Charles II was the one who switched the wood at Leonardslee into private ownership. It was a gift to his doctor. To this day it has not been built on much, and most of the owners have chosen to keep it open to the public and monetise it that way. It’s a sprawling garden now, with a little Michelin starred restaurant in the grounds (Interlude) and a little house of Portland Stone, and loads of space.
The gardens are spread out through a valley where in the 1700’s they were smelting iron. They dug and diverted a ton of reservoirs to make certain there was always waterflow to feed the mills. Now the industry is long gone, the aftermath is great fertility. The true beauty was added over decades at the end of the 19th Century by Sir Edmund Loder, free and rich and curious. He was into botany. He bred rhododendrons, creating many new and bright species that still thrive in the gardens. He chucked in a few sequoias and maples and eucalyptus and what have you. Then he shipped over tons of animals too because you know it’s the 1800’s, let’s just let them all run wild. Gazelles? Sure bring ’em in. Wallabies? God bless the little tykes. Beavers? Yep. We used to have them here anyway. Japanese deer? Let’s chase them! Maybe we can ride the gazelles? Or the kangaroos.
A big old film crew came to these incredible grounds in 1946, using Loder’s inspired and colorful botanical alchemy to make a corner of Sussex look like the Himalayas. They would have had to make sure the wallabies were out of shot. Black Narcissus was filmed here on location for the jungles, as well as at Pinewood. They won some academy awards for it, and it looks beautiful and convincing. There’s the space for all the winnebagos you’d need. I could imagine being on location there for a few weeks and having a lovely time. And maybe the absurdly tiny horse ridden very seriously by David Farrar is part of the eccentric Leonardslee menagerie.
It’s a bright, large, sprawling valley, semi wild, semi tamed. Good mushrooms. Good light. Most of the unusual animals are gone now though, taken to zoos. The gardens are only just recovering from atrocious neglect…
Some guy bought the place lock stock and barrel for just £5 million in 2010. He wanted to “preserve his anonymity”, so he locked the gates, got rid of most of the unusual animal denizens, and started to let the whole place go to seed. It’s hard to even find his name. Reading between the lines and digging on the internet I get the sense he barely showed up. He was a doctor from The Lebanon. I don’t think he really cared for the place at all.
The wallabies couldn’t be flushed out and sold to the zoo. They like it at Leonardslee and they are small enough to hide. They went feral. There’s a good breeding colony now in the grounds, found after mister private doctor gitface either karked it or flogged the place. The unusual deer are gone, but they got rid of the gazelles.
It’s now owned by a South African Hospitality Company. Somebody with vision managed to get it back from that idiot. They’ve done well, the saffers, to get a Michelin starred restaurant in there immediately. When I get my next big movie role maybe I’ll take you all there for a blob of something and a biscuit.
The South Africans have reopened the gardens (not cheap though. £13.50 I think. Although it’s .50p cheaper than the national trust).
There’s a vast wintery sound and light show called Leonardslee Illuminated happening in the evenings coming up for £18 smackers and I saw them building it and it looks incredible – THE MOON! (With earth behind). I’d go if I wasn’t in Jersey.
Lou and I had a very happy autumnal potter in the gorgeous cold. The hospitality company have brought in their mate the sculptor, so the grounds are filled with ambitious sculptures some of which have absolute poppycock written on the plaques. It’s kind of cute until you think of how much he probably sells these things for. I found myself inventing his character based on the evidence of his work. Some big blonde South African lad who stumbled into spirituality late in life when he was rich – all muscles and space, throwing out huge works of resin and stone and writing whatever the fuck came into his head next to them. A big man who has learnt to weep. I kept on getting annoyed with him but my monologues to Lou kept me entertained.
I loved Leonardslee. It’ll be amazing in Spring, although of course it’ll be much more crowded when the rhododendrons are all in bloom. The colours will be incredible. God… maybe I’m getting old, but I had a lovely time wandering around a garden on a Monday. Actor’s weekend.