Waterfall steps

Let it flow… and avoid that sinking feeling

Renovating Highdown Gardens’ water feature

Hi, Toby Craft Gardener here, updating you on work at Highdown.

The recent donation from the National Lottery Heritage Fund has brought many benefits to the garden, but unfortunately the water feature was not included in the works.

Due to the cost of running it and the difficulty of restoring it, combined with the complexity of the Heritage grant application, meant the waterfall became a bridge too far and the sad decision was taken to stop the flow.

Thankfully, a generous spirit in the community surfaced and offered us a very generous cash donation to keep our waterfall dream afloat.

About five years ago a brilliant couturier was starting his own design studio and shot a fashion shoot in the gardens, his imagination enchanted with the garden – that day remains with him a wonderful memory.

Then, on a chance visit, one afternoon two years ago, he spoke with the gardeners and learnt the sad fate of the waterfall. He was determined for us not to be left a drop in the ocean and wanted to help turn the tide.

Originally, when Sir Frederick Stern first constructed the waterfall nearly 100 years ago, the water that fed the feature came from a natural chalk spring on the downs near Highdown hill, which fed both the house and the gardens.

Photo: The water flows once again down the historic water feature next to the waterfall steps

Waterfall steps

The spring water flowed in a pipe to the bottom of the hill and was then pumped back up under pressure to the water feature by a diesel generator, located where there is now a sports field.

The head gardener of the time, John Bassindale, first job of the day was to start up the generator, to pump up water for the daily needs of a large and sophisticated garden.

The water flowed like this until, one day the water board built a reservoir on the downs, and the house and garden were put on to the mains system, meaning the waterfall would now be fed by mains water.

At a time when water was cheap and plentiful, running a ‘total loss’ system, where water is run through and not recycled, was deemed a reasonable solution, however, as we all know now fifty years later, everything has changed and water is anything but cheap and plentiful.

But technology has also changed. And Highdown Gardens have embraced the change.

We have imagined, designed, and built a sustainable, alternative solution that both honours our heritage roots, all the while staying true to Sir Frederick Stern’s spirit of innovation.

The Solar Pagoda

An off grid solar system which harnesses the sun to power a heavy-duty pump, this recycles the pond water five metres up to the header tank, and lets gravity take it down the fall, once again reviving the elemental sound of running water.

With zero inputs this clean energy system will bring joy and happiness to the thousands of visitors who enjoy the garden ponds each year, without, literally, pouring money down the drain…

But we cannot take all the credit for this achievement ourselves. For crucially, not without the invaluable help of a big group of generous, intelligent, skilful, and kind individuals who we must give credit to…

We are blessed with some first-rate businesses locally who contributed their specialist services and products to make it all possible.

On top of the magnificent pagoda structure, constructed by 4M Landscape contractors of Heene, sit the Sun Store solar panels, the solar experts from Goring helped us calculate how much battery power we’d need for the pump and then designed and fitted their custom system.

Photo: The Solar Pagoda houses the panels and batteries to power the pump

Solar pagoda

We then got Active Pumps from Ford to fit the pump, hoses, and controller. But all their hard work is now buried under the ground or hidden out of sight, busying away in the background, a bit like us gardeners.

The Horsham Stone, as originally mentioned in Stern’s book ‘A Chalk Garden’ has been used again, this is from a cretaceous river bed and has fossilised ripples in the stone. There is even a fossilised log which now sits atop of the fall.

Photo: A fossilised log sits atop the fall in a piece of Horsham stone

Fossilised log

All this stone is cemented into place with heritage lime mortar, and with chalk being the primary ingredient of cement, it is very apt that all this heavy laborious work in the chalk pit was fed by a constant supply of building materials from our reliable, trusted suppliers Gardner Scardifield.

We’ve used heritage Winklestone/Sussex marble, reclaimed thanks to St Mary’s Church, Thakeham, to enhance the nature pools. Look closely at the stone and you will see fossilised remains of small snails trapped in time.

Photo: Sussex marble/winklestone embedded with fossilised snails


Thanks to Roger Cordiner, author of Sussex Building Stone, who shared his specialist knowledge with us to help better understand these fascinating local materials.

At the bottom of the fall, the water flows into the pond and into a grotto. Formerly a lime kiln for burning chalk into agricultural lime, this cave feature grotto was previously dark and slightly foreboding.

But no more, thanks to a light system shining on a spectacular large Himalayan Quartz geode crystal, which was also given by the donor, now our shimmering jewel in the Highdown crown. This is very appropriate as Sir Frederick collected plants widely from the Himalaya as their growing conditions were similar to Highdown’s.

The Zaeem Crystal sits elegantly atop a bespoke Corten steel water bowl, made by Outdoor Design also of Ford. This bowl fills and falls with water, evoking the spirit with the mystical, tinkling sound of flowing water.

Photo: The Zaeem Crystal is a spectacular Himalayan Quartz geode

The large Himalayan quartz crystal which now sits in the cave next to the pond

We’re also blessed with a wonderful hardworking group of volunteers, who show up week in week out and were a massive help for a large proportion of the manual labour involved.

Also, a special mention goes to Phil Jones, a retired electrical engineer from the Friends of Marine Gardens group, who first helped us develop this ambitious scheme.

But back to the garden, the waterfall flowed through the rockery which was Stern’s original alpine garden. We’ve now replaced some of the many plant genera and species he collected, which had been long lost, but have been researched, sourced and replaced by our Plant Heritage Officer.

This stunning collection of jewellike flowers sparkle in the spring and summer sunshine, and play out their garden theatre atop their stage of stone.

Photo: Newly planted alpine plants adorn the rockery like jewels

Alpine plants adorn the rockery like jewels

As much as we’d like to say the job is finished (though gardening never is) if you descend the steps, you’ll notice the bottom half is yet to be renovated.

But given the time and resources we, with Worthing Borough Council’s commitment to our green spaces, can continue this fine work and return the gardens to their former glory.

I’ll stop spouting on now and just say we’re looking forward to you all streaming in to see for yourselves!



Handkerchief Tree flowers (credit @captured_moments_61)

Plant focus: Handkerchief Tree – Davidia involucrata

Common names: Handkerchief tree, Dove tree, Ghost tree, Pocket Handkerchief tree 
Latin name: Davidia involucrata
Found in South Central and Southeast China.

We have a few specimens of this magnificent tree at Highdown Gardens. One of the finest is located in the chalk pit opposite Musgraves Corner.

Photo: Handkerchief Tree (credit @captured_moments_61)

Handkerchief Tree (credit @captured_moments_61)

When in flower you can see why it has its name as its flowers flutter in the wind like white doves or handkerchiefs. The white ‘handkerchiefs’ are actually bracts, which are leaves morphed from green to white. The flowers are in fact marble sized and located in the middle of the modified leaves.

Photo: Handkerchief Tree flower close up (credit @captured_moments_61)

Handkerchief Tree flower close up (credit @captured_moments_61)

The modified flowers tend to form in lines along the branches, reinforcing its common names. Young trees do not flower as they can take 15 to 20 years to form their modified leaves. The tree is hardy, so will survive in the UK but prefers a sheltered position in moist but well drained soil.

Photo: Handkerchief Tree flowers (credit @captured_moments_61)

Handkerchief Tree flowers (credit @captured_moments_61)

The handkerchief tree was discovered in China in 1869 and described by the French Franciscan missionary Father Armand David (Père David). It was then brought to the UK by Ernest Wilson in 1904. It is believed that Veitch Nurseries commissioned the young, non-Chinese speaking Wilson to find the tree.

One can only imagine how he may have felt as he had not been abroad before. On arrival, he discovered the trees he had originally been sent to find had been felled to build a house. It was lucky that he was able to find other plants which he then sent back to England.

Many thanks to Highdown’s Tour Guide Volunteer Anita Cannon, for writing this blog.

Please note photographs were taken by @captured_moments_61

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Discover Days at Highdown

Discover Days: creative days exploring art and nature

The May 2024 Discover Day has now happened – thanks to everyone that came along.

Our Discover Days will be back again later in the year – keep an eye on this page for details …

Trails and activity packs:

You can also access our trails and activity packs … these are free resources funded by the National Lottery including Highdown’s Plant Hunter Trail, Junior Tree Trail, Explorer Cards and the Town to Down Walks which can all be downloaded and printed free of charge:

trails and activity packs


Thank you to Figment Arts, the Chalk Cliff Trust and Worthing Borough Council for their support with our Discovery Days 2024.

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Peony Tours

Highdown Gardens beautiful peony collection tours

Sir Fredrick Stern, creator of the gardens, had a particular love for peonies and not only bred them at Highdown, but wrote a monograph called ‘The Study of the genus Peonia’ in 1946 and out of all the plants he admired, peonies were amongst the ones he most experimented with.


  • 2024’s events have now happened – thank you to all that came along
    We’ll be back again with other dates for next year

See also:


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Established seedlings pricked out from seed trays to pots.

Glasshouse activity at Highdown Gardens

Lisa, our Craft Gardener, talks about glasshouse activity at Highdown Gardens.

It’s been busy in the glasshouse at Highdown Gardens these past few months, there has been a lot of activity with sowing annuals, thinning out, pricking out seedlings, potting on, hardening off and planting out of young plants.

Beds in the Sensory Garden have been full of Daffodils which are now making way for Purple Sensation Alliums which will flower mid May. Two of the beds in particular are full of Alliums which will be beautiful end of May, however they will leave lots of bare areas when they die down.

This is why it’s important to start sowing seeds early in the year. Annuals were first sown in January and have been successionally sown every month since. Fragrant Sweetpeas, very tall and dark purple Scabious atropurpurea, bright orange Calendula, vivid blue Salvia viridian and various colours of different types of Cosmos and Nicotiana are just some of the seeds sown in our glasshouse.

Interesting named ‘Orange King’ and ‘Jelly Bean’ Californian poppies were directly sown in one of the raised beds in the Sensory Garden earlier this month, as they don’t like to have their roots disturbed.

When the Calendula seedlings were large enough they were planted directly out in the Sensory Garden, also in April. Calendula have readily self seeded in the garden in the past and survived, so it is hoped the rabbits won’t eat these young, delicate seedlings.

With trays of new seeds, growing seedlings and pricked out seedlings taking up lots of space in the glasshouse, we are trying to make space, so plants are planted out as soon as they are ready. Including plants which were overwintered in the glasshouse.

Pelargonium and Salvia cuttings which were taken early November last year are now lush and green. They were hardened off for a few weeks by placing them outside and bringing them back into the glasshouse at the end of the day, they were ready to plant out end of this month.

Dahlia tubers were dug up in the Autumn, dried and stored in the glasshouse over winter in crates loosely packed with shredded newspaper. In February the Dahlia tubers were planted in compost in pots and watered regularly in the glasshouse. It was very joyful to see the fresh green growth from the dry brown tubers. When there was plenty of green growth they were planted out in April, making more room in the glasshouse.

Rabbits are a big problem at Highdown Gardens but especially in the Sensory Garden, they enjoy eating new growth, young plants and the bark on young woody shrubs. This is why you’ll see chicken wire circling many plants around the garden. The small Cosmos plants recently planted out are protected by chicken wire, for example, otherwise they would be eaten by the rabbits. Other small plants planted out in April, Sweetpeas and Scabious atropurpurea, were mostly planted in raised beds, which we fortunately have in the Sensory Garden, so they will be left alone by the rabbits.

The future plan for the Sensory Garden is to determine plants and seedlings which will be left alone by rabbits and focus on propagating these. In the meantime we’re busy preparing annuals to fill beds and gaps ready for the summer.

Established seedlings pricked out from seed trays to pots.

Established seedlings pricked out from seed trays to pots.

Hardening off young plants just outside the Glasshouse, before planting. Calendula, Cosmos, Sweetpeas, Salvia and Pelargoniums.

Hardening off young plants just outside the Glasshouse, before planting. Calendula, Cosmos, Sweetpeas, Salvia and Pelargoniums.

Different varieties of Cosmos seedlings pricked out into pots.

Different varieties of Cosmos seedlings pricked out into pots.

A raised bed in the Sensory Garden full of Purple Sensation Alliums ready to open.

A raised bed in the Sensory Garden full of Purple Sensation Alliums ready to open.

Colourful Dahlias and scented Pelargoniums planted in one of the raised beds in the Sensory Garden.

Colourful Dahlias and scented Pelargoniums planted in one of the raised beds in the Sensory Garden.


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Highdown Guided Tours (March to August)

When: Last Thursday of every month (March to August)

Time: 2pm to 3pm

Price of tour: £5 per person (children under 12 go free)

Please arrive at Highdown Gardens Visitor Centre 5 minutes before the start time of your tour where your guide will greet you.

A unique chance to discover Highdown Gardens’ rich heritage, learn about the garden’s origins, its creators and VIP visitors, as well as spot the garden’s seasonal star plants.

These tours are delivered by Highdown staff and Tour Guide Volunteers.

All proceeds go back into Highdown Gardens Trust, focusing on preservation, education and recreation, providing a legacy for future generations.

There may be tickets available on the day, however we recommend pre-booking online to avoid disappointment.

Book tickets:

Book tickets for a Guided Tour

Highdown Gardens are free to enter as per usual.

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Cyclamen repandum (credit Alex New)

Plant Focus: Cyclamen

For this month’s Plant Focus blog Dee, Highdown’s Volunteer Visitor Assistant, writes about the Highdown’s Cyclamen collection.

As a volunteer I am lucky enough to see the Gardens through every season, and even though the summer blooms have faded there is still much to see and admire in the garden. In my recent session, I was taken by the beautiful and delicate cyclamen that are now sprouting up, they seem almost otherworldly.

One rare species at Highdown is Cyclamen repandum, which came from a rugby-playing botanist Hiatt Cowles Baker, who found it in Corsica in the 1920s. They favour the edges of the woodland and can be seen in the lower rose garden and the middle garden. The Cyclamen repandum won’t be flowering until next Spring, however there are lots of varieties to see in the garden now including:

  • Cyclamen hederifolium
  • Cyclamen graecum
  • Cyclamen purpurascens
  • Cyclamen cilicium
  • Cyclamen coum

If you have the opportunity, do come and see the cyclamen for yourselves. The staff and volunteers will give you a warm welcome, and you can take the time to enjoy the beauty and serenity of the garden, now putting on its autumn cloak and preparing for winter.

Photo of Cyclamen repandum (credit: Alex New)

Cyclamen repandum (credit Alex New)

Photos of Cyclamen hederifolium and close up of the flowers (credit: Alex New)

Cyclamen hederifolium

Cyclamen hederifolium (flowers close up)