Wakehurst Place: Kew's country cousin is as accessible as tricky terrains come

By Emma Townshend
Sunday 23 October 2011 02:00

"Ahh, I long to have flowerbeds neatly mulched like this," says my godmother, covetously, eyeing up the azaleas. We are at Wakehurst Place in Haywards Heath, Sussex, admiring the neatly kept gardens, now all kitted out for summer. We've wandered through the bluebell woods, admired the long views to distant birch plantations, and done the sums on a June wedding hosted in the Elizabethan mansion. And it's not even lunchtime.

Wakehurst is the country cousin of the Royal Botanic Gardens, playing home to its Millennium Seed Bank and a host of dramatic tree planting, but horticultural standards are, if anything, higher than at Kew itself. Wakehurst is no bumpkin in terms of facts and figures either: the land is on a long lease from the National Trust (so you can use your member's card to enter) and it's their most visited attraction annually. Yet the garden still maintains its gentle Sussex feel, with an ample car park hidden among mature trees, and plenty of paths to wander, leaving hustle and bustle behind.

Wakehurst was originally the private garden of the Loder family, a proper old Tory dynasty based in Sussex, and it was Gerald Loder who began the development of a garden there in the early years of the 20th century. Though "garden" is putting it mildly – the house has formal herbaceous borders and lawns, but then a series of lakes and dramatic rock escarpments lead downs to a much wilder, hidden valley below: rather unexpectedly Himalayan in the gentle territory of mid-Sussex.

Despite the nature of the terrain, the delights of Wakehurst are nicely accessible. When we visit, the party includes my friend Mani, who uses a wheelchair, so we're pretty relieved to find we can make our way easily to Bethlehem Wood on the map's marked yellow paths (just avoid the red ones, which may induce palpitations). There's a delicious perfume in the air: "It reminds me of the Isabella Plantation," says Mani, and it turns out it's the scent of azaleas, wafting across the haze of bluebells.

Bethlehem Wood is marvellously kept, with specimen trees widely planted to allow sunshine to fall, and bursts of colour provided by the rhododendron family. The light is still that bright-green shining through new leaves, and from afar we hear pheasants calling: a smart chock, chock call not quite sufficiently suggestive of their epic dumbness.

Wakehurst also has more formal delights: head for the mansion, and the walled Sir Henry Price garden is a jewel. The original cutting garden for the grand house, it is now planted with a series of dark tulips in mauves, pinks and lilacs, growing above purple sage, wine-coloured Sambucus and dark bronzey penstemon leaves ("Husker Red"). And now we're in an English garden at 4pm. It must be time for a cup of tea.

Wakehurst Place has a minibus tour of its estate tomorrow for those who would find it hard to walk around (kew.org). 'The Rough Guide to Accessible Britain' is available free to Blue Badge holders (accessibleguide.co.uk)

Access all areas

1. Chatsworth

This Derbyshire estate has three bookable electric scooters for the landscape garden and golf buggy tours every half-hour. And if it rains, a lift ensures everyone can see inside the upper floors of the house too. chatsworth.org

2. Eden Project

This Cornwall attraction won a 2010 Rough Guide award for accessibility, in part due to a huge team of access volunteers to help people with disabilities round the garden, and a website that lists the gradients of paths. edenproject.com

3. Stowe

Bookable golf carts make a whizz around the Palladian bridges, grottoes and temples of this huge 18th-century Buckinghamshire landscape a joy. nationaltrust.org.uk

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