June and July have been very busy months with numerous trips and a visit to a couple of places twice.
I will start with the secret gardens of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. The gardens are approximately 465 acres hidden in the heart of the Sussex countryside and what a place this really is!
Wakehurst is not only a botanical garden, it is a research centre and home to the Millennium Seed Bank. On the surface when you visit Wakehurst, you presume it is just another large garden to wander around on lazy days, but this place is so much more. Whilst it contains modern and edgy buildings the exception is the Elizabethan House within and, you would be forgiven for having this notion. As you pass through the glass entrance and into the main grounds, it is apparent this is a place to get immersed in.
Masked up to pass through, I am relieved to get to the other side and be free of the constraints this pandemic has placed upon us. The warm June sunshine hits me and it’s another scorcher of a day. Armed with my Canon, a 28-90mm and 70-300mm lens, I am ready to create some photographic joy.
Following the pathway straight ahead, I come into contact with a pair of birds I have been dying to get shots of. Once was a time I would see these in every field I passed locally and, now unless you are in really rural parts, these birds are a rarity. My first close encounter had come a few weeks earlier when one had randomly turned up in my garden. Unfortunately the best shot I could get was on the CCTV which initially had me wondering which of my crazy neighbours had suddenly decided they needed chickens, only to see the tail and realise it was an ever so colourful, handsome and illusive pheasant. I say colourful, truth be told the females do not possess the same colouring of the males. Here I was, my first ever trip to Wakehurst and I have a male and female before me. Another fun fact about pheasants. Whilst they are well known game bird, they are not native to the UK. They are in fact from Asia and were introduced to Europe by the Romans and possibly to the UK in the 11th century by the Normans. It is referenced by the Wildlife Trust that up until the 19th century, these bird possibly became extinct here and were then reared by gamekeepers and became common again. They also come in a variety of colours with the males being spotted in the common red colouring of the ring necked pheasant as pictured here to a silver colouring and less common green/blue of the swinhoe’s pheasant which the latter two are generally farm kept and bred.
Camera at the ready and iPhone to video, I begin to snap away. However, there is always a complication. My old friends, the ever curious and problematic members of the public. I mean this of course in the friendliest of terms with a hint of affection. However, the public see me and a large camera and without fail proceed to make things very difficult. I never really see them coming when I am focused on getting these images. They seem to creep up behind me and then startle me and the creatures before me, by making a bit of a racket. Breathe now, I say to myself, just breathe…
Photos achieved, I continue on and I come to a beautiful pond.
It’s approximately 23 degrees hot but it feels more like 30. The pond has a very large imposing tree in the centre of it. With a gentle breeze in the air, rippling the waters of the pond, you can still see a clear reflection. Lilies, frame the edges with a smattering of pink and white flowers. A stunning Elizabethan House is adjacent to the pond and there appears to be a small orchard in the making either side with some greylag geese having a siesta in between, whilst others take a stroll around the grounds.
The Mansion as it is known, is closed at present but within it contains a remarkable gallery of botanical artwork. There is also a history with this property. Formerly owned by Gerald Loder, who later became Baron Wakehurst. He was the 7th son of Sir Robert Loder 1st Baronet and a Conservative Politician. He wasn’t just a politician either, he was a successful archaeologist, barrister, businessman and sportsman, who had a passion for travel, botanics and plants.
Born in 1861, he went on to study at Eton and then Trinity College, Cambridge. He graduated as a Barrister from the Inner Temple. It is believed it was his travels around the world, which first sparked his interests in plants from the regions of Australia, Canada, China, India, Japan and the USA.
Between 1889 and 1906 he held a parliamentary career and was MP for Brighton. Twelve years after marrying his wife and beginning a family, he purchased the Wakehurst Estate in 1902 possibly from Sir William Boord. Whilst it is acknowledged that Gerald Loder began the development of the gardens at Wakehurst into a botanical garden, there is history that dates back to 1205. Yes this is the medieval era.
A little bit of digging, and I have managed to find that the original owner of the grounds was William de Wakehurst. William only purchased the land which was said to be approximately 40 acres at the time, new evidence came to light when a line of old yew trees were discovered, with one tree dating back to 1391. This indicated a possibility there had been an earlier large landscaped garden. However, the Mansion was not built until around 1571 – 1590. Further research from various sources, suggest the property was a lot larger than it is now and that various owners along the way made their own alteration to it. Gerald passed away in 1936 and the estate was purchased by Sir Henry Price and his wife Lady Eve who continued the development of the gardens, before bequeathing the Estate to the National Trust in 1963. Today the estate is still owned by the National Trust but it is managed by Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
I follow the gravel pathway towards an area with a stunning red acer and and roman style terrace. You can hear the calming sound of running water and there is a sundial in the centre of this terrace.
To the left is a set of natural stone steps and as you descend to the base of the steps you start to see a beautiful waterfall to your right with a variety of ferns lining the features as banded damselflies dance their way delicately around in the sun and humidity of the waters.
The pathway continues down into what seems like a jurassic world with giant gunnera acting as parasols giving shade as you enter into the next levels of this landscape. You will notice the stream leading down along the pathway and more damselflies dancing through the greenery which is lining the stream. There is a real sense of calm, your attention ever diverting and then there is a dramatic change in the view and you come into a meadow area on an incline. There is an array of white and yellow speckled colouring as dandelions, orchids and oxeye daisies gently swaying with the grasses in the light summer breeze. They probably feel as equally grateful as I do for this breeze as the sun’s intensity beats down upon us.
You come into an area that looks like an old village pond with a small stone bridge over the stream that passes into it. Following the path around this picturesque pond, the waters look blackened from the shaded protection by the variety of trees surrounding it. Some golden orfe can be seen basking near the bridge, taking in the flowing oxygen delivered by the stream. Some ducks slowly paddle through the water, with a cootie (baby coot) paddling lonesomely, looking for its mum. It’s yellow feet looking almost comical in the murkiness of the brown water. As you find yourself halfway round and looking back, the colour scheme of the trees and the blackened effect of the water gives an almost perfect mirrored reflection. Had I done this photo on a long exposure, it would have been what some would call picture perfect, photographic art. However my works are not about perfection. I prefer showing the real view of what I see, the details nature gives up and the atmospheric reality.
As I turn to look behind me, there is a stunning planting scheme, shown in my title photograph of black nigri grass with tall spires of delphiniums, lupins and primula. There appears a stream from the pond trickling through along the pathway. It’s a long walk as you continue to follow the path and you pass into a woodland area, giving way to a view of a hidden japanese style garden and what appears to be deep gullies of rhododendrons. It’s not dull in the woodland area, the last of the red, pink, purple and white flowerings of the rhododendrons is still present. Birds are ever chirping, singing their summer chorus as they fly past eagerly heading for the shade and with their catch of insects to feed their young who will be preparing to fledge and leave the nest soon. At the bottom of the pathway you have just descended from is a huge lake and you have several options on which way to go. I am keeping an eye out for any flashes of blue, as I suspect there may be Kingfishers here.
Westwood Lake is green from algae blooms caused by the direct sunlight onto the waters. You will notice bream, carp, roach and rudd in shoals breaking the waters surface basking in the warmth. As you pass over the first bridge, you can either go onwards around the lake or bear left towards a raised boardwalk that detracts into a reeded area away from the lake.
The boardwalk winds round and you can see a wooden hut for visitors to enjoy a sheltered picnic in surrounded by the rustling of the reeds. This isn’t just a huge reed bed, this area is also a wetland conservation area with another lake area and it reaches beyond the accessible routes. From the guide, if you choose to purchase, it clearly shows it filters into another stream.
I take a pew on the wooden stools and take in the greenery surrounding me whilst having a spot of refreshment as the heat intensifies by midday. I decide to follow the path before me through the dappled shade of woodlands rather than walk back upon myself. I come out at the edge of the lake and continue to follow it round hoping for that flash of blue, but it never comes. The dried mud path leads onto another boardwalk and again you have two options as you come to the end, go left and up hill or go round. I choose to go uphill as I need to start heading back to the entrance to grab a spot of lunch. As I go to begin the climb up, I spot a family of Canada snow geese and their goslings foraging on the greenery at the water’s edge. It really is comical to watch them tugging at the foliage whilst others ducked beneath the waters surface, brown and white bottoms in the air as they foraged the shallows of the lake for weed.
The incline in the shade whilst challenging, was an equally welcome break from the sun and I took another moment to look back at the view of where I had just walked from.
Reaching the summit of the incline from the lake, I got a sense I was in a mixture of American forest and a Jurassic Park. Whilst still dappled, the planting here was diverse with a large variety of pine with one variety dating back to the time of the dinosaurs, the Wollemi pine, I wasn’t wrong in my assessment upon entering. This area is the Pinetum and if you look carefully, some of the trees are home to bees nests. There are some wood carvings dotted around and signs that give information on the species, some of the pines look almost carpet like in appearance. There were some interesting sycamore trees that were just going to seed.
The pathway is now a very cooked and dusty clay with buttercups starting to line the edges as you press onwards. You then come to an opening and it is clear you are being led into a stunning meadow. There is an array of colour again swaying in the summer breeze, though this breeze is no longer as cooling as it started out. Butterflies are floating their way through, trying to find the flower of choice for a refreshing nectar drink. I crouch down low, almost tempted to lie down to get a good close up of the colouring which has the added pinks not just from the orchids, but the red clover.
Amongst the buttercup there is the added yellow from birdsfoot trefoil which is a favourite of the common blue butterfly. I was fortunate to get a close shot of one later in the day. Further up this dusty path, you come to an area of woodland meets meadow and you can just make out a wood cabin in the corner. The way this area has been landscaped bears a resemblance to the scenery seen in Switzerland.
I cut through the greenery following a path and up some steep stone steps. This is now becoming a bit of a hike. Looking back across this valley which is known as Bloomers Valley and The Meadows, it comes with a bit of war time history. From the guide and I do recommend you pick one up if you choose to visit, this area was ploughed for vegetable production during the Second World War. The development of the meadows has been a labour of love for Wakehurst and the planting is very specific to ensure its success as a meadow, which is helping the conservation of many species of plants, butterfly and insects that have been in decline. They have successfully balanced the contrast of woodlands meets meadows, which would have been what much of England looked like before the industrial revolution.
Hiking further on, it starts to become more mountainous and the rocks are getting bigger, though the view is absolutely stunning. I could do without the heat and the excessive sweating as I climb to higher ground. I soon come across a bench and take a break looking back across this stunning landscape. It is a well deserved break as I have walked miles in flip flops, I have a dodgy tan line on my feet and elsewhere, I have come across crimson bottle brush in one area of this hike to a mountainous wooded area speckled with foxgloves. The hornets look almost monstrous in size, giving a real lost world feel to the environment and I am famished. I just need to head out for a bit of lunch before venturing back on further exploration.
Lunch break over and I am not done on this exploration. I head towards the Millennium Seed Bank, on my route a bright pink plant catches my eye in the dappled woodland area to my right and I work the angles to get the best image I can of it. Moving along the path and coming out at the top of a field of Oxeye Daisies and there is a sudden clumsy flight and landing by a male pheasant, who proceeds to call out loudly. You can hear him, but you can no longer see him as he has been dwarfed by the height of the long grass and daisies.
As I meandered towards the glass atrium of the seed bank, I stop outside and try to capture a shot of a bright blue dragonfly which was whizzing around over the water features to no avail. I chose not to photograph the glass atrium for two reasons. One, I knew I would be doing a write up on my visit and it is always best to keep an element of surprise for those who wish to take inspiration from my blogs to visit where I have and two, I was there to capture nature in all its glory. This remarkable research institute holds approximately 2.4 billion seeds from around the world and in normal times, you may be lucky enough to see the science at work. The work done in the seed bank is truly amazing and the atrium allows for visitors to enter and get a real feel of what is involved. The seed bank however, does extensive work to preserve and protect plant species from going extinct. The scientist do not just store seeds, there is a careful process of understanding each species, what conditions are required that will enable it to germinate and thrive. They also do research into food and medicines. Did you know that a lot of medications have been derived from plants? An example of this would be Aspirin (Salicylic Acid). Derived from salix which is found in white willow bark, it is claimed that aspirin was first discovered and invented by sheer chance in 1890 by a German scientist named Felix Hoffmann. Science is always fun and interesting and for me it is something I excelled at in school. Leaving the atrium I decided to follow the route in reverse and back track to where I had come from.
Entering the meadows I spotted in the hazy afternoon sunshine a common blue butterfly. These are super quick and have been a cause of many frustrated huffs as I have tried in vain to get a close up shot. This time it was not to be an in vain attempt. My iPhone had now died and it was up to the questionable macro abilities of the canon 28-90mm lens… Success!
I continue past the valley, towards the lake and I decide to bear right and continue down the path I hadn’t taken earlier. There is a lake house type building with a shoal of mix sized fish basking. I am sure it is a mix of bream, roach and rudd judging by the shape and colouring.
I then take another path and I come to a sign. Which way do I go? I choose to head to the water gardens and begin walking through the Himalayan Glade. It is initially shaded and there are seats along the way, which is helpful in this heat. The shrubs and rhododendrons shape this area with an array of colouring of purples and reds. Suddenly, there is a rustling in the undergrowth… I wait and I can’t see anything for a short time and begin walking. I then end up jumping out of my skin in fright as a male pheasant startles me running out of the undergrowth. I sit watching quietly as he struts his way across the path into the undergrowth and out of sight.
As I come up through the shade, I am met with a large rockery and I take in the the valley before I continue onto to the water gardens passing again the pond I had been at earlier with its array of colourful planting. As I reach this equally stunning area, the sound of water running from the waterfall, immediately brings a sense of peace. It’s not a case of you don’t have this when walking around, but the sound just brings that added extra piece of calm. Here in this area there is a beautiful array of iris and a small boardwalk area that goes around the features. A pair of ducks rest balanced on the rocks by the waterfall, their reflections rippling beneath them.
The afternoon sun is more forgiving now and allows me to relax less sweaty than before to take in the change of light. It is getting late now and closing time is looming near, I head back towards the Mansion and when I reach the pond, I spot a cheeky Jackdaw who is more cunning than a fox. Jackdaws are the true characters of the corvid world. This one has worked out how to beg. It has literally worked out, if it sits there looking like it is about to keel over gasping and or limps about a bit, us daft humans will show compassion and it will get snacks! Unfortunately, I didn’t have any snacks but a fellow photographer did and he was unwittingly unaware he was just about to be done over by more than a just jackdaw.
I get close and begin to take portrait shots of my smart black feathered friend and his piercing blue eyes stand out. My fellow photographer expresses concern the bird is not well, whilst munching on his mini cheddars, at this point unaware his afternoon snacks were about to become bird food. The Jackdaw, hobbles over pathetically looking at him and he gives in and starts to hand over the snacks. In this moment, I clock a pheasant and decide to get as close as reasonably possible to get better shots. At first it is a little camera shy so I go and sit socially distanced from my fellow photographer and watch whilst taking shots of the young coot at the water’s edge.
The pheasant spots the Jackdaw being spoilt and decides, he is going to get in on the action. My fellow photographer is now worried as he watches the pheasant stab the mini cheddars with its beak. The reason for this concern is due to the fact, that every time he pulls out a mini cheddar, the pheasant wants him to hand feed it and he feels this bird is way too violent for this method. I am however, happily snapping away getting close up shots whilst telling him to take a walk on the wild side. “What is the worst that could happen? He looks pretty harmless to me.” I say. He retorts, “I might lose a finger”, which has me in fits of giggles.
After much giggles on my part, he decides to give it a go and is literally recoiling in fear. I suggest he passes a mini cheddar to me and he does. The first of the pheasants struts over as we have two now on the beg with the academy award winning actor of a jackdaw. This pheasant is stood before me looking very eager and I proceed to do the exchange. “Gently I say to him, gently”. I know this sounds completely bonkers but it works and I do believe all creature have an understanding and respect when shown it. The pheasant slowly moves his head forwards towards my fingers which have the mini cheddar gently pinched between my index finger and thumb and he takes the mini cheddar slowly and clumsily between his beak before accidentally dropping it, only for the jackdaw who had now miraculously recovered from its limp to dart in and steal it. Feeling sorry for the bemused pheasant, I proceed to hand it another before heading off towards the main building to make my way home.
I take a final shot of the pond with the house behind it and a few shots of some plants that catch my eye and exit.
Prior to writing this piece, I’d posted some of my images on my instagram page, tagging Wakehurst. As a result, they very kindly reached out and asked if I would allow them to use some of my images. The below video formed part of a story piece on their timeline and they also tweeted the images on their twitter. If you wish to find out more or would like to visit Wakehurst, you can find details through the below links.
My next blog will be due for release on the 1st September 2021, where I will be taking you to a very special place up North…