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History of Woolbeding Gardens

Evening light in July on the south front of Woolbeding House (not National Trust) at Woolbeding Gardens, West Sussex
The south front of Woolbeding House | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

Over the past 50 years, Woolbeding Gardens has developed into a stunning horticultural haven, thanks to Simon Sainsbury and his life partner Stewart Grimshaw, who worked with the famous garden and architectural designers Lanning Roper, the Bannermans, Philip Jebb and, more recently, Thomas Heatherwick. Sweeping changes have been made, including replanting the double borders, constructing colour-themed garden rooms and creating many follies throughout the Pleasure Gardens.

Originally owned by the Lascelles family, Woolbeding Estate was given to the National Trust in 1957, comprising a total of 1,102 acres, 26 acres of which are devoted to the gardens.

Since 1972 Woolbeding has been leased to Simon Sainsbury, and subsequently his partner Stewart Grimshaw (the house remains a private residence).

It was during this time that the garden evolved into the extensive and vibrant creation you can see today.

Georgian charm

The Georgian Grade I listed house was a social venue to a wealth of previous residents. The celebrated Sussex poet and novelist, Charlotte Smith, lived with her husband and children at Woolbeding for two years between 1785 and 1787.

From 1791 to 1831, Lord Robert Spencer, son of the 3rd Duke of Marlborough, occupied the estate, where he entertained prominent Whig politicians.

Woolbeding has always played host to many admirers. Benjamin Disraeli, when visiting the house, described the valley of the Little Rother at Woolbeding as 'the greenest valley with the prettiest river in the world’.

The ornamental fountain at Woolbeding Gardens surrounded by brightly coloured flowering plants and shrubs.
The ornamental fountain in Woolbeding Gardens | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

20th-century paradise

While some of the features seen at Woolbeding today trace their plans back to earlier periods in the property’s history, the gardens came into their prime during the late twentieth century.

Designers Lanning Roper and Philip Jebb and, later, Julian and Isabel Bannerman, were the creative minds responsible for helping Simon Sainsbury and Stewart Grimshaw shape the gardens into their present structure.

The gardens now consist of three distinct sections: the area closest to the house that has been arranged in a series of formal garden rooms; the second section, designed as a less formal Pleasure Ground; and finally the Silk Route Garden and Glasshouse.

Lanning Roper

Development of the gardens started in 1973, when Simon Sainsbury and Stewart Grimshaw appointed American garden designer Lanning Roper. Roper's distinctive design features are evident throughout, with clear structures, elegance and restraint being the principal elements used within the layout.

His sweeping changes included the replanting of the double borders and construction of the formal garden rooms.

A view of the house (not National Trust) in evening light, seen above the clipped yew trees, at Woolbeding Gardens, West Sussex
Clipped yew trees at Woolbeding Gardens | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

Julian and Isabel Bannerman

From 2000, Julian and Isabel Bannerman were asked to develop the Pleasure Garden area.

This feature has developed over a period of 20 years to become an ideal environment for exploring, full of unique architectural structures that blend harmoniously into the surrounding rock and water.

The Bannermans explored ways to enhance the Long Walk, which had been developed over a number of years by Simon Sainsbury and Stewart Grimshaw. They extended the lake to introduce a waterfall constructed from Sussex sandstone and built a variety of follies, all the while taking advantage of the Sussex views.

The Entrance Garden, the first part of the gardens that visitors see, was also created by the Bannermans in 2010. This courtyard garden, with formal ponds to reflect cattle troughs, warmly welcomes visitors to Woolbeding.

Evening light in July on the south front of Woolbeding House (not National Trust) at Woolbeding Gardens, West Sussex

Discover more at Woolbeding Gardens

Find out when Woolbeding Gardens is open, how to get here, the things to see and do and more.

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A view of the ornamental fountain, church and south front of Woolbeding House (not National Trust) at Woolbeding Gardens, West Sussex

Things to see and do at Woolbeding Gardens 

Explore the 26-acre garden and see the garden rooms, classical Tulip Folly, ruined abbey, gothic summerhouse, river-god grotto and the new Silk Route garden and glasshouse.

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The Woolbeding Glasshouse and Silk Route Garden 

Discover a new 10-sided contemporary glasshouse, surrounded by a garden featuring plants, shrubs and trees that depict the key regions of the Silk Route.

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