Saturday, 27 July 2019

An Oasis of Calm at West Dean Gardens

When I was a child my mum would often take my brother and I off on adventure days. Essentially mum would pop us in the car with a picnic and pick a general area to head to and just drive. We used to have great fun exploring new places and coming across things that we never would have found if we were planning to go somewhere specific. We all loved these days and they are some of my favourite childhood memories. Unfortunately being chronically ill and disabled means these exploring days are not as easy as they used to be. Firstly, I need to be well enough to actually cope with going further than usual in the car, and secondly, most places are not easily accessible in a wheelchair (even when they say they are).  However, we decided that as it would be good weather for the first May Bank Holiday weekend, we would try an M.E. friendly adventure day i.e. travel a bit further afield but with an end destination in mind that had been recommended to us and had been able to research if it was disabled-friendly.

So on a Sunday morning last summer, with a loose plan in place, I woke up feeling strong enough for an adventure and to top it off the sky was fabulously blue and filled with beautiful sunshine. We set off when we were ready (no pressure is key to these days) and headed off down to West Dean Gardens in West Sussex, near Chichester.

West Dean Gardens
After managing to avoid too much traffic we arrived to find several disabled spaces opposite the entrance, and although they were full, there was some other close parking right next to them that we were able to park in and it was a flat surface meaning there was no awful gravel to try and push the wheelchair through! Parking for everyone is complimentary (unlike some places these days).

A short pathway under beautiful blossom trees led to a step-free entrance with the cafe to the right and the shop and garden entrance to the left. You can enjoy the cafe and the shop without having to pay the garden entrance fee. There is also a disabled loo in the shop which is very handy and was kept very clean. Tickets are bought in the shop for £9.50 for an adult and a carer can get in for free.

We crossed over on a flat path into a beautiful oasis. As it was about 1pm lunch was definitely in order. So we settled down to have our picnic on a sun-dappled bench on the outskirts of the picnic lawn. Dotted around the picnic lawn were several wooden tables with proper chairs that were occupied by some people having lavish picnics with tablecloths and crockery and others with a more simple fair. There were also trees surrounded by wildflowers that provided plenty of shade for those who were picnicking on the floor. We could see the sheep roaming in the hills and admire the beautiful sight and smell of the patch-work quilt of flowers all around us.

There are many sections to the gardens, most of which are suitable for wheelchairs, and only small gentle inclines, meaning whoever is pushing the wheelchair doesn't have to work too hard. There are also many benches and chairs dotted around the whole garden encouraging visitors to take some time to enjoy the wonderful surroundings.

My Favourite Parts 
I really enjoyed the kitchen walled gardens, particularly the beautiful Victorian glasshouses. Garden-goers are allowed to go into these, however, they were not wheelchair accessible. I did enjoy looking through the doors and seeing a wealth of plants from lettuces to exotic vines, flowers and fruits! I also loved being pushed around the little pathways and bridges around the stream in the Spring Gardens Area. Rolling alongside the babbling brook in the cool shade with a multitude of different plants lining the river and walkway was incredibly calming. I felt at peace here. So much so we even laid out our picnic rug and had a quiet rest on the cool ground surrounded by thousands of little daisies, watching the pairs of ducks fishing in the stream and drifting along with the tide.

After a couple of hours in the gardens it was still stunning weather, so before a quick mooch around the shop, we decided to refuel before the journey home. They have a lovely terrace, with large parasols, that is accessible through the main cafe and down a small ramp to make it easy for any level of disability. They make lots of the food themselves and use what they can from their kitchen gardens. I had a fresh mint tea, which was chockablock full of the most delicious smelling mint. The scones to the salads to the cooked meals all looked delicious. They had a large array of mouth-watering cakes. For allergies they had gluten-free bread for sandwiches, baked potatoes with multiple toppings, a gluten-free carrot cake and a packaged gluten and dairy-free chocolate brownie. By now I was exhausted, but propped up on a folded up blanket (provided for guests of the cafe) and my own cushions on the wooden chairs, I felt very contented in the warm sunshine. It was a joy to watch the lambs playing in the closest field and people strolling happily across the gardens.

In Conclusion
It is rare, especially when I am out, I reach a place where I can detach from my symptoms but as soon as we entered the gardens it was just an oasis of calm, peace and I could truly be in the moment. I cannot recommend this place highly enough. Not only for the beautiful environment but for really great accessibility. If you are anywhere near West Dean Gardens and the weather is warm it is somewhere you must visit, and it is suitable for anyone!
West Dean Gardens
West Dean
Nr Chichester
West Sussex
PO18 0RX

(This article was originally published in the Sussex & Kent ME/CFS Society Newsletter Summer 2019)

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