Highdown Gardens isn’t your usual garden visit. When Sir Frederick Stern was looking for a safe curator for the eclectic range of plants he had successfully established in a chalk pit above Worthing on the Sussex Coast he eschewed what might have been the more natural choice of the National Trust (they must be spitting teeth), or even, given the uniqueness of his collection, Kew Gardens, and left the garden instead to the stalwart care of Worthing Borough Council.
So essentially this rare botanical collection is really just a town park, which has both bonuses and drawbacks. It is free to enter (good) has municipal style toilets (not so good) and distinctly uncommercial opening hours in that during the winter months it is open on weekdays but not at weekends (bizarre).
However it’s uncommerciality is also its charm. You are spared the ritual of being funnelled through the ubiquitous gift shop/entrance booth stocking massed produced trinkets and plants that bear no relation to the garden you are visiting, and the lack of entrance fee means you can plan multiple visits over the course of the year. And you would want to come time and again as the site consists of a series of sheltered ‘garden rooms’ each with rare and in some cases sub-tropical gems, many gifted to the Sterns as seeds collected in the Victorian era of plant hunters such as George Forrest and Kingdom Ward.
Here’s the conundrum, dogs are not allowed in Highdown Gardens, nor are you advised to leave them in the car park, part of which is exposed to the full glare of the sun, so the many doggy companions you will have in the cafe are the ones who have just returned from a lovely walk on the South Downs, not the gardens.
A bit of initiative is needed to find the entrance to gardens which is a rather obscure turn off a piece of dual carriage in the outskirts of town, but once you are there car parking is free and plentiful. Most of the paths in the garden are surfaced with woodchips which personally I wouldn’t like to push a wheelchair around, but maybe I am just a lightweight in this respect.