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Discover the Enchanting Secrets of Wakehurst in Sussex

wakehurst house in front of a lake

Nestled in the lush landscape of West Sussex lies a hidden gem that beckons nature lovers and adventure seekers alike: Wakehurst, Kew’s wild botanical garden. With its sprawling gardens, rich biodiversity, and captivating history, Wakehurst offers a magical escape into the world of plants.

As a National Trust member, we often visit Wakehurst, just outside Ardingly in West Sussex. The sprawling estate has been managed by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew since 1965, and is the perfect place to spend the day, with 535 acres of gardens, buildings and waterways to explore.

A Walk Through Wakehurst’s History

a girl under an archway of plants

Wakehurst’s story begins in the late 16th century with the construction of a stately mansion. Over the centuries, the estate changed hands among various notable families, each adding layers of charm and history to the property.

In 1963, the estate was leased to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, marking the beginning of its transformation into a conservation and science hub.

the roof of Wakehurst mansion
Unfortunately, the mansion itself was under restoration on my visit, but you could climb to the top and watch the contractors in action!

The mansion itself, an Elizabethan house enhanced in the Victorian era, is a Grade I listed building and serves as a mesmerizing backdrop to the botanical gardens. It’s not just the architecture that tells a story but also the rich tapestry of plants and wildlife that flourish here, a testament to centuries of cultivation and care.

The house itself is currently undergoing a huge roof restoration project (as of April 2024), but it is the gardens that bring back visitors time and time again. Even though I have visited Wakehurst Gardens several times, I always find somewhere new to explore each time we go.

Wakehurst Botanical Gardens

a lake with trees

Spanning over 500 acres, Wakehurst is divided into several garden areas, each with its own unique touch. The formal gardens near the mansion feature intricate designs and a variety of exotic and native plants. In contrast, the wilder areas of Wakehurst are home to natural woodlands and wetlands, offering a sanctuary for local wildlife and a green oasis for visitors.

red floral bush

The grounds are separated into distinct areas –

  • Mansion Gardens near the house
  • The Asian Health Garden
  • American Prairie
  • Bethlehem Wood
  • Children’s Walled Garden
  • Himalayan Glade
  • Iris Dell
  • Mansion Pond
  • Rock Walk
  • Westwood Lake and Valley
  • Wetlands Broadwalk
  • Winter Garden
a curved walkway with stone fence

One of the standout features of Wakehurst is the Loder Valley Nature Reserve. This reserve is a haven for bird watchers and nature enthusiasts, with its hidden valleys and calm water. The reserve is carefully managed to preserve its natural ecosystems, making it a perfect spot for peaceful hikes and wildlife spotting.

Unfortunately, it is currently closed for conservation work due to ash dieback which is a deadly fungus affecting ash trees.

a small bridge over a stream

However, my favourite spot at Wakehurst is the Iris Dell and Bog Garden. A stream runs through the area with boardwalks and waterfalls and over 70 species of flowers from bright pinks to deep blues. There are benches throughout the walk where you can stop with a coffee and enjoy all that nature has to offer.

a path over a stream with a bright pink bush

It is a wonderfully peaceful sanctuary, where you can easily forget your worldly troubles and I didn’t want to leave.

A Walking Paradise

a forest with bluebells

Once you pass through the Iris Dell and Bog Garden, there are several paths leading you towards the Himalayan Glade and Westwood Valley. The paths can be quite steep, so a good pair of walking shoes is a must! The rhododendrons were starting to bloom on my visit and the woods were covered in bluebells.

the wetlands with a bridge

At the bottom of the valley are the Wetlands, Westwood Lake and Coronation Meadow. The Wetlands Boardwalk weaves through a huge array of wetland plants that attract birds and insect life and the occasional duck.

Coronation Meadow opens from May to October and is exactly what you would expect. A huge expanse of beautiful native wildflowers, which is part of a research project with the University of Sussex to measure and evaluate grassland restoration.

a lake with a boathouse

You could spend hours here in itself, but with my tummy rumbling for lunch, I headed back up through the Himalayan Glade with sandstone cliffs. It has an exotic feel with huge rhododendron bushes and streams providing a peaceful backdrop.

The Millenium Seed Bank

millenium seed bank at wakehurst

At its heart, Wakehurst is a centre for botanical science and conservation. The Millennium Seed Bank, the world’s largest underground seed bank, is a global project aimed at saving seeds from the world’s most endangered plants.

This fascinating facility is not only crucial for global biodiversity efforts but also offers visitors a glimpse into the scientific work that goes into plant conservation.

inside the millenium seed bank

The Millenium Seed Bank houses over 2.3 billion seeds from 97 countries and represents over 39,000 different species of the world’s seeds. It contains almost all of the UK’s native plant species and visitors can see the seed vaults whilst learning about the processes of collecting, drying, and storing seeds.

yellow flowers outside the millenium seed bank

It’s a unique opportunity to understand the behind-the-scenes efforts in preserving our planet’s plant life and you can watch scientists and botanists working in their white coats behind glass.

There was a school tour in progress when I visited and I listened as the tour guide explained how they were still working with many developing countries to get their seeds into the bank. It is an expensive business and unfortunately, many countries cannot commit to the programme!

Rock Walk and Coates Wood

a small bridge in woods

If you’re visiting with kids, you can’t miss Coates Wood and the Rock Walk, just to the right of the Millennium Seed Bank. Our kids absolutely love the Tree Trunk Trek and we spent a good hour here with a picnic whilst they climbed the trek.

Coates Wood has eucalyptus, Wollemi pine and southern beech trees lining a path with a viewer’s seat overlooking Bloomers Valley. There is also a Children’s Walled Garden and Mud Kitchen, which makes Wakehurst Kew Gardens the perfect place for a family day out.

Eating and Drinking at Wakehurst

an old house and gardens

All this walking and playing is thirsty work and thankfully Wakehurst has the Stables Kitchen and Pantry, located next to the Mansion and Seed’s Cafe, located at the entrance, if you forgot to pack yourself a picnic.

The cafes and restaurants offer dishes prepared with locally sourced ingredients, including herbs and vegetables grown in the gardens. The Stables restaurant, set in an old stable block, provides a rustic yet elegant dining experience with views of the gardens.

The entrance also has a huge shop where you can buy anything from garden plants to books.

Getting to and Parking at Wakehurst

Address: Ardingly, Haywards Heath, Sussex, RH17 6TN

Wakehurst is easy to get to. It is 25 minutes south of the M25 and 30 minutes north of Brighton, nestled in the High Weald. Visitors who travel to Wakehurst by bike or public transport receive a 50% discount on their tickets!

Parking is free for general admission and Kew and Wakehurst members. If you are a National Trust Member, it is free to get in, but car park charges apply. There are currently no electric car charging stations, but they are working on it!

For the best experience, it’s advisable to check the weather forecast and dress appropriately for outdoor exploration. Comfortable walking shoes are a must and don’t forget to bring a camera to capture the stunning scenery and wildlife.

Events at Wakehurst

an artistic paper lantern installation
Image: Wakehurst

Like most National Trust and Kew Gardens, there are plenty of events throughout the year. The most notable is the award-winning “Glow Wild“.

It is a Christmas event that normally runs from late November to early January, where thousands of hand-crafted paper lanterns light up the gardens and lead you on a nighttime trail full of animal and artistic installations.

Other events include –

  • Planet Wakehurst – a photo montage projected onto the mansion whilst the restoration is ongoing
  • COP26 display – a display aiming to inspire a love for nature
  • Daily guided walking tour of Wakehurst
  • Forest Bathing – exploring the Japanese art of Shinrin-yoku
  • Badger watching evening
  • Spring foraging course
wakehurst gardens

Wakehurst is a place of beauty, mystery, and scientific inquiry, offering something for everyone. Whether you are a plant enthusiast, a history buff, a family seeking a day out, or someone looking to escape into nature, Wakehurst promises an enchanting and enlightening experience.

It is somewhere we go back to time and time again.

wakehurst kew gardens pinterest pin

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