On a blisteringly hot day in August, I took a trip to the delightful West Dean Gardens, near Chichester, for a perfect day out in West Sussex. With international travel restrictions changing on an almost weekly basis, the lure to travel abroad this year had evaded me.
Instead, I was enjoying my “UK staycation” discovering beautiful places near home that I hadn’t visited before, and West Dean Gardens was high on my list, especially as it holds the title as one of “the Best Restored Gardens in England.”
With such an accolade, I headed off on the 90-minute drive from Surrey to check out whether it lived up to its title.
Covid-19 Safety Practices at West Dean Gardens
West Dean Gardens has Covid-19 safety practices in place with pre-booked timed ticket entry only. On arrival at the front gate, your name will be cross-checked off a list, and if you are too early for your allotted entry time, you will be invited to wait in the car park (free to visitors) or use your time to enjoy refreshments at the cafe.
Being the early bird that I am, we had arrived 30 minutes too early and so chose the latter option. The cafe was once home to the head garden but now offers guests secluded seating areas to enjoy coffee and cake (our choice) or light bites such as salads and sandwiches.
Orders and payment are taken as soon as you arrive at the cafe, in keeping with safety measures, and then you are shown to your charming seating area. PPE worn by staff makes you feel safe, and your goodies are brought directly to your table. I felt this was a well thought out setup and would recommend a visit to the cafe (and to try the delicious coffee cake) either before or after your time in the gardens.
Once I had finished my refreshments and my time slot was available, I headed to the admission kiosk and was crossed off a booking sheet, and that was it – I was in!
Entering the Gardens
The first thing that struck me as I entered the gardens was how vast they were; I was not sure I had expected a total of 90 acres! The views of the Sussex countryside were delightful. I was pleased to observe that due to the timed admittances, there were only a small amount of people entering the gardens with me, giving a chance for social distancing to be put into action.
West Dean Gardens are separated into different areas around the estate. From the walled garden with its fruit trees and Victorian glasshouses to the sunken garden with its 300ft pergola and thatched shelter adding to its charm, they all add a different dimension to your visit.
The Spring garden at the furthest point of West Dean has flint bridges, secluded seating areas and a river running through it!
West Dean’s Gardens History
West Dean Gardens date back to the 17th century when the original manor house was constructed. Two centuries later, in the early 1900s, the current flint-covered house replaced the original building, and the gardens were made bigger.
In the late 1900s, the house was bought by William James who rebuilt the glasshouses in the walled kitchen garden and constructed the magnificent 300ft pergola on the North Lawn. He continued to make alterations until his death.
The house and estate went on to be inherited by his son, Edward James, who later in life became an influential patron of the arts. He had connections to Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte at the start of their world-famous careers.
He set up the Edward James Foundation, which supports the work of West Dean College of Arts and Conservation, which is on the estate.
Sadly in the 1980s, a catastrophic storm ripped its way through the UK flattening everything in its path. West Dean Gardens bore witness to this with trees uprooted and extensive damage occurring. It took many years of restoration to get the gardens back to their original beauty, which can now be enjoyed by all.
West Dean’s Walled Garden
I love a walled garden and have done ever since reading “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett as a child. It was wonderful meandering along the pathways of West Dean’s two and a half acre restored walled garden, through the traditional Victorian garden layout of fruit trees, vegetable plots and cutting flowers.
Several Victorian glasshouses are still in use in the garden; however, during Covid-19, these aren’t accessible. Linger for a photograph outside the thatched garden cottage; this seemed to be a big attraction for visitors due to its quintessentially English design. If only I could have got inside!
West Dean’s Sunken Garden
The sunken garden area was so picturesque with the 300ft restored pergola covered in magnolia, honeysuckle, and other climbing varieties on one side and a cute thatched shelter on the other. On this blisteringly hot summer day, the shelter was perfect for escaping the sun’s rays for a while with fantastic views across the sunken gardens and out to the hills in the distance.
I loved the Latin wording on the steps, translated as “Look at the Present, Look at the Past, Look to the Future”. Very befitting for the current global situation we find ourselves having to adapt to our lives.
West Dean’s Pergola and Orangery
Walking along the pergola will take you to two more thatched shelters and then around to the manor house and college. West Dean’s Grade II listed Orangery is located here.
Originally built as a palm house, a popular addition to any wealthy estate in the 1900s, it was later converted to an Orangery (garden room) by Edward James. In the 1980s it changed purpose again becoming tea-rooms for garden visitors.
Today it is used as an art studio for West Dean College students.
West Dean College
The area to the front of the college building provides toilets and an outdoor refreshment stop offering the same food choices as the Gardeners cafe. A perfect spot underneath an oak tree with an elderflower juice was just what the doctor ordered as the temperature continued to rise.
Four-legged friends haven’t been forgotten at West Dean, with water bowls in several locations to keep them hydrated as well.
West Dean’s Spring Garden
Once fully hydrated ourselves, we went off to explore the Spring Garden with its flint bridges, pond and winding pathways leading through dense planting. Unfortunately, the River Lavant is winterbourne, meaning it dries up in the summer months, and so we couldn’t see the beautiful stream running through the garden. Despite that, it was still a pretty place to walk with lots of seating areas to have a quiet moment to yourself.
Several sculptures were sited in this area, white and surrealist in form, adding a modern spin to these centuries-old gardens.
West Dean’s Arboretum
St Roche’s Arbetoreum is the final resting place of the estate owner Edward James and a 2.5-mile circuit walk will allow sensational views of the Sussex Downs and back to the flint-faced college. In spring the arboretum is a mass of rhododendrons and azaleas, a spectacle to see for any garden lover.
On my visit, it was far too hot to attempt, and so I will return in the cooler months to enjoy this country walk and hopefully see the Spring Garden stream in full flow!
Gardeners Restaurant and Gift Shop
With my day at an end, I headed to the exit, which is through the gift/plant shop and out between the fruit trees – a fitting way out for such a beautiful place. West Dean has a licensed restaurant with indoor and terraced seating should you wish to have a meal before your drive home or continue your exploration of West Sussex.
West Dean Gardens are the perfect place to spend a morning, afternoon, or all day.
Take a picnic and find a sheltered spot to spend your time relaxing.
The grounds have evolved over the years and have developed into a wonderful place, and I would certainly agree that they deserve the accolade of one of
“the Best-Restored Gardens in England.”
Need to Know Information
I received complimentary tickets to West Dean Gardens; however, all opinions about this visit are my own.