“Just after we bought the place I went out into the overgrown gardens. It was pouring with rain and standing under a tree on the other side of the lake was a wallaby. He stared at me then raised his paw. I felt like he was giving me his blessing.”
Adam Streeter, Estate Manager of Leonardslee Gardens, admits he didn’t quite realise what he was getting into when he purchased the place. He didn’t even know about the wallabies, which are the first thing people ask him about when they hear the gardens are re-opening.
These resilient animals have survived very well on their own. Adam was amazed to see them, although they’re pretty elusive having run wild for so long. Maternity pens have been created near the house for the mothers and their joeys to give them the best start in life but once they’re strong enough they’re left to fend for themselves, as they always have.
They were playing least-in-sight as we took a stroll with Adam through the gardens.
With just 30 days before the re-opening there was still masses to be done but even on this grey and grizzly day things were beginning to take shape.
“I couldn’t believe I’d been living around the corner for about two years and didn’t know it existed. We started exploring the history and planning what we could do with the estate, should we take it on. It was obvious it was going to be a mammoth task, but it was exciting.”
Way back in my childhood, Leonardslee was a family favourite day out. After a car ride along winding country roads which seemed to take an eternity we’d be let free, clad in jumpers and wellies, to run and explore everything from the tiny stone bridges across the mini waterfalls to the wildness of the deer park. And of course we’d take shelter under the leaves of what we knew as the giant rhubarb tree, down by the lake.
Today those plants are cut back for the winter, but Adam assures me they’ll grow back with renewed vigour. The beautiful magnolia of my memory is just coming into bloom and yes, the handkerchief tree is still going strong. We were too early for most of the rhododendrons and azaleas but the camellia walk was beginning to come into its own.
Adam says he loves to hear from people who remember the gardens in their heyday and hopes no-one will be disappointed at the restoration. They’ve even built a new jetty for the local model boat club who used to sail there. “I was so pleased when they got in touch and asked to start coming again.”
Leonardslee is a Grade 1 listed garden so they’ve been very careful to keep it as close to the original as possible. A dedicated team of gardeners has been working to catalogue the collection of nearly 10,000 trees and shrubs. They’ve been helped by previous gardeners who’ve given them handwritten notes on most of the plants and they’re working with Kew Gardens to conserve them.
All this happened by chance.
“We were house-hunting, looking for somewhere that was near Mannings Heath golf club which we run. We’d seen a lovely cottage but on the way back from the viewing my mother (entrepreneur Penny Streeter OBE) saw the For Sale signs and, being the sort of person she is, she went in to have a look. When she got back to us she said ‘I’ve found your house.’ I said, ‘What the cottage we’ve just seen?’ She replied ‘No, this place’ and handed over the details.”
“The next day we came and viewed the property and fell in love.”
They had no idea of Leonardslee’s history or the fond place it held in local people’s memories but decided it was perfect, both as a home and business opportunity.
The path to restoration has not been smooth. First of all it was wildly overgrown after nearly ten years of neglect and it took a while to even find all the paths. Secondly the planning permission the previous owners had arranged had just one month left to run.
“We tried to get an extension but it wasn’t possible so we had to go back round the whole thing again; ecological surveys, plans and so on.”
And those surveys threw up even more snags. “We’ve had to replace all the old Victorian waterworks, the lakes and streams were clogged with algae, paths and bridges were unsafe and then they found evidence of a rare newt so work had to stop until our guest left the pond!”
The garden work had to be put on hold but the restoration of the 19th century Italianate mansion went ahead. The house, home to the Loder family for generations, was never open to the public but now it’s been restored as a restaurant, wedding and events venue and the perfect setting for a traditional afternoon tea.
I ask Adam what’s been the biggest challenge and he looks a bit nonplussed.
“I have to say all of it. Under every stone there was a different issue, things we thought would be simple turned out not to be simple at all.”
But now they’re almost there and they have plans to keep on improving the estate.
“We’ve planted some firs and are hoping that in a few years Leonardslee Christmas trees will be a popular sideline. We want to get black swans back and have been offered some peacocks for rehoming. The deer park is being carefully managed to build the herd back up to strength. We have the potential to open up a bed and breakfast, but that’s for another day.”
For now Adam’s just thrilled to have both house and gardens ready for visitors.
“Looking back at all the old photos and comparing then to now we think we’re getting there.”
More information about Leonardslee Gardens
The gardens are open exclusively for members from 30 March and will re-open to the public on 6 April 2019.
Details of admission prices can be found on their website but it’s worth noting they are a cash-free zone for security reasons, so payment is by card only.
Well behaved dogs are welcome but there are wallabies, deer and other wildlife on site.
The upper parts of the garden are wheelchair and pushchair-friendly but some of the paths are steep and uneven and there are a number of open and unfenced ponds and streams.
We took more than two hours to stroll round the gardens and still didn’t see it all, so be prepared to stay a while.