Borde Hill Garden Book Review

Borde Hill Garden – A Plant Hunter’s Paradise

Review by Roy Lancaster CBE, VMH

Courtesy of RHS Rhododendron, Camellia & Magnolia Group Bulletin 139, August 2022

One of the most treasured volumes in my library is a bound copy (published in 1935) of a Catalogue of the Trees and Shrubs (excluding Rhododendrons) at Borde Hill, Sussex in December 1932. It was compiled by the Kew-based botanist and dendrologist Albert Bruce Jackson (1876–1947) with a foreword and notes by Col. Stephenson Robert Clarke CB. My copy was bequeathed to me by a long-time friend and colleague of mine, the late Hatton Gardner who for many years in the 1960s spent much of his free time updating the plant records at Borde Hill via a card index system.

Borde Hill, one of the great gardens of Sussex, and Britain for that matter, benefited from the personal interest and endeavours of several successive generations of the Clarke family beginning with Colonel Stephenson Robert Clarke (1862-1948) and continuing through to the present day with Andrewjohn Patrick Stephenson Clarke (1955-). My earliest visit to this plant paradise was in the 1960s when the then owner Ralph Stephenson Clarke (1892-1970) invited my employer Harold, later Sir Harold Hillier, a long-time gardening friend, to tour the collections. It was an experience I shall never forget and we were joined by the Head Gardener Brian Doe. It was the first of many visits, which included an equally memorable day in July 1975 in the company of Tony Schilling together with the late Alan Mitchell and the late Desmond Clarke (a cousin of Robert Nunn Stephenson Clarke (1925-1987)), a well-known dendrologist and Chief Editor of the Eighth Edition of W.J. Bean’s Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles. On this occasion we had come together principally to view and discuss the many birch (Betula) species and varieties represented, and guided by the then Head Gardener Jack Vass, we went on to look at the many other trees and shrubs there which included a huge selection of rhododendrons, species and cultivars, and likewise camellias.

Indeed, it was at Borde Hill that one of the most popular and famous camellias of all time, Camellia x williamsii ‘Donation’, was raised from a cross made in the winter of 1937-38 by the then Head Gardener Walter Fleming between C. saluenensis and C. japonica ‘Donckelaeri’ (now known as C. japonica ‘Masayoshi’). The details of ‘Donation’, including its introduction to commerce and subsequent success, is but one of the many stories to be found in this long awaited, fulsome and fitting tribute to the Garden and the gardening dynasty that created and continues to develop and support it.

Its author has faithfully recorded a real-life saga that features a supporting cast of some of the most significant names in British gardening history, spanning the late Victorian era to the present day. There is a skilful balance in the narrative which, while detailing the lives and times of the Clarke family living in the “big” house reminds us also of those other individuals who in their own ways contributed to the story, in particular the gardening staff. It comes as no surprise that the roll call of Head Gardeners from the beginning included some of the most skilled and respected of their profession and it is fair to say that the respect was acknowledged by their employers to their mutual benefit. Indeed, some of those who shone at Borde Hill subsequently pursued a successful career elsewhere.

Inevitably, it is the Garden that dominates the show and the author faithfully reminds us of the sheer numbers and variety of plants successfully grown at Borde Hill, reflecting the many and varied interests of the Clarkes and the many sources and calibre of their suppliers, be they nurseries such as Veitch or Hilliers, plant hunters including Wilson, Forrest and Kingdon Ward or friends and fellow enthusiasts such as Lionel de Rothschild at Exbury and George Johnstone at Trewithen, while RHS Wisley and the botanic gardens at Kew and Edinburgh also played their part.

Every visitor will have their own special tree moments and I know I won’t be alone in choosing the Garden of Allah, an area close to the house created by Stephenson Robert Clarke in 1925 where he was inspired to plant a “who’s who” of special trees which included Magnolia fraseri, M. officinalis and M. obovata from S.E. USA, China and Japan respectively, known here as ‘The Three Sisters’ or ‘The Holy Trinity’. Nearby he added a Chinese Tulip tree Liriodendron chinense, a Wilson original bought from Veitch in 1913 which represents as impressive a quartet as can be found anywhere. Not far away in Warren Wood is another signature tree in Meliosma alba (formerly M. beaniana), one of only three in British collections. Almost, if not as important as the ‘woodies’ are the enormous numbers of perennials including bulbs which attract their own admirers.

This brings me to the colour illustrations, most of which were provided by John Glover. There are garden books in which the text is dominant and the illustrations disappointing and vice versa. Here the illustrations are beautifully in sync with the narrative and are particularly successful in capturing the spirit of the garden and its plants through the seasons. They also highlight the many changes made by family and staff over the years as well as those new features and planting schemes designed and delivered in more recent years by some of the profession’s outstanding talents. Added to these and enriching the book in its early (historical) chapters are the many archive photographs.

A final note. With this publication’s specialist relationship in mind and for those who have never visited Borde Hill, and they must be few, this account makes a brave attempt at acknowledging the multiple riches of the rhododendron, camellia and magnolia collections here which alone, in the flowering season, would occupy the enthusiast’s undivided attention were they able to avert their eyes to all else.

Roy Lancaster CBE, VMH

This glorious aerial view of Borde Hill showcases the layout and the wealth of trees which characterise the garden Photo: © Nick Barrie


  • Price: £40.00 (including Garden Day Admission for 1 Adult)
  • Or £35.00 for the book without Garden Admission
  • Publisher: ‎ Merrell (28 April 2022)
  • Language: ‎ English
  • Hardcover: ‎ 208 pages
  • Size: 29 x 25 cm, 300 illustrations, 1 map
  • ISBN-10: ‎ 1858946905 / ISBN-13: ‎ 978-185894690