drawn to rhododendrons and in 1997 he had the odd distinction of winning the society's Loder Cup for his work on the shrub - an award instituted by one of the Wakehurst Loders. He also won prizes for his pedigree Red Poll and Dexter cattle.

Leonardslee was created by Sir Edmund Loder in the 1890s in a lovely valley embracing a series of hammer ponds used in iron smelting in the 16th and 17th centuries, when that was the area's principal industry. Although essentially a late spring garden it is popular throughout the summer months, when visitors enjoy looking out for the wallabies who live in the valley and help keep the grass trimmed.

When, in 1981, Giles and Marie Loder moved to Cuckfield, they handed over the estate to their younger son, Robin, because his elder brother, Edmund, was more interested in training and breeding racehorses. The family tradition is being maintained by Robin's son Christopher, who runs a nursery on the estate.

Giles Loder took a keen interest in birdwatching. He and his wife would go on ambitious journeys to the Amazon or the Antarctic to look at the wild life. They were on one such trip in October 1987 when a hurricane tore through the south-east of England and did so much damage to Leonardslee and other gardens.

Giles Rolls Loder, gardener: born London 10 November 1914; succeeded 1920 as third Bt; married 1939 Marie Symons-Jeune (two sons); died Haywards Heath, West Sussex 24 February 1999.

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