A small brook cuts through the grass-covered slope. It widens into a series of ponds with various shrubs and small trees clustered around the edges, among them fiery red Japanese maples (Acer palmatum). Beyond are the wooded hills of the High Weald. We head downhill. Gradually the terrain becomes steeper, the smooth slope turns into a series of dips and hollows. Here trees dominate the landscape. Majestic tupelos (Nyssa sylvatica ‘High Beeches’) come into view. Their foliage is a stunning gradient of orange, beginning with soft yellow and almost reaching the brightest red. A little while ago the rain stopped. The air is crisp and clear and the sun presents the trees in front of the bluest sky. It’s almost a bit too Technicolor to be real. But then, we are here at the perfect moment, it seems.
It is October and my Englishman and I are at High Beeches, a 25 acre garden near Handcross in West Sussex. This is one of our favourite gardens. It is curiously unknown despite its location almost within walking distance of several popular gardens like Nyman’s, Wakehurst Place, Borde Hill and Leonardslee. Since discovering High Beeches a while ago we have come at least once a year. We have seen it in different seasons but, until now, never at the height of autumn.
Behind the tupelo trees the path branches and becomes a complex network, disappearing into small valleys here, leading up steep banks there. My Englishman is photographing something while I notice an unusually tree. Its branches are almost transparent with a hint of copper. I walk across the grass towards it and find the leaves are folded upwards. Their underside is pale peach, from above they are deep magenta. Interesting how the leaves’ colours mix in the distance while the papery bark is always copper-coloured, even close-up. I find a sign identifying the tree as ‘Stewartia monodelpha’. The genus is native to Asia and America and High Beeches holds the UK’s National Collection.
On the side of a steep slope at the far end of the garden I come across another tree in particularly subtle autumn colours. It’s a conifer with needles in unusual shades of ochre. A sign identifies it as a deciduous dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) from China, a living fossil because the species is the only living one of this genus.
At close inspection most plants in this garden are rare and exotic. In 1906 the twenty-two year old Colonel Giles H. Loder inherited this piece of land. Until his death sixty years later he planted everything an amateur botanist of the early 20th century cherished.
At the time devoting one’s life to creating such a landscape might not have been as extraordinary as it sounds today, particularly among the upper classes in this part of the world. Not a lot is known about Colonel Loder, but the horticultural and botanical interest of his social circle is well documented.
Colonel Loder’s uncle Edward laid out the gardens at nearby Leonardslee and became well known for hybridising Rhododendron (R. loderi). Another uncle developed the impressive gardens at Wakehurst Place. Colonel Loder was friends with many amateur plantspeople among them his neighbours at Nyman’s, the Messels, and Arthur Soames of nearby Sheffield Park. Colonel Loder swapped rare plants with his friends and relatives and like many of them he sponsored plant hunts, particularly to the Far East, all in an effort to add to his collection at High Beeches.
Yet interestingly, Colonel Loder’s garden is distinct from so many created around the same time. It seems, the most important design influence was another friend and neighbour, John G. Millais, a far-travelled naturalist and son of a famous painter. ‘Do not overcrowd, avoid over concentration on one genus and use only the best plants,’ was his planting advice, recorded in one of his books. Walking around the garden today I am amazed how precisely this description characterises High Beeches.
I climb a steep slope attracted by a red glow. High walls of forest green surround a grassed space, empty apart from a low, bulbous tree in its middle. This Japanese acer (Acer palmatum) is illuminated by the sun, like a sculpture in a gallery. As I come closer the delicate, fine-toothed leaves reveal ever more detail.
Numerous landscape gardens in England showcase the spectacle of colouring foliage. Exotic species are carefully selected for their enhanced vibrancy. Often they are arranged around a lake (like for instance at Sheffield Park), the colours mirrored on its still surface to double the effect like. Gardening or rather landscape design on this scale is impressive. But the result is a bit like a grand stage set. All visitors take the same photograph of the same meticulously composed view after following the same route from one viewpoint to the next. In short, it’s a predetermined experience.
High Beeches is different. There are no prescribed routes to follow, no obviously engineered views. The remarkably sparse planting opens a multitude of angles. Walking through the garden presents ever changing compositions of shapes, textures, colours. Every visitor is invited to find their own perspective.
Despite all the aesthetic interest here, nothing feels artificial. The naturalistic way of planting recommended by Mr Millais is definitely one explanation. But forest-like plant arrangement does not necessarily make a forest. For a plant display to become a sustainable ecosystem an infinitely complex society of organisms from fungi and woodland plants to insects and wild birds has to make it their home.
Encouraging and nurturing nature has been a priority for Anne and Edward Boscawen since they bought High Beeches in 1966. As keen amateur botanists they recognised the value of Colonel Loder’s creation. However, for the Boscawens High Beeches was never just an impressive collection of plants. Right from the beginning they saw themselves as custodians of an extraordinary landscape.
In the guide book the Boscawens describe their motto as ‘whenever possible, let well alone’. It is apparent that the garden is only interfered with if a plant becomes diseased or too dominant. Otherwise the fauna and flora is left undisturbed and so, over the years, the exotic plants have become an integral part of the local plant community.
In the grass I spot a group of native fly agaric mushrooms (Amanita muscaria), their tops covered in exactly the same intense orange gradient as the tupelo trees, only circular. A little further along the valley the colour palette is repeated in the fallen leaves of an exotic tree, a Persian ironwood tree (Parrotia persica), I believe.
Everything at High Beeches radiates calm, not only the garden. The visitor carpark feels like one of those remote ones, with a board showing circular walks in the surrounding countryside. The tiny ticket office at the entrance to High Beeches sells guide books and ice cream besides tickets. That’s it. There is no souvenir shop, nothing to detract from the garden.
On our previous visits to High Beeches we felt like we were the only visitors. Today it’s crowded, not unpleasantly, High Beeches is spacious enough, but definitely busier. When we arrived, about half an hour before the garden opened, there were already people waiting to get in. But maybe this is not surprising on the only sunny afternoon in a fortnight while the autumn colour display is at its peak.
As we return to the car, the carpark is full. I get into conversation with the friendly woman in a high-vis vest who is directing newly arriving cars to park in a field. Only later do I realise she is Sarah Bray, Anne and Edward Boscawen’s daughter who now manages the garden with her husband Jeremy.
‘This is probably our busiest day ever,’ she says. ‘A lot of people are finding us through Instagram.’ ‘Oh dear,’ I think, having a vision of the little ticket booth replaced by a huge visitor centre full of colourful teacups and exclusive offers on scented candles. I immediately feel guilty. What right have I got wishing to keep this place to ourselves? Just because we discovered it a while ago? And after all, more visitors do not mean the focus of this place will automatically shift from botany to candles. For over half a century the Boscawen/Bray family seem to have made a conscious decision to resist the commercialisation of the garden – despite the cost of its upkeep. What shines through is a seriousness about garden aesthetics as well as plant ecology that makes this garden stand out.
Later in the car I think that there are probably lots of people driving away from High Beeches today contemplating how wonderful it is that they discovered this magnificent garden.
Address: The High Beeches, High Beeches Lane, Sussex, RH17 6HQ, UK