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2021-06-01 - The Mayor of Worthing, Cllr Lionel Harman, opening the gardens with Jemima Stern, a relative of Sir Frederick

Revamped Highdown Gardens reopened after £1 million lottery investment

The Mayor of Worthing today (Tuesday, 01 June 2021) cut the ribbon to officially open the new look Highdown Gardens telling assembled guests the site “held a special place in all our hearts.”

Cllr Lionel Harman, the borough’s first citizen, said he was impressed with the £1 million renewal of the world-famous gardens which have been in the stewardship of Worthing Borough Council since they were handed over for the benefit of local residents more than 50 years ago.

The project has been mostly funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, helping increase accessibility to the gardens, as well as telling the fascinating social and horticultural story of its establishment between the World Wars and the work undertaken since by the Borough Council to maintain them.

Guests at the official ceremony included relatives of Sir Frederick Stern (photo right) and his wife Lady Sybil who established the world famous garden up on Highdown Hill despite being told it was impossible to grow exotic plants from around the world on its chalk soil.

Cllr Harman, who cut the ribbon alongside Jemima Stern, 14, said:

“Karen, the Mayoress, and I have many happy memories of spending some special times with our children and grandchildren at Highdown Gardens, I know generations of residents have also done so.”

A new visitors’ centre has replaced the old head gardener’s bungalow, new pathways allow wheelchair access from the entrance to the new building and onto a new sensory garden.

New greenhouses have also been built to help conserve plants and to breed some of the endangered species within the garden.

A new plant heritage officer has begun the task of discovering and cataloguing all of the plants that Stern grew in the garden, many of which came from China and the Far East, brought to Highdown by intrepid plant hunters.

Leader of Worthing Borough Council, Cllr Daniel Humphreys, told the guests the remarkable story of Highdown could now be fully told. He said:

“There have been many occasions I have brought my family up to Highdown and I am sure my children will grow up to treasure the Gardens as I have. I’d like to specifically thank the National Lottery Heritage Fund and of course all Lottery players for helping us make this incredible transformation to the Gardens.”

The Council has pledged the Gardens will remain free to visit but for the first few weeks before Covid restrictions are fully lifted access to the site can only be gained by booking on the Gardens new website. Hundreds of residents have already booked.

Photo: The Mayor of Worthing, Cllr Lionel Harman, opening the gardens with Jemima Stern, a relative of Sir Frederick and Lady Sybil

2021-06-01 - The Mayor of Worthing, Cllr Lionel Harman, opening the gardens with Jemima Stern, a relative of Sir Frederick

Photo (left to right): Cllr Edward Crouch, WBC’s Executive Member for Digital & Environmental Services, the Mayor of Worthing, Cllr Lionel Harman, and Cllr Daniel Humphreys, Leader of WBC

(left to right): Cllr Edward Crouch, WBC's Executive Member for Digital & Environmental Services, the Mayor of Worthing, Cllr Lionel Harman, and Cllr Daniel Humphreys, Leader of WBC

Photo: The Gardens are a riot of colour and are ready to welcome visitors once again

2021-06-01 - The Gardens are a riot of colour and are ready to welcome visitors once again

Photo: New glasshouses, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, allow gardeners at Highdown to preserve and propagate the gardens’ precious collection

2021-06-01 - New glasshouses, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund

Photo: The Sensory Garden is one of the many improvements made possible by the National Lottery Heritage Fund

2021-06-01 - The Sensory Garden is one of the many improvements made possible by the National Lottery Heritage Fund

Explorations in the Highdown Gardens archive

By Jennifer Mason, Senior Collections Management Archivist, West Sussex Record Office

In two prior blog posts staff at WSRO have talked about the work that they’ve been doing at home through the pandemic. Today’s blog post is just one example of how we’ve been able to continue to provide a service to our users, despite the challenges of remote working.

In March 2020, just a week before lockdown was announced, we were thrilled to receive the Highdown Gardens archive. We had been working with the Highdown Gardens on their National Lottery Heritage Fund project and as part of this were able to offer the archive a home where it could be stored in secure, environmentally controlled strongrooms and made available to researchers.

We were particularly pleased to receive this collection because, aside from a visitor’s book and photograph album, WSRO holds very little about Highdown and the important work that Sir Frederick and Lady Sybil Stern did to transform the site into an internationally renowned chalk garden.

WSRO Acc 19802 Highdown index cards

The archive includes important evidence of the Sterns’ work, their research, plant collecting, and their connections with botanists, plant hunters, scientists and the Royal Family. This is partly in the form of Stern’s plant index cards – detailed notes of different plant species, often with information about where they were found, the name of the plant hunter who found them, when Stern had planted seeds or cuttings, and the results. Some even include his sketches. There is also a series of glass plate negatives and photographs of many of the plants at Highdown, as well as people the Sterns had known and who had visited the house and gardens from 1918 to 1967.

It’s a fascinating archive but because staff at WSRO have mainly been working at home over the last year, it hasn’t yet been possible to catalogue it or to provide the individual items with detailed locations. This means that finding specific items within the collection can be challenging…

When Hamish MacGillivray, Heritage Consultant on the Highdown Project, contacted me and my colleague, IT Officer Clare Snoad, to request the digitisation of a specific glass plate negative and seven of Stern’s plant index cards for a history section for the new Highdown Gardens website we needed to rise to this challenge!

Hamish had provided a detailed description of the original location of the glass plate negative – which is a wonderful image of plant hunter Ernest Wilson. Because the negatives are in the process of being cleaned and repackaged many are still in their original boxes and Clare was able to track this down, with assistance from James Gaffney who is currently cleaning the negatives.

When it came to the index cards, we had enormous help from a large spreadsheet which Highdown volunteers had compiled, listing all of the individual cards and (importantly) which card index drawer they were in. With a bit of detective work (the cards aren’t necessarily in straight alphabetical order – genus subgroups are sometimes stored separately) I was able to locate the correct cards and leave them for Clare to digitise the following day.

WSRO Acc 19802 – Index card example for magnolia delavayi, 1912 and lilium albanicum, 1932

WSRO Acc 19802 – Index card example for leptodermis purdorni, 1921

The whole process, from receiving the list of the index cards to providing Hamish with digital images  took just four days – with Clare and I in the office separately for only two of them. We were really pleased to have been able to help the project and overcome the twin obstacles of limited access to the office and a new, uncatalogued archive, greatly assisted by all of the work the Highdown volunteers put into the plant index cards spreadsheet.

We’re hoping to be able to turn our attention to cataloguing this important archive once we’re back in the office on a full time basis. We don’t yet know when this will be but please watch this space.

Please also keep an eye on the blog for a future post from Hamish about his fascinating research into the Highdown visitors’ book and look out for the launch of the new Highdown Gardens website in May. The Gardens will gradually open to the public from June.

Digging new beds at new greenhouse January 2021. Photo by Worthing Borough Council

Volunteering

We have a range of exciting volunteering opportunities:

  • Gardening: weeding, pruning, and planting
  • Engagement activities: leading guided tours, welcoming visitors, attending workshops
  • Plant Heritage Support: propagation, labelling plants, glasshouse work

If you would like to volunteer at Highdown Gardens please go to our volunteer page.