Wakehurst botanical gardens – a stunning National Trust property in West Sussex
It came skittering across the pond in our direction, eagerly, for all the world like a pet dog happily making its way back to its master.
Except that this was no dog. It was, in actual fact, a duck. And quite a little one at that, one might almost say cute.
Cute, and brazen. With no hesitation at all it hopped up onto the boardwalk and waddled its way over to a young family that had just sat down beside us to unpack their lunchtime picnic. Clearly it was looking to get involved in their meal.
And presumably this was not a one-off occurrence - this little duck had all the markings of a regular opportunist, used to having food handed out to it by adoring visitors.
Of course the family obliged - for who could say no to such an adorable supplicant? - and happily shared the crumbs from their sandwiches with our intrepid feathered friend.
Wakehurst botanical gardens
An hour or so earlier we had found parking in Wakehurst's car park, and made our way into the botanic gardens - free entry tickets for us courtesy of our National Trust memberships.
Our first stop, not far from the entrance gate, was the 16th-century Wakehurst House mansion building, a stunner of an Elizabethan aristocratic pad that makes an imposing backdrop to the rest of the estate. The little coffee cart stationed in the mansion's courtyard provided a caffeine hit to motivate us for our coming walk, as well as the usual ubiquitous English country house fare such as deli sandwiches and shortbread fingers.
And not long after, we went off to discover the wonders of Wakehurst Place's house and gardens.
In this area of the Wakehurst estate, near the entrance and mansion house, you will find the more manicured of the gardens. There are huge lawns all about, which are great for family picnics and for little ones to run around in.
And around the side of the manor house are a couple of formal gardens that are definitely worth discovering. The first is a Winter Garden - newly recreated in 2019 - full of plants that showcase vibrant colours during the otherwise dreary winter months. Alongside it is Wakehurst mansion's delightful Walled Garden - a more intimate space filled with English-style shrubs and flowers, and topiary hedges and bubbling fountains, which is lovely to spend some time in.
And just beyond the Walled Garden is also the Wakehurst Children's Heritage Garden, a magical place of mud kitchens and potting sheds where kids can get their hands dirty to their hearts' content, and cultivate their budding gardening skills.
Having investigated the gardens in the vicinity of the mansion house, we decided to make our way clockwise around the immense grounds at Wakehurst, by way of the Pinetum - a peaceful forest of towering conifer trees.
Then via the large collection of rhododendrons in the Asian Heath garden, which sits alongside the mansion pond and its lovely views back to the manor house building, we crossed over into the Water Gardens.
Absolutely one of the loveliest parts of the Wakehurst gardens grounds, these marshy dales and dells are filled with streams and floating lotus flowers, ferns along the riverbanks and boardwalks meandering throughout. Packed solid with magnolias and azalea bushes, and daffodils and irises, the Water Gardens are a riot of colour throughout the springtime months, and a beautiful place to wander during any time of the year.
Moving on, at this point we began to leave the more ornamental botanic gardens behind, the surroundings becoming wilder as we headed deeper into Wakehurst's 500 acre grounds.
We also left the paved pathways behind, the resulting gravel paths slightly steep at times, but otherwise easily navigable, as we headed into some of the Wakehurst forests. This part of the walk was a peaceful one, punctuated by dramatic viewpoints down into the Westwood valley, and at one point even a labyrinth - an imaginative shape laid out in the grass like some modern day crop circle.
Eventually we found ourselves entering the Wetlands, our favourite part of Wakehurst and the far end of the 'main' part of the country estate. From here, those who would like to extend their visit are able to access the Loder Valley Nature Reserve via a gate in the Wakehurst fence, for wilder nature hikes and wildlife spotting. Do note that a permit is required to visit Loder Valley.
The Wetlands at Wakehurst are enchanting, with boardwalks curving through the marshy space and reed-filled ponds on all sides. Far fewer visitors make it this far into the Wakehurst gardens, and it is a tranquil place to visit. It is also where we had that memorable encounter with our fearless little duck.
Further into the Wetlands, the paths continue their winding route along the banks of the Westwood Lake before eventually beginning the long trek back.
The western parts of the Wakehurst map are dominated by various different woodlands, paths snaking amongst forests of beech and birch trees (and even some mighty redwoods), benches placed here and there to provide weary legs some respite, as well as the opportunity to soak up the tranquility of the surrounding foliage. Also tucked away at the far end of the premises is the Coates Wood - a collection of tree specimens from the southern hemisphere, including pines and eucalyptus trees, as well as endangered tree species that Wakehurst has committed to protecting.
And interspersed among the various copses are a couple of grasslands - undulating prairies and meadows filled with wildflowers from across the globe.
As we neared the end of our visit, we came across one of the highlights at Wakehurst - the Millennium Seed Bank, housed in the impressive-looking Wellcome Trust Millennium Building. This astonishing seed bank is the world's largest, and has as a goal the preservation of the world's plant species - the seeds themselves housed in an enormous purpose-built underground vault.
Visitors to the Millennium Seed Bank can wander around the ground-floor exhibitions, learning more about the world's plants, how they are threatened by environmental change, and the conservation efforts at Wakehurst to preserve them. It makes for an interesting and eye-opening tour, as well as an important reminder of the incredible scientific work being carried out by the Wakehurst botanists.
And so we came to the end of our wonderful visit to Wakehurst Place and its impressive gardens. We made our way back to the car park via the shop, paying our parking charges at the same time (a somewhat steep £10 for stays over 2.5 hours, even for National Trust members), then made our way to the charming local Cat Inn for a superb lunch, and to rest our contentedly weary legs.
Wakehurst - A final review
There are many amazing gardens and historic buildings that make up England's National Trust portfolio, and surely one of the jewels in the crown is the Wakehurst property in West Sussex.
Managed by the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens, these beautiful gardens and forests showcase plant specimens from the UK and around the world, from the Himalayas and East and Central Asia, through North America and the Southern hemisphere.
Kew's Wakehurst makes for a wonderful day spent outdoors, in what must be one of the best wild botanical parks and gardens in the country, set in England's equally lovely Sussex countryside.
Opening times: 10am - 6pm (4:30pm closing during winter months)
Address: Selsfield Rd, Haywards Heath, England ; Post code: RH17 6TN