Highdown Gardens: Difficult decisions to be made at Worthing’s world famous chalk garden

Hard decisions are to be made about plants in Worthing’s treasured Highdown Gardens, as work begins on a project to ensure the world-renowned work of the couple who created it takes the focus.

Friday, 30th July 2021, 4:36 pm
Updated Friday, 30th July 2021, 4:48 pm

Alex New has been brought in as plant heritage officer and he will have the tough job of deciding which plants stay and which ones need to go, either to be cut back or relocated.

His role was funded as part of a National Lottery Heritage Fund grant, with the aim of ensuring the garden fully reflects the work of Sir Frederick and Lady Sybil Stern, who created the garden between 1909 and 1967 as an experiment to see what would grow on the chalk soil of the South Downs.

Alex said: “It is my job to look at what we have got here and see what is a Stern plant and what isn’t. If there is a Stern plant that is struggling because of a non-Stern plant, we will have to make a difficult call to make a more nourishing environment for the Stern plants.

Plant heritage expert Alex New at Highdown Gardens, Worthing. Picture: Steve Robards SR2107296

“We also want to share this material with other botanists and other countries. This garden is known throughout the world as a great treasure.

“Another part of the job is to track down what was once in the garden and has been lost for decades, and try to get it back in the garden.

“We want visitors to appreciate the fragility of the plants here. That is important in order to nurture them and enhance them to the greatest extent.”

Highdown Gardens has just agreed a partnership with the St Barnabas House as part of its new Living Well service and Alex explained his plans at a hospice gathering in the chalk pit area of the garden yesterday afternoon.

He said: “We are very, very excited about our partnership with St Barnabas. This is a great start to what is going to be a very warm relationship going forward.”

Alex explained that the chalk pit in the garden was an old quarry, which Stern initially turned into a tennis court, and the cave is the old lime kiln.

“When he was playing, he thought the glare from the white chalk was affecting his game,” he said, adding that this was the spur to look at planting.

The Sterns consulted friends and experts but the vast majority said ‘forget it’ because of the chalk, which is unsuitable for many native plants.

Alex said: “Their braver friends said to try it and they did, with some success, some failures, then more and more success.”

The Sterns joined collectors’ syndicates to hire plant hunters to go on dangerous collecting expeditions around the world.

Alex said: “The collection is predominantly from China. He really was a pioneer and the world looked to it as what you can do. Each area of the garden is like a little room.

“If you look at old photos, there is a lot more light and a lot less shade.”

Alex’s own foray into the world of plants began properly in 2009, when he left a career in finance and enrolled at Writtle College in Essex for a three-year diploma in horticulture.

He said: “I loved everything I learned and the more knowledge I gained, the more topics of interest opened up to me. My second year at college was a placement in industry.

“My hard work in the first year was rewarded with the choicest placement at Sir Harold Hillier Gardens. This plantsman’s garden is home to the largest collection of hardy trees and shrubs in the northern hemisphere and a year living and working within that treasure trove was all the inspiration I needed to spur me on to the next level.

“I decided that botany was the direction that I wanted to head towards. After finishing my final year at Writtle, I was awarded a place studying BSc Plant Science at the University of Sheffield. After graduating I was lucky enough to find a permanent position at SHHG. I spent a year and a half working in the Winter Garden before being promoted to running a large area of the garden, including the famous Centenary Border.

“After learning a great deal over three and a half years, as well as creating a conservation plan for the rarest species in the garden, the job of plant heritage officer came up at Highdown Gardens. It was too exciting to resist.

“The work here is hugely important and an absolute thrill to be able to impact a garden of such standing in horticultural history. It’s wonderful to have a job where you look forward to coming to work every day.”

Highdown Gardens are owned by Worthing Borough Council and are free to visit, currently open daily until the end of November with no booking necessary.