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24th September 2019: Royal visits span the abdication crisis in untold Highdown history

The secret history of Highdown Gardens will be revealed as part of a project to preserve the world-famous landmark.

The story of the famous visitors who travelled to marvel at the gardens created by Sir Frederick Stern and his wife Lady Sybil will be part of the story told thanks to a grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund to owners Worthing Borough Council.

Pictures, some never seen before, of Royal visitors to Sterns' home, Highdown House, during the 30s will form part of a permanent exhibition at the gardens to be housed in a new visitors' centre.

They reveal private visits to the Sterns from among others Edward, Prince of Wales, in 1933, just three years from his abdication of the throne which plunged the Royal Family into crisis.

Photo: Edward VIII, Prince of Wales, pictured outside Highdown House

PR19-135 - Edward VIII, Prince of Wales, pictured outside Highdown House

During that period Elizabeth, Duchess of York and her husband Prince Albert, soon to assume the throne from his disgraced brother, also visited and are pictured in the garden.

Other stories include visits from Queen Mary, the Queen Mother who planted a hornbeam tree which is now a magnificent specimen, and former Prime Minister David Lloyd George who was a friend of Sir Frederick and with whom he went to the Versailles Peace Conference in the aftermath of World War One.

Photo: Queen Mary visits to plant a hornbeam in the gardens

PR19-135 - Queen Mary visits to plant a hornbeam in the gardens

Photo: David Lloyd George pictured with his daughter Megan in the gardens

PR19-135 - David Lloyd George pictured with his daughter Megan in the gardens

Sir Frederick became obsessed with his battle to grow native and exotic trees and plants on the chalky soil of Highdown Hill, even though experts told him it was hopeless. Despite writing much about his horticultural experiments very little is known about his personal and social life.

The glimpse of a fascinating period in the history Highdown Gardens was discovered in the West Sussex Records Office by Adur & Worthing Councils' Head of Communications, Michael Gilson, while researching for an MA in Garden and Landscape History at the University of London.

Discover 'The Hidden History of Highdown Gardens', with Michael Gilson, below...

Cllr Edward Crouch, Worthing Borough Council's Executive Member for Digital and Environmental Services, said:

"We all know that Highdown is a vitally important garden, home to hundreds of rare exotic species and a living example of horticultural triumph over adversity. That is why Worthing Borough Council, thanks to the National Lottery Heritage Fund, is taking steps to ensure we preserve its legacy.

"These stories from the social side of Highdown will be just as fascinating to many people and are a crucial part of the rich history of the place. Certainly I was fascinated by the stories which will form part of the story we tell visitors when the new Highdown opens."

The Heritage Fund award of £800,000 will help save the exotic rare plants that grow there and enhance the visitor experience.The cash injection will enable garden experts to catalogue, preserve and propagate the hundreds of rare species that grow on the slopes and the old garden bungalow on the site is to be remodelled and turned into a visitors' centre, new walkways are to be created and the full astonishing story of the house and gardens to be told. A new wheelchair accessible sensory garden will also be created.

Work on the project will start next year with a finish date in 2022.

Photo: Artist's impression of the new visitor centre

PR19-135 - Highdown Visitor Centre

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26th June 2019: Worthing's Highdown Gardens wins crucial funding to preserve future and tell full amazing story of world-famous landmark

Celebrations are underway today after Worthing's world-famous gardens at Highdown received a major financial boost to help preserve their future.

National Lottery Heritage Fund (340)

The National Lottery Heritage Fund has awarded the 'jewel in the crown' site more than £800,000 for a project which will help save the exotic rare plants that grow there and to enhance the visitor experience.

The 8.5 acre gardens, internationally important because they are home to hundreds of rare plants and trees uniquely grown on chalk soil, are visited by tens of thousands of people every year.

Sir Frederick Stern (340)

Worthing Borough Council has owned and maintained the gardens free-of-charge to visitors for more than 50 years since the death of their creator Sir Frederick Stern.

Now the cash injection will enable garden experts to catalogue, preserve and propagate the hundreds of rare species that grow on the slopes on Highdown Hill.

In addition the old garden bungalow on the site is to be remodelled and turned into a visitors' centre, new walkways are to be created and the full astonishing story of the house and gardens to be told. A new wheelchair accessible sensory garden will also be created.

Work on the project will start next year with a finish date in 2022. The gardens will remain open for all but a few months of this time.

Worthing Borough Council's Executive Member for the Environment, Cllr Edward Crouch, said:

“I'm so pleased we have been successful in winning this much-needed funding for our jewel in the crown site. We have a proud history of maintaining the gardens and people will no doubt be delighted to know that we will be maintaining free-of-charge entry while extending its appeal to different members of our community.”

“Critically, we shall be protecting the horticultural heritage for generations to come, just as Stern wished when he gifted the gardens to the people of Worthing back in 1968.”

Sir Frederick moved to Highdown Towers, now a hotel and restaurant, in 1909 and began a project to expand and develop a garden using exotic plants brought back from places such as China and Bhutan by intrepid hunters.

Highdown was designated a National Collection in 1989 to recognise that Sir Frederick had proved something most experts told him he could not; to grow plants on terrain with just a few inches of soil above chalk.

Today, the main risk to the heritage at Highdown Gardens is horticultural: loss of plants due to age, the fragility of the chalk environment given climate change.

The National Lottery Heritage Fund award of more than £800,000 to the Council will allow the Council's Highdown staff to:

  • Undertake a propagation programme to save the endangered National Plant Collection (threatened by climate change, disease, visitor behaviour);
  • Convert the old gardener's bungalow into a visitor engagement centre where previously hidden stories about the Sterns, the gardens, their visitors and the plants can be told;
  • Partner with the West Sussex Records Office to digitise and make freely available the important archive of Stern's life work;
  • Improve access with accessible pathways, extended opening hours and a wheelchair-accessible Sensory Garden;
  • Develop new activities and resources to encourage a love and respect for this fragile environment;
  • Partner with local schools, colleges, community groups and mental health charities to support volunteering, social and well-being activities in the gardens.

With this £800,000 second round award following a first round award of £96,500 to help with development costs, the Heritage Fund has now invested more than £900,000 of Lottery players' money in Highdown Gardens.

See also: National Lottery Heritage Fund website

Video: A tour of Highdown's upcoming improvements with Gary Prescod, Project Manager for the Lottery Bid

Artist's impression of the new visitor centre

Artists impression of the new visitor centre

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17th December 2018: Public invited to see plans to secure future of Highdown Gardens

Plans to improve Highdown Gardens for visitors while protecting the internationally important plants that grow there was the subject of a public consultation event (on Monday 7th January 2019).

Worthing Borough Council, which owns and maintains the gardens, is seeking a Heritage Lottery Fund grant to develop a long-term survival plan for the landmark which is open free to the public.

The gardens, internationally important because they are home to hundreds of rare and exotic plants and trees uniquely grown on chalk soil, are visited by tens of thousands of people every year.

The Fund has awarded almost £100,000 to the Council to develop a new plan for the 8.5 acre-gardens which will include:

  • Action to preserve plants which could be crucial to stopping extremely rare specimens becoming extinct
  • The establishment of propagation processes to ensure the survival of the rare plants.
  • The building of a new visitor centre to tell the story of the gardens and its surrounding landscape
  • Plans to tell the fascinating story of the originator of the gardens, Sir Frederick Stern, and his contribution to worldwide horticulture
  • Proposals to develop community ownership of the gardens through a full volunteer programme

This plan is being finalised before being submitted to the HLF to secure more than £800,000 to pay for the project.

Project Team members and the architect were available to talk through the plans at the public consultation which took place on Monday 7th January 2019 in the Gordon Room, Worthing Town Hall, Chapel Road, Worthing. All are welcome.

Attached: artist's impression of what the new visitor centre might look like

Artist's impression of what the new visitor centre might look like (744)

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20th February 2018: A salute to 50 years of Borough Council ownership

Highdown 50 logo

Volunteers, visitors and special guests gathered to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Worthing Borough Council taking over world-famous Highdown Gardens.

At a special ceremony on Monday (19th February 2018) the Mayor of Worthing, Cllr Alex Harman unveiled a plaque on a bench in the Millennium Garden section of Highdown to commemorate the hand-over.

“I am proud that our predecessors took on the challenge of preserving the legacy of this magnificent garden and want to pay tribute to all the head gardeners, staff and volunteers who have ensured that it remains a jewel in our crown,” he said.

Fifty years ago on Monday Lady Sybil Stern handed over the gardens on the wishes of her late 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.

The Mayor made special mention of the head gardeners who worked for the Borough Council to keep the gardens as Sir Frederick planned them.

The first municipal head gardener was John Bassingdale followed by Ron Read, Chris Beardsley, Jo Hooper and Gary Prescod. Mr Bassingdale's daughter Mary-Anne Hedges who lived in the current gardener's bungalow and who still volunteers at Highdown was present for the unveiling.

Worthing Borough Council Executive Member for the Environment, Cllr Diane Guest, said:

“Highdown is such an important garden and is one of the only such places owned and maintained by a local authority.”

“I think we have just reason for pride that we have keep Sir Frederick's legacy alive and well for the last 50 years.”

Highdown was horticulturally important in the first half of the 20th Century because Sir Frederick grew exotic plants from around the world on soil thought inhospitable to any growth.

Under the Borough Council the gardens have been designated a National Collection and have been awarded a Green Flag.

See also: Millenium Garden

Photo: Jo Hooper, Highdown Gardens manager, and mayor Alex Harman on the new bench in the Millenium Garden, with staff, volunteers and councillors

Jo Hooper, Highdown Gardens manager, & Mayor Alex Harman, with staff, volunteers and councillors (744)

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19th December 2017: Highdown Gardens wins lottery funding for project to protect its future

Worthing's world-famous gardens at Highdown have received a major boost with the award of Lottery funding to help preserve their future.

The gardens, internationally important because they are home to hundreds of rare and exotic plants and trees uniquely grown on chalk soil, are visited by tens of thousands of people every year.

Worthing Borough Council, which owns and maintains the gardens, has now successfully applied for Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) money to develop a long-term survival plan for the landmark which is open free to the public.

The Fund has awarded almost £100,000 to the Council to develop a new plan for the 8.5 acre-gardens which will include;

Action to preserve plants which could be crucial to stopping extremely rare specimens becoming extinct

The establishment of breeding processes to ensure the survival of the rare plants.

The building of a new visitor centre to tell the story of the gardens and its surrounding landscape

Plans to tell the fascinating story of the originator of the gardens, Sir Frederick Stern, and his contribution to worldwide horticulture

Proposals to develop community ownership of the gardens through a full volunteer programme

Worthing Borough Council's Executive Member for the Environment, Cllr Diane Guest, said:

“I'm delighted to hear about the award of HLF Stage One money. Highdown Gardens is a jewel in our crown and I think the Council can be justifiably proud of our work keeping Sir Frederick Stern's legacy intact.”

“However this money will allow us to develop a plan which will preserve the future of Highdown, its important plant collection and increase enjoyment for the tens of thousands of visitors who enjoy the gardens every year.”

Highdown was designated a National Collection in 1989 to recognise that Sir Frederick had proved something most experts told him he could not; to grow plants on terrain with just a few inches of soil above chalk. Chalky soils are notoriously difficult to grow on.

Sir Frederick moved to Highdown Towers, now a hotel and restaurant, in 1909 and began a project to expand and develop a garden using exotic plants brought back from places such as China and Bhutan by intrepid hunters.

He left the gardens to the Council after his death in 1967. Next year will be the 50th anniversary of the Council taking ownership. Now the authority wants to bring the story of the gardens to life and begin plans to create an archive of all materials, letters and, plant records concerning Stern's project for the use of garden researchers and visitors.

Plans are also being developed to catalogue the number of different species in the garden, protect the valuable plants from damage, improve disabled access, extend opening hours in the summer, rebuild the greenhouses and provide interactive displays for families.

The Council now has a year to bring together more research and costing for the projects, involve partners and then submit a full second round application for the full cost of the scheme.

Attached: artist's impression of what the new visitor centre might look like

Artist's impression of what the new visitor centre might look like (744)

See also: Safeguarding the Future of Highdown Gardens - Survey

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