They were once a much loved attraction that had long faded from the public consciousness but now, thanks to the curiosity of an international businesswoman, they have finally reopened.
It has taken millions of pounds, tens of thousands of man hours and 20 months of painstaking planning, but Leonardslee Lakes and Gardens, at Lower Beeding, is welcoming the general public for the first time today (Saturday April 6).
Penny Streeter OBE, the South Africa-based healthcare entrepreneur who also owns Mannings Heath Golf Club, bought the 240 acre site after she spotted the ‘for sale’ sign while driving along the Brighton Road.
Mrs Streeter, who featured on last year’s Sunday Times Rich List, has invested heavily in the Grade 1 listed gardens, which are home to 400 species of rhododendrons, including one which is the only variety of its kind in the entire world. This particular plant is so rare that head gardener Ray Abraham hasn’t even told Mrs Streeter or her son Adam, the gardens’ general manager, its precise location.
Adam, who lives on the site with his young family, has been overwhelmed by the public’s response to the reopening of Leonardslee.
He said: “I have had so people thanking us for reopening the gardens. You realise that they are not just beautiful gardens but are also really important to the community.”
Mrs Streeter said during her time owning the site, which includes the fully restored Grade II listed 19th-century Italianate style mansion, she had become attached to it.
She said: “Leonardslee has not only belonged to the owners, but to the people of Sussex.
“People came here as children and it is where their grandparents worked.”
The restoration project, which has been described as the biggest of its kind in the UK for the past 30 years, has not always been plain sailing and the Streeters have admitted that they had expected to have opened it within nine months of the purchase. During that time they have also fallen victim to poachers who, according to Adam Streeter, took deer and carp.
The site is home to 10,000 trees and 450 different species of plants and flowers, although Mr Abraham believes they will still be cataloguing the flora and the fauna for the next three years.
The Streeters have also planted a vineyard, which they hope with produce the first ever British pinotage wine within the next four to seven years.
For more information visit www.leonardsleegardens.co.uk.