You will notice, via my posts over the coming weeks, that I have finally started to cautiously partake in some activities that I wouldn’t have considered even a month or so ago, such as visiting museums. However, I’m going to ease you (and myself) in with somewhere that was mainly gardens with a bit of museum, Leonardslee Lakes and Gardens, in West Sussex. As I mentioned in my last post, we recently rented a car for a week, and I knew I wanted to do something other than just sitting at home on my birthday, preferably something that featured animals in some capacity, so when I heard that Leonardslee had both wallabies AND a dolls’ house museum, I was there!
Since it was meant to rain that afternoon, we aimed to get there earlyish, so after a lovely birthday breakfast of pain au chocolat and hazelnut cinnamon buns from our local(ish) Swiss bakery, we headed out. Admission to the gardens is £12.50, and although they do encourage pre-booking to limit social contact, it’s not obligatory, presumably because the gardens are large, so they are more easily to accommodate people than a smaller location such as a museum would be able to. You do have to pass through the admissions desk and show your tickets even if you have pre-booked, so we ended up just paying when we arrived, since a contactless payment wasn’t any more contact than showing someone our booking on a phone would have been. Masks are required in the gift shop, though not in the gardens themselves, and I didn’t see anyone wearing them outside, but the gardens were empty enough that we didn’t have any trouble social distancing.
Leonardslee has both free range wallabies that we never ended up encountering, which were originally introduced to the gardens in 1889, and a separate enclosure for mothers and joeys, and the enclosure wallabies are fed every day at noon, which is right about when we arrived, so we headed directly there. I’m not sure exactly what their food is (some kind of grain, by the looks of it), but they didn’t seem super keen, or were maybe just a bit scared by the people outside the enclosure, as some of them hung back for quite a while, except for this one large white wallaby that seemed like kind of a jerk. She hopped to every bowl of food, pushing other wallabies out of the way to get in there, even though there was more than enough food to go around. Wallabies breed in January and February, and only have a 29 day gestation period, so the joeys were already pretty large by the time we saw them, but they were still cute. I love Australian marsupials, though I think wombats are still my favourite!
After we’d had our fill of the enclosure wallabies, we headed off to try to find some free range ones. However, we quickly had to put the kibosh on that idea when we found ourselves trapped behind a group of very, very slow moving people on a narrow trail. In the before times, we would have just gone around them, but in Covid times, there wasn’t enough space to do so safely, so after following them for a bit like Mr. Bean when he gets stuck behind the elderly people on the hotel staircase, I got too impatient to continue, so we turned around and took a different trail that led us to the lakes. These were quite picturesque, as I’m sure you can tell, but there wasn’t much to do other than walk around them, and as it was my birthday, I made the executive decision that I couldn’t be bothered to take the trail that led to the deer park (since I can see millions of deer in Richmond Park any time I want, and I don’t even particularly like them, as they seem scarily aggressive during rutting season. I don’t even feel like it’s safe for people to walk amongst them when they’re having their antler fights, but clearly the Queen doesn’t care as long as she gets her venison), so we headed back to the centre of the estate again.
And this is where I found the dolls’ house museum, which was easily the best part of Leonardslee. It was created by a lady named Helen Holland in 1998, and it was amazing. I love miniature things and dolls’ houses so much, and this was a whole village! It filled an entire room, with a mansion and row of shops right in the middle. I was instantly captivated when I walked in the door and saw the miniature churchyard with adorable tiny graves (even an open grave!), but honestly there was so many highlights.
I could fill up the rest of this post with pictures of all the different rooms and buildings, but I guess I’ll spare those of you who aren’t as enamoured with this stuff as I am (though seriously, why not?). Helen clearly had a sense of humour, as there were a number of cheeky touches, like a dog stealing sausages, a man obliviously carrying on with his bath whilst a repairman fixed the toilet, a poor little boy in a dunce cap standing in the corner of the schoolroom, and a couple literally “rolling in the hay” in the hayloft of the barn.
There were even moving parts (though not on the hayloft couple, I hasten to add)! There was a tiny lift that went up and down with a woman riding in it, a maid dusting, and a butcher’s arm chopping meat. The dolls’ house was in an indoor area, but it was only us and one other woman who was on the opposite side of the exhibition when we came in, and we availed ourselves of the bottles of hand sanitizer that had been placed at the entrance and exit, so it felt OK being indoors with a stranger and helped give me the confidence to start visiting museums again later that week.
I probably could have spent most of the day in the dolls’ house museum, but a family came in as we were near the end, and I could tell the children were going to be running all around, so it hastened my departure somewhat. Leonardslee describes itself as the “Finest Woodland Gardens in England”, and there were still a few gardens we hadn’t seen, so we headed to those next. The rock garden was memorable mainly for the lion sculpture hidden in it, though it does look lovely in the pictures taken in the spring when more flowers are in bloom.
We also visited the oldest garden on the estate (not sure exactly how old it was, but most of the estate seemed to have been designed in the 1880s-90s, when Leonardslee was owned by the naturalist Sir Edmund Loder). It was described as “magical” and we did find a few fairy doors hidden around, but it was a bit smaller than we were expecting. I liked the sequoias and the massive Douglas fir though!
I also loved the tree fountain in front of the old manor house, which is now a restaurant amusingly named “Restaurant Interlude” that I think is serving afternoon tea again, but I knew I had ice cream cake waiting for me at home, besides still not being super keen to actually have a lengthy meal in a restaurant, so we didn’t investigate further. We did, however, visit the enclosure wallabies again before we left, where we very clearly heard a rooster crowing, so of course I had to wander around until we found the chickens, which were right at the end of the estate. The roosters were named Rodney, Idris, and Wesley, but I’m not sure which was which (we weren’t told the names of the hens, which is typical. Only the males were worthy of names, apparently).
By this point it was starting to rain a bit, and I was ready to go home and open some presents anyway, so we decided to head off (and made it just in time, as it started really pissing it down when we got in the car). It wasn’t the sort of place I would have normally visited, given the £12.50 admission fee just for gardens, but given the current circumstances, and how few places I had been in the past six months, I actually thought it was alright. I loved the dolls’ house museum and the wallabies, and the gardens themselves were undeniably attractive; I’m just always a bit meh on gardens. I prefer a stately home and gardens where you can actually go inside the house, which is probably why Leonardslee hadn’t been on my radar previously. 3/5, mainly just based on my love for the dolls’ village!