St Leonard’s Forest in Sussex is one of the ancient woodlands of England. Having soil too sour to be cultivated, it was left intact in the Middle Ages, when substantial acreages elsewhere were cut down for crops. Only in the 16th and 17th centuries did its mighty trees get felled, when great tracts of the Weald were turned rapidly into an industrial landscape; here was the centre of iron-smelting, making cannon for colonial and overseas campaigns. Although the woods have regrown in recent centuries, the region is still peppered with reminders of its industrial past.

Nowhere is this industrial legacy put to more spectacular use than in the gardens of Leonardslee, a tranquil 200-acre valley with steep sides, planted largely in the days of the great plant hunters of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Its hammer ponds, which once powered the furnace bellows and hammers used to crush ore-rich stone, are now a series of reflective mirrors for 200-year-old plantations of exotic trees, supplemented with brilliant displays of spring blooms.

For those who know it, Leonards-lee is a place of annual pilgrimage during its peak season, but this year is probably its last on display; Leonardslee was recently sold to an overseas buyer, and there is no expectation that it will continue to be open to view. If you haven’t been before, this month and next really are your last chance to be sure of sampling its unique and considerable charms.

By now, early spring’s towering magnolias and huge collection of camellias have given way to the later flowerers-the main season of plant hunters’ rhododendrons, and the brilliantly coloured azaleas. They coincide with the home-grown strain of Loderi hybrid rhododendrons-towering shrubs weighed down with trusses of huge, ice-cream-coloured blooms wafting dolly-mixture scents along the winding valley paths. Although other months have their highlights, there’s no lovelier time
to get lost on the woodland and lakeside paths than May.

Country Life has long been a champion of Leonardslee; the park featured in one of the magazine’s earliest editions, in 1897, when its chief interest was a menagerie of exotic animals deployed throughout the park. ‘In this paradise… the new animals which have made their home in this old country wander at large,’ the author observed. ‘None but interesting and beautiful creatures have been introduced… they all produce young regularly, a great part of the stock have been born and bred in the park.’

Sir Edmund Loder’s private free-range zoo included wallabies (whose younger generations are still a feature of the gardens), plus, for many years, beavers, Algerian moufflons, emus, Pata-gonian hares, antelopes, axis deer, Persian gazelles, bush turkeys, barasingas, capybaras, kangaroos and kookaburras. ‘I’m very happy that Leonards-lee is being taken forward in new ownership: the new owners fell in love with the garden-and the wallabies,’ says Robin Loder, who has managed Leonardslee with unerring vigour and vision for the past 25 years, since taking over from his parents.

One of the more recent attractions Mr Loder has added is a one-twelfth scale-model country-house garden, which ‘began in 1998 as a scale-model greenhouse and potting shed, as they would have been a century ago’. Devised by model-maker Helen Holland, the exhibit, added to each year, now fills a barn with a model country estate, its local market town complete with shops from butcher’s to haberdasher’s, and brought to life with numerous automata. ‘It’s somewhere people can go and enjoy when it rains,’ says Mr Loder. Rain or shine, this garden, open to the end
of June, is not to be missed.

Leonardslee Gardens, Lower Beeding, Horsham, West Sussex RH13 6PP (01403 891212; www.leonardsleegardens.com) open daily until June 30, 9.30am-6pm, last admission 4.30pm. Next door, the rhododendron and camellia specialist Loder Plants Nursery, run by Robin Loder’s son Christopher, will continue to trade as usual, after the gardens have closed

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