Our man in the archive: St Leonards Gardens

Tucked away in a secret underground location known only to committee members (and the people who ask them) are the Society archives. The hefty files are a fascinating collection of the history of the local town and the history of the members who strived to maintain it.

In a recent visit, I took a risk on a large red folder originally labelled ‘Treasurer’s Daily Filings’ and was rewarded with a potpourri of old Society newsletters and a more recent history of St Leonards Gardens. The theme of the Gardens was interwoven into many of the newsletters.

Many members will know that St Leonards Gardens have been at the heart of St Leonards since the beginning in 1828. Integral to James Burton’s original plans for the town, the Gardens initially provided a pleasant inland retreat for guests at the St Leonards Hotel (subsequently the Royal Victoria), then a paid communal space for local residents before being purchased by the Hastings Corporation in 1880. Over their near two hundred year existence the Gardens have seen many changes. Gaining and losing a maze, a fountain, a Conqueror’s stone and two thatched huts as well as most of the original perimeter wall. The main lake has morphed from a much elaborate form to its more symmetrical shape today.  An interesting Gardens anecdote relates to 1864 when perimeter hedging was covered in tar to discourage spectators from viewing ice-skaters on the lake. Apparently, it made quite a mess of the clothing of many passers-by.

The Gardens design followed the template established by the earlier collaboration of James Nash and James Burton with curated parkway blended into the natural contours of the countryside and complemented by a small number of carefully positioned buildings (originally the Clockhouse, South Lodge and Gloucester Lodge). We were delighted to discover that the original garden designer was an aptly named Mr Leaf whose intricate pathways spiral around making the Gardens appear larger than their 3.5 acres. Prominent visitors over the years include Princess Victoria, Rider Haggard and Rudyard Kipling.

Some members will also know that the Gardens were rejuvenated with the aid of Heritage Lottery money with works completing in 2007. The Society was closely involved in that process & the grand re-opening (a highlight of which was an open-air performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream). Sadly, I didn’t uncover the 20-minute film of the re-opening produced by Plush Productions for the Society and Hastings Council.  The Society has also been heavily involved in subsequent events including the Burton St Leonards Day celebrations in 2009 graced by Queen Victoria’s great, great, great grand-daughter Princess Katarina of Yugoslavia. Local kids probably have fonder memories of the Society’s Easter Fun day in 2008 and the ‘big chocolate egg’ prizes. Skilled egg rolling would have been on display, provided guests remembered to bring their ‘own hard-boiled eggs’.

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