A Gorgeous Garden and some gruesome facts!
It's 25 years since the Great Storm of 1987 that wreaked havoc across Southeast England. Arguably we've had a few 'great storms' since then, but the 1987 one really did change the landscape. Well-known views disappeared overnight as 75mph winds swept through and felled trees and shrubs – many of them centuries old – in their path. Ironically, though, there was a silver lining for visitors as many other vistas across the Sussex Weald reappeared that had long been hidden.
At Wakehurst Place, the country estate near Ardingly in West Sussex which is now linked with the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, the damage was keenly felt both in the gardens and in the surrounding woodland. More than 25,000 trees came crashing down and it took five years to clear the damage, let alone begin the restoration process. But in the aftermath of that storm features such as the Asian Heath Garden were created that are now much-loved parts of the scenery, and some of the trees planted then now reach 50ft (you might not be surprised to hear that they're eucalyptus).
This year another 200 new trees will be planted at Wakehurst Place, including Californian Redwoods raised from seed. Wakehurst is home to the Millennium Seed Bank, a mammoth project that aims to store seed from a quarter of the world's plant species, especially those that are under threat or have an obvious use. There's a fascinating, interactive exhibition dedicated to it and while keen botanists will be in their element it's for all ages and you don't need specialist knowledge to enjoy it – did you know, for instance, that the same castor oil plant whose seeds produce the stuff that powers racing cars and speedway bikes also produces the deadly poison ricin?
You could easily spend a whole day exploring the formal gardens and woodland that radiate outwards from Wakehurst's Elizabethan mansion; there are features for every season and through most of the year there are talks and courses as well as school holiday activities. Or why not combine your visit with a scout round nearby pretty Sussex villages? There's Balcombe, where the poet Shelley lived for a while, or West Hoathly, with its historic, timber-framed Priest House museum and its church, which dates from Norman times and has a rather unusual relic – a memorial to the last woman to be burned at the stake in England. One for the ghost-hunters, perhaps?