County News: Video - a look round Leonardslee Gardens
An army of gardeners and builders are racing against time to restore one of Britain's finest gardens back to its former glory after it was left deserted for seven years.
The landscaped woodland gardens - at Leonardslee in Lower Beeding - once attracted around 50,000 visitors a year before being closed to the public in 2010 and becoming overgrown.
Now many are looking forward eagerly to visiting the gardens again when they re-open to the public on March 1.
Meanwhile, we were asked to a special preview of the massive restoration work now being undertaken there.
The gardens span 200 acres with a steep sandstone valley in which there is a series of seven man-made ponds, alpine glasshouses and a rock garden built in 1890.
The gardens were left to grow wild for seven years before being bought in July by South African-based entrepreneur Penny Streeter, who also owns nearby Mannings Heath Golf Course and Wine Estate.
Son Adam Streeter, general manager of the estate, said Penny had discovered Leonardslee by chance.
“She saw a For Sale sign, got a brochure then just fell in love with it.”
But, he said, the scale of the restoration was massive.
“The gardens are Grade 1 listed and every tree has to be documented and checked.”
And when the garden gates are once more opened this spring, visitors will be delighted to find that they are still home to a colony of wallabies which have grazed the gardens for more than a century.
The capable creatures managed to survive and thrive while the estate was deserted and neglected. As well as the wallabies, the estate is home to two herds of deer: fallow and sika.
Now a team of 17 gardeners - under head gardener Lee Meredith - and 30 builders are working hard on a multi-million-pound project to bring back the gardens to their once-manicured condition.
Meanwhile, builders are renovating the garden’s mansion house - formerly used as offices - with the aim of opening that also to the public later in the year.
It is planned to use part of the Grade II listed 19th-century Italianate style house as tea rooms, along with a fine-dining restaurant.
It is also planned to hold weddings and other events there and to establish bed and breakfast accommodation in a converted stable area.
The gardens were first planted in 1801 and are noted for the outstanding spring displays of rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias, magnolias and bluebells. There are also magnificent trees and huge gunnera bordering the estate’s ponds.
Also among the attractions at Leonardslee - close to the mansion house - is a unique miniature display - doll’s house exhibition, depicting the Edwardian estate and neighbouring villages.
That, too, is currently undergoing a facelift and will once more be open for public viewing in March.
But parts of the renovation will take longer.
Manager Adam Streeter said they were looking at a five-year project which might also include planting some vines on the estate and establishing a winery, as well as developing picnic areas in the deer park.