The Sussex garden that’s a planthunter’s paradise ... as well as a perfect playground

The Italian garden at Borde Hill Garden near Haywards Heath SUS-180108-150719001
The Italian garden at Borde Hill Garden near Haywards Heath SUS-180108-150719001

There are not many gardens that are both child and dog-friendly as well as being home to some of the most-prized plants in the UK.

It is one of the unique attractions of Borde Hill Garden near Haywards Heath which is currently celebrating its 125th anniversary.

The Paradise Walk at Borde Hill Garden near Haywards Heath SUS-180108-150731001

The Paradise Walk at Borde Hill Garden near Haywards Heath SUS-180108-150731001

Four generations of the Stephenson Clarke family have developed the 200-acre estate and lived in the historic Tudor house there.

But it is its current custodians Andrewjohn Stephenson Clarke and his wife Eleni who have spent the past 30 years developing the garden further not only as a plant hunter’s paradise, but also as a fun destination for families – and even their pet dogs.

Andrewjohn inherited the estate when his father died soon after the Great Storm of 1987. “I was the youngest of three children and didn’t expect to live here,” he said.

“But after my father died it was made known to me that he had chosen me as the person to inherit. It was unexpected but it was a delight.”

Eleni and Andrewjohn Stephenson Clarke SUS-180108-151005001

Eleni and Andrewjohn Stephenson Clarke SUS-180108-151005001

Andrewjohn had grown up on the edge of the estate in West Hoathly. “The countryside and landscape to me have always been very important.”

But, he confesses: “I’m not naturally a gardener. My wife Eleni is the person who knows so much about plants and has a great enthusiasm for them.”

The garden itself – now a series of tranquil garden rooms – was first developed by Andrewjohn’s great grandfather Colonel Stephenson R Clarke. He sponsored many of the Great Plant Hunters’ expeditions from 1893 to 1937 to collect seeds of shrubs and trees from across the world.

He then had them planted at Borde Hill, creating a unique collection which continues to thrive to this day.

But the historic garden – now listed as of Grade II importance by English Heritage – has also been constantly evolving. Each of its ‘garden rooms’ has a different character and style.

Said Andrewjohn: “When we first moved here 30 years ago we had little children. We therefore looked at the garden and thought where do we go forward? We thought what do people with children and dogs do if they can’t take them with them?”

It signalled the beginning of a dog-friendly garden, the building of a children’s playground and the introduction of lots of children’s activities. “We extended the nature of the garden to be much more inclusive of modern everyday life.

“We have also looked at how we manage the enormous asset of the great plant hunters that doesn’t just stand still.”

The development of the newest garden project – the Round Dell – has done just that. It is set within a dell that was once excavated for stone to build the house.

Andrewjohn and Eleni commissioned garden designer Sophie Walker to create a space incorporating existing exotic palms and plants from the early 1900s as well as rare, new and unusual species collected by modern-day 21st century plant hunters.

Among them is a specimen of the Asian tree Zanthoxylum ailanthoides – one of Andrewjohn’s favourites – which has long finger-like pronounced leaves and white-yellow flowers.

Another popular part of the estate is the Italian garden on the site of a former tennis court, first developed by Andrewjohn’s father, with a central rectangular pool. “We love going to Italy and looking at Italian gardens with their combination of simplicity and structure,” said Andrewjohn.

Borde Hill’s Italian garden has since been ‘constantly evolving’ with designer beds around the pool, an Italian terrace, formal box plants, both green and variegated, and a variety of flowers blooming at various times of year “but no yellow. Italian gardens do not have yellow,” said Andrewjohn.

But it is not just the magnificent plants that now attract visitors to Borde Hill. A string of events are staged throughout the year offering something for everyone from outdoor opera to horse trials, and a Magical Festival to a gathering of Harley Davidson bikes – along with free ‘musical Sundays’ every weekend in August – and a whole lot more.

“You never get bored at Borde Hill,” said Andrewjohn.