The world-famous Highdown Gardens will celebrate 50 years in the ownership of Worthing Borough Council today.
It is extremely rare that a garden of such importance is under municipal control and to celebrate the Council is placing a memorial bench in the Millennium Garden on the anniversary of the day 50 years ago that Lady Sybil Stern handed over the gardens on the wishes of her husband, Sir Frederick.
The Sterns created the world’s first chalk garden high up on Highdown Hill at the beginning of the 20th Century. Sir Frederick sponsored swashbuckling plant hunting expeditions to China and the Far East to bring back exotic plants which thrived on the chalk and are still there today.
Sir Frederick, who died in 1967, stipulated that the Council should look after the gardens using his famous book A Chalk Garden as a reference and ever since then a succession of head gardeners and their staff have been dedicated to keeping his legacy alive.
Thanks to the never ceasing work, expertise and dedication of Council head gardeners including John Bassendale, Ron Read, Chris Beardsley, Jo Hooper and Gary Prescod, their staff and an army of volunteers the gardens continue to win plaudits from gardening experts and visitors from around the world.
And last month the Council was awarded a Heritage Lottery Fund grant of almost £100,000 to explore ways of preserving and enhancing the gardens further. A new visitor centre is planned and an archivist and plant expert would be employed to tell the remarkable story of the gardens and record the stunning variety of plants thriving in the grounds.
The landmark anniversary on Monday February 19 follows the first Highdown 50 event in June 2017 which marked the 50th anniversary of Sir Frederick Stern’s death.
Worthing Borough Council’s Executive Member for the Environment, Cllr Diane Guest, said: “Every visit to the gardens fills me with pride and gratitude to those who work hard to maintain Sir Frederick’s vision. It’s a true gem and without the passion of the Highdown team and the volunteers the integrity of Stern’s legacy would be lost.”
The Mayor of Worthing, Councillor Alex Harman who will be in attendance at the anniversary event said: “Highdown is a very special place to come whether to enjoy a day out in nature or visiting to explore Stern’s impressive ability to grow in seemingly impossible conditions.
“It’s a testament to the amazing efforts of the Highdown team to stay true to Stern’s growing techniques since Sir Frederick’s widow, Lady Sybil, handed over the gardens to the people of Worthing”
As well as the newly installed commemorative bench, the Millennium Garden is receiving a facelift as part of wider plans to preserve Highdown’s future following the successful Heritage Lottery Fund bid.
Hard landscaping has already began with hardwood bark chips being laid around the newly created island beds. The sunny location and dry, chalk ground is a prime site to welcome a botanical style herb garden in the Spring.
Of the plans, Interim Head Gardener Gary Prescod said:
“I envision the air being fragrant with the sun-baked oils of lavender, rosemary, pinks, and fennel. A delicious place to sit and dream of the Mediterranean, before dropping down to the coast for a dip in the English channel!”
In a busy year for the gardens, several of its rare plant specimens have been selected as valuable additions to Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst Place, West Sussex.
Previously Sarah Gattiker of the Millennium Seed Partnership wrote: “We are very happy to support the efforts of Worthing Borough Council to conserve the special collections at Highdown Gardens. This seed collection is the first step of a long-term project to preserve the genetic importance of the plants grown by Sir Frederick Stern at Highdown.”