Discovering Rosie Lea at Staunton Country Park
PUBLISHED: 14:54 12 November 2013 | UPDATED: 14:54 12 November 2013
In the heart of Havant lies a country park spanning 1,000 acres, but did you know it was from here that one man created our favourite Earl Grey tea? Natalie French met Head Horticulturalist Chris Bailey to find out more
Staunton Country Park is another of Hampshire’s little gems – perfect for the whole family. Whilst younger visitors love the ornamental farm, jubilee maze and play areas; the older generations can take a stroll in the beautifully manicured gardens and soak up the rich history and intriguing links to the Orient.
One person who has been captivated by the park’s past is Head Horticulturist, Chris Bailey. Having worked at Staunton since 1996, Chris has a fabulous job. As part of a small horticultural team, he is responsible for preserving the heritage aspects, planning projects and keeping up the day-to-day maintenance of the grounds on the pay zone. “There’s quite a bit to do,” he explains, “the walled garden and glass houses are quite intensive.”
Anyone who has seen the walled garden in full bloom will agree Chris is a master of his craft and it’s no surprise to hear that he was a Kew Gardens diploma student for three years.
But his passion extends beyond the blooms: “I think it’s important to get under the skin of the owners, and what their influences were,” says Chris. “Sir George Thomas Staunton bought the park in 1819 and then spent 20 years in China with the East India Company; he was fluent in Chinese. A leading Orientalist of his day, he was a founder member of the Royal Asiatic Society. The Gothic Library building that you saw near the walled garden was specifically built to house 3000 Chinese books.
“He was a politician for Portsmouth and South Hampshire, and was on all the committees in the Houses of Parliament about Chinese affairs. He actually walked around Hong Kong before it was ceded to the British in 1842. He was a leading horticulturalist and botanist, and all the great and good would come down to visit him here. This was sort of a summer residence, I suppose.”
As we walked across the road to the free area of Staunton, within the Leigh Park estate (which gave its name to the post-war housing estate), Chris explained the extent of Staunton’s influence on society:
“When I’ve been doing my own research into George Staunton, I knew he sponsored these derring-do explorers, professional collectors who used to collect for all the big private owners of the estates and all the plants you see around you are these specimens! Now we take them for granted. We don’t realise how it was first discovered on a mountain in Sichuan Province, 1700 feet up, through warring tribes,” enthuses Chris.
“One of these explorers was called Robert Fortune,” he continues, “and he spent quite a while in China, Japan and Korea in later years, and Staunton sponsored him. Amongst his other exploits he was to bring around 20,000 young tea plants out of China and virtually set up the tea industry of the Indian sub-continent and Sri Lanka! It is mind boggling how he managed to smuggle them out, but he broke the monopoly - all because the British couldn’t get enough tea.”
“Because Staunton was employed by the East India Company who had a massive influence on the fortunes of Britain as a whole, he used to grow samples of tea in the glass houses here, and the leading tea inspectors from the East India Company would regularly visit this estate to look at the tea and talk to the head gardener, Alexander Scott.”
But there was one particular blend of tea that Staunton favoured, explains Chris: “He was instrumental in getting people to make Earl Grey and The East India Food Company used to do a tea called ‘Staunton’s Earl Grey’. There were massive connections between this estate and the humble cup of tea!”
The Walled Garden is a heavenly place to lose yourself in. This formal garden is bursting with vibrant coloured floral displays, interspersed with busy bumble bees and butterflies. Along with beautiful flowers, you’ll find fragrant herbs, fruit and vegetables – which are often sold in the farm shop. This is a top haunt for the free-roaming peacocks, that can be spotted bathing on the garden wall or wandering the rows for a casual munch on the petals. On the edge of the walled garden, you’ll also find the largest Victorian Glasshouse on the South Coast. This hot and exotic habitat houses tropical plants and flowers from across the globe, including giant bamboo, coconut palms, banana trees and the famous giant Amazon water lily.
Top 6 plant picks
Head Horticulturist, Chris Bailey shares his must-see plant species to look out for
1 Giant Amazon Waterlilly (Victoria Amazonica)
My number one would have to be the ‘Queen of the Aquatics’ and the most impressive water lily - Victoria Amazonica. This truly tropical species, with a distinctively flat lily pad, is one of two naturally occurring species from South America. Sir George Thomas Staunton first flowered the Victoria Amazonica on the 28th August 1853 within the purpose built Victoria regia glasshouse, in the Walled Garden, from a plant received from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. They are grown from a pea-sized seed each year and generally flower within about three months.
2 Giant Tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera)
Between the outdoor play area and the shire horse paddock you’ll find a truly massive Giant Tulip tree. It’s Native to eastern North America and the ground girth is wider than a car – it’s a huge tree! It has a very distinctive four lobe leaf and is part of the magnolia family. It has a strange green, yellowy, orange flower in April/May. In the USA it can attain a height of 58 metres (190 feet) but usually reaches 30+ metres or approx 100 feet.
3 Cedar of Lebanon (Cedrus libani)
There’s a very impressive Cedar of Lebanon growing on the historic area known as the ‘Front Lawn’ or the ‘Pinetum’ where the first Staunton House was sited. The trees within this area are chiefly coniferous in nature. It was probably planted by William Garrett who sold the estate to Sir George Thomas Staunton in 1819.
4 Well Meadow
Some of the nicest views in the whole park are from Well Meadow within Leigh Park Gardens. The semi-ancient natural woodland can be viewed from Cedar Drive and has wonderful oaks and mixed broadleaved trees. From the Cedar Drive you get the sweep down to the stream by the willows and even in winter you get the skeletal framework here with the Willows young wood turning bright orange. This is most impressive with a sharp frost and early morning mist, or in winter’s sunrise.
5 Monkey Puzzle/Chile Pine (Araucaria araucana)
Native to Chile & Western Argentina in South America, the Monkey Puzzle was first introduced to the British Isles in 1795 by Archibald Menzies. He was served the seeds of this conifer as a dessert, whilst dining with a Chilean governor. After sowing some seeds on HMS Discovery, he returned to Britain with five plants. With sharp whorled growth it was commented upon that: “to climb this tree would puzzle even a monkey”, and the name stood. A fine example is growing on the `Fishermans Walk` track within Leigh Park Gardens on the right before the Shell House folly is viewed.
6 The Lady Oak (Quercus robur)
On the same track as above there is a magnificent English Oak. It is several hundred years old growing on a grass bank within sight of the Shell House. Native Oaks support the greatest diversity of life of all trees grown within the British Isles and their strength is magnificent. It took up to 2000 Oak trees to build the ‘wooden walls of England’ - ships such as HMS Victory.
On the Farm
Little ones (and grown-ups) will love the Ornamental farm – home to everyday animals such as chickens, sheep and ‘Guinness’, the Saddle Back Sow, who recently gave birth to 10 incredibly cute piglets; as well as rare breeds such as the llamas, alpacas and Staunton’s very own herd of Longhorn Cattle. Purchase a bag of food at the entrance and you can enjoy a real hands-on experience with the animals. Keep an eye out for the delightful Bagot goats, which are listed as endangered by the Rare Breed Survival Trust (RBST).
Take me there
Staunton Country Park is open daily from 10am – 5pm (4pm winter), closed Christmas/Boxing day.
Farm & garden admissions: Adults: £7.50; Senior Citizen: £6.50; Concessions: £6.50; Child (age 3 -16): £3.50. Family (2 adults, 2 children) £21.
Entrance to the Country Park is free. Dogs can be taken around Leigh Park Gardens, but not on the Farm.
Staunton Country Park, Middle Park Way, Havant, PO9 5HB