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Highdown Tree Trail

Launching Highdown Gardens Junior Tree Trail

Ellen Mascard, Engagement & Volunteering OfficerHello my name is Ellen, I am the Engagement & Volunteering Officer here at Highdown Gardens.

Alongside Highdown’s reopening, we have also launched our brand new Junior Tree Trail! Children can take on the role of a Plant Hunter as they navigate the gardens using the activity sheet to discover Highdown’s rare and unique trees. The trail encourages youngsters to closely observe tree traits such as bark type, leaf shape, and height, appreciate the variety of different trees from around the world, and to respect the garden’s plants. The activity sheet also includes a tree ID chart, which can be cut out and reused as a ‘Top Tree Trunks’ card game, so children can continue to develop their knowledge at home.

The Trail’s development has had significant community involvement. Nadia Chalk and Nessy Brean, who are local artists and co founders of the non-profit Creative Waves, designed the activity sheet and hand painted plaques signposting each tree on the trail. We also had help from a local woodworking group, Lancing and Sompting Men in Sheds, who repurposed wood from Highdown’s old rose pergola to create posts to for the plaques.

Child using plaque and Tree Trail activity sheet during Creative Waves workshop (Creative waves, June 2021)

Child using plaque and Tree Trail activity sheet during Creative Waves workshop
(Creative waves, June 2021)

Nessy and Nadia and also educators, and have been holding workshops with local school groups, guiding them along the trail. We have already received some fantastic feedback from children who have participated in the workshops, including year 6 pupils from Chesswood School:

“I learnt a lot of new facts about Highdown Gardens including the names of different trees.”

“I enjoyed experiencing the different types of trees, especially the strawberry tree.”

“I learnt about how important trees are to us and new knowledge about nature.”

It has also been wonderful to see other schools and families walk the Tree Trail independently over the past month, and we hope to see many more. Our Junior Tree Trail guide is stocked in the visitor centre, or you can download the trail on our website.

Many thanks to Creative Waves, Lancing and Sompting Men in Shed, and everyone who has taken part in the Tree Trail so far. Thank you also to the National Lottery, who have funded the creation of the project.

See also: Download our trails

Highdown Tree Trail

The Chalk Pit. April A. by Steve Speller

Anyone for tennis?

During the autumn of 2019 I spent many “wow” moments in the West Sussex Record Office (WSRO) reading room discovering forgotten stories about Highdown Gardens and its original owners. Did you know that Highdown Gardens started because of a tennis court in 1909? New plants were purchased by Sir Frederick Stern at first to hide the chalk pit glare from his tennis court. Experts said nothing could grow on chalk. By 1910 Stern became obsessed and built his first rockery. When Sybil Lucas married Stern in 1919, she joined in the horticultural experiment.

The Chalk Pit. April A. by Steve Speller

The Highdown Chalk Pit – in 1909 this was the Highdown tennis court.
(Photograph taken April 2019 by Steve Speller.)

Panels and campers

When I started this job, supported by the National Heritage Lottery Fund, I was struggling to get my head around specialist horticulture and botanical Latin names. I am not a gardener. I was asked to produce text and images for at least 7 exhibition paneIs to be displayed in the new Highdown Visitor Centre. I was expecting Frederick Stern’s book ‘A Chalk Garden’ to offer clues – but I found it difficult to read. In fact, my first web searches kept on steering me to an old Jewish Youth Club that used to camp near the Miller’s Tomb on Highdown Hill, I could not work out their connection with the Sterns.

The Visitors

Mapping out the names from the Highdown Visitors Book Sept 2019, using Comic Life software. (opyrigh H.MacGillivray)

Mapping out the names from the Highdown Visitors Book Sept 2019, using Comic Life software.
(
copyright © H.MacGillivray)

Then I discovered the Highdown Visitors Book at the WSRO. This is an amazing time machine with signatures, poems and even photos from 1918 to 1968. This shows the waves of visitors that game to Highdown including: Jewish aristocrats (Lionel Rothschild, Lucy Stern), plant hunters (Frank and Jean Kingdon-Ward), Royals (Prince Edward, Prince Albert and their mother Queen Mary), politicians (Lloyd George) and scientists (E.K. Janaki Ammal). Unlike other Visitors Books I have seen, the Sterns also pasted in photos of some of their VIP visitors. The image of a giggling Lloyd George and daughter Megan (WSRO Add Mss 45624) marooned near the Lime Kiln is my favourite. See my ‘bubble’ diagram of some of the visitor names.

add mss 45624 Lloyd George and Megan - 6th October 1926

Lloyd George and Megan – 6th October 1926
(WSRO Add Mss 45624)

Letters and photos

The Visitors Book was the key to the project as it was proof that the Sterns were part of the last generation of Anglo-Jewish aristocrats who were obsessed with big game hunting, horses, politics, philanthropy, military life, science and of course gardens. With the signatures I managed to cross reference Stern’s letters in other archives such as at the John Innes Centre in Norwich and the Kew Botanical Gardens archive. There was a surprise on my last visit to Worthing Library when Martin Hayes remembered a forgotten Highdown photo album in the basement of Worthing Library. This contains a memorable image of Stern grinning through his psychedelic eremurus or foxtails lilies.

WSRO Acc 19642 Frederick Stern peeking behind foxtails, 1930s

Frederick Stern peeking behind foxtails, 1930s
(WSRO Acc 19642)

Lockdown

Just as I was starting to draft text for the Visitor Centre panels the first Lockdown was announced. I was very lucky that Highdown Gardens and the Lottery extended my contract during those strange times. There were also plans for a new Highdown Gardens website which I knew would be image hungry. To my surprise, Jennifer Mason and Claire Snoad were able to go into the WSRO archive for limited periods. With my knowledge of the WSRO material I asked Jennifer if it was possible to digitize key photographs and later the entire Highdown Visitors Book. This the WSRO team did with efficiency and speed. We now have images from the WSRO Highdown collection on: external signage at Highdown, inside the new Visitor Centre and soon in a unique historical section in the new website. Some of the VIP photos from the Highdown Visitors Book are also being used for guided tour training for volunteers.

Interior of new Highdown Visitors Centre. Photograph taken April 2021 by H. MacGillivray

Interior of new Highdown Visitors Centre.
(Photograph taken April 2021 by H. MacGillivray)

Oxford

And what of the Jewish campers? After talking to local volunteers and an international phone call to the BBC’s Jon Sopel last summer I discovered that the Sterns allowed the Oxford and St. George’s Jewish youth clubs to camp every summer on their fields for 50 years, another forgotten part of the Sterns philanthropy work in London and Goring. With all this new evidence I approached the University of Oxford’s Jewish Country Houses team who are advising the National Trust on raising awareness of former Jewish properties. We are now expecting a group of historians to visit Highdown this summer.

This has been a remarkable two-year research journey for me, and it would never have developed were it not for the support of the WSRO team.

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.