Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Wakehurst Place

One of the coolest things about Britain is the casual scattering of heritage found lying around everywhere—such as Stonehenge, the Tower of London and the leftover WWII pillboxes dotting the coastline—and some of the coolest bits of their redundant past are the old stately manor houses.

If you don’t watch Downton Abbey, manor homes were huge estates, staffed by legions of servants, surrounded by vast tracts of land cared for by armies of groundsmen and gamekeepers who kept the woods, rivers and meadows well-stocked with fish and game. These enormous estates provided employment for much of the surrounding towns and many, many residents were beholden to the landowner for their livelihood.

If you do watch Downton Abbey, then you already knew all of that.

Back in the day, I would never have been able to get a glimpse inside one of these estates; the closest I could have hoped to come (if rumors of my British ancestry are true) is while being presented to the land owner, accused of poaching his rabbits, before being taken out and hung.

These days, the majority of the surviving estates are open to the public. Thanks to the introduction of the minimum wage, plus a few other key labor laws, as well as two World Wars that greatly diminished the ranks of the working class, the upkeep required for these anachronistic monstrosities became unsustainable, leading to their wholesale destruction. Around 1,500 manor homes were destroyed in the 1900’s before someone opined, “I say, do you think we should keep a few of these to, you know, show off to the tourists?”

Some people look back on that destruction, wishing fervently that more estates could have been saved, but not me. There are plenty left; get a National Trust Handbook and have a look through it if you don’t believe me. Anywhere you go in Britain there are half a dozen stately homes within easy reach of wherever you happen to be. I say it’s a good thing they knocked the bulk of them down; if they hadn’t, where would they have put all the industrial estates, Tesco super-stores and council flats?

Anyway, there are no shortage of these homes in Sussex, and one of them—Wakehurst Place—is a favorite destination of ours. It’s a short drive away and its 500 acres of gardens, wetlands and woods are some of the most spectacular in Britain.

William Wakehurst first bought the land in 1205. Back then, it was only a 40-acre estate, but over the years the land and home were expanded. During the 1900s, Gerald Loder—later Lord Wakehurst—spent 33 years developing the gardens. He left the estate to Sir Henry Price and Sir Henry left it to the National Trust in 1963. It is now open to the public, which means I can go there whenever I wish, without the risk of being hanged.

All of this is a prelude to me telling you we went to Wakehurst Place this past Sunday, and it was a glorious, spring-like day and I want to gloat about it to my friends back in Upstate NY who are still experiencing weather like this:

Over here, we have flowers blooming and, as we wandered the trails through the gardens and woodlands, the smells of damp earth and new growth were everywhere.

It was just lovely.

Nothing says "spring" like blossoming crocus.

Except maybe a meadow of Cyclamen.

Before I forget, this is the mansion; it's such a pretty building it's hard to take a bad photo of it.

This was taken about 11:00 in the morning; the sun is not going to get much higher than that.

This is Daphne Bhalua, an extremely fragrant plant. It's scent was just heavenly.
I've installed a "scratch and sniff" app on this photo, so get close, scratch the screen and sniff.
Seriously, how many of you actually did that?

Ah, Pussy Willow! Now we're talking spring!
Don’t worry, I’ll likely have to pay for my smugness; the weather report calls for a return to the cold this week, and a chance of more snow. But at least I was able to enjoy this brief respite from winter, and get a taste of what is, hopefully, just around the corner.


  1. Lovely photos - we saw crocuses and spring lambs this weekend up in Yorkshire - you can really feel Spring in the air at the moment.

    1. Even up in Yorkshire? I figured you would still be shovelling snow ;)

  2. Any time you feel like giving us a mini-visit to England, feel free to go all-out! Your Wakehurst reminds me of when I visited Leed's Castle years ago. I'm so glad those lovely places still exist.

    1. It is one of the great bonuses of living here. We go to Wakehurst about 4 times a year, and to as many other National Trust properties as we can fit in. They are all beautiful and educational.

  3. Oh my smug indeed ... we are completely banked in snow here in New England!

    1. Don't worry; right after I posted that the weather turned cold (high 20's) with grey skies and blowing snow ;) It's still like that.