In my last post I wrote about the great Edwardian gardener, Ellen Willmott and recommended an interesting biography about her. Rereading this biography made me curious to see what remains of her garden today. So last week we went to Warley Place in search of her lost garden.
Today, it is cared for by Essex Wildlife trust as a Nature Reserve; little is left of this once famous garden. But if you go in Springtime, you are met by the wonderful sight of acres of the wild daffodil, Narcisissus pseudonarcissus in the meadows. Here is where she had booby traps set off trip wires which fired air rifles.
These daffodils were already here but Ellen increased them by getting the gardeners’ children to throw bulbs on the ground and then they were planted where they landed.
She was passionate about daffodils and had a collection of 600 species and hybrids. She bred daffodils herself and introduced many new varieties for which she won RHS awards. These she kept in the walled garden. There is no sign of them now. Amongst the the lovely wild daffodils in the meadows I noticed this beautiful, pale lemon and white one which I thought could be pallidiflorus or maybe a naturally occurring seedling of the many Narcissus pseudonarcissus. Does anyone recognise the variety? I would love to have it in my garden.
Ellen’s father found Warley Place when he saw an advertisement in the paper. The wording of the advert tickled me. It was for the auction of a residence ‘approached by a Carriage Drive with two Entrance Lodges, and in every way suited for the occupation of a family of the highest respectability.‘ I suppose this appealed to the son of a chemist from Borough Road, Southwark. It is sad that the house has been demolished. All that remains to be seen are the cellars where the kitchens were, a few hall tiles and the broken steps to the terrace.
This is what the house and conservatory looked like in its heyday, viewed from the back of the house.
The shell of the conservatory still stands.
There are still the remains of the tessellated floor tiles.
Here Ellen would sit and drink her coffee and write her letters as she enjoyed the morning sun and the lovely view over her immaculate lawn to the Cardinal’s Walk beyond. Now the lawn is a mass of turkey oaks and shrubs and it is to be turned into a woodland.
The name Cardinal’s Walk is probably a reference to the fact that there was an Abbey here until the dissolution of the monasteries. It was bought by the diarist John Evelyn in 1649 and it is said that he had the wonderful chestnut trees planted which are still such a feature of the place. I wonder if it was Ellen’s idea to set them off in a lovely lawn of moss.
Ellen’s first project was to build a rock garden. She asked her father’s permission for this but he was probably amazed by the sheer scale of the project. She had it made by a Yorkshire company, James Backhouse and sons, who were famous as alpine specialists, but they had never made anything on quite this scale before with huge boulders and a mountain gorge with a stream running through it and a grotto for ferns.
Once she had her wonderful rock garden she needed a gardener to be responsible for it because she intended growing only the most rare and beautiful of alpines, so she poached a gardener from a Swiss nurseryman, Henri Correvon in Geneva, from whom she bought many of her plants. She had an alpine propagating house built and she housed the gardener in the tiny South Lodge where in time he was to raise a family of 9 children.
The head gardener was housed in the other larger lodge and she set about building up her army of gardeners. As well as the alpine gardener, she had a herbaceous ‘foreman’, 2 gardeners for vegetables and fruit, a gardener for roses, one for chrysanthemums and so on. She even had a water engineer to look after the watering system. The remains of her hot houses show a complicated lay-out.
The fruit and vegetables were grown in a walled garden away from the house but the walled garden where Ellen grew many of her floral treasures is still relatively intact.
There were of course ponds.The south pond probably dates from the time there was an Abbey here. Ellen restocked it with fish and both the ponds were planted up with beautiful aquatic plants. Now there are hides and birdfeeders so visitors can watch the birds.
The boating pond fascinates me, it was obviously huge and built on the hillside, how on earth was that done? She had a boat house and next to it was a shepherd’s hut that she brought back from Switzerland and rebuilt here. She was a great admirer of Napoleon Bonaparte and he was said to have spent a night in the hut. So she had to have it.
Given that Ellen grew 100,000 species and cultivars of plants, it is strange that there are so few plants left. When I was there, apart from the daffodils I saw a couple of Corydalis,one clump of Pulmonaria and this little Scilla pratensis was seeding around everywhere. There are thousands of snowdrops; they have seeded all over the garden. It would be interesting to see how many new snowdrops are growing here. Most of them were over but one late one caught my eye.
Essex Wildlife Trust have done a wonderful job here and it is a beautiful Nature Reserve. But if you are a gardener, what is really intriguing is seeing the remains of one of the country’s most celebrated gardens and imagining the ghost of Miss Ellen Willmott lingering in the garden she loved so much that she spent her entire fortune on making it ever more beautiful.
I suppose it’s possible that many of her plants were removed by gardeners or people selling them. Interesting post, fascinating to see where she lived
I think her sister’ s family from Spetchley Park probably took a lot of treasures and then it must have been plundered over the years.
How beautiful are the daffodils and the chestnut trees, etc., Chloris.
And what a sweet-sad feeling this post evokes.
To learn about her vision and efforts to create such a lovely garden. And to know that all our labours as gardeners are entirely dependent upon someone else’s continuation of it — or it reverts to the wild.
And even knowing that, I would still have a garden, and still labour to create something beautiful. wouldn’t you?
Yes gardening is so ephemeral, if you write a book or paint a picture, it lives on but a garden disappears very quickly. It is sad after so much effort but we don’ t garden for posterity. We garden for here and now and perhaps tomorrow, or even next year.
I always hope that at least the trees that I plant will live on to give pleasure to future generations. That’ s about as much as we can hope for.
Amazing post! It’s fascinating to read about one person’s endeavours to tame nature, and to see how quickly nature ‘untames’ those same endeavours! But oh to have a gardener for each type of plant in the garden 🙂
Love the densely packed hills of daffodils. Don’t know the name of that pale one but it is really unusual. Seeing the ruins of Willmott’s house and garden is fascinating, but a bit sad.
I agree Susie, it is sad but also fascinating. It reminds me of the children’ s book, The Secret Garden. I would love to get to work in the walled garden and restore it.
Ellen Willmott’ s story fascinates me. To have so much money to indulge her passion for plants must have been wonderful. The sheer scale of the enterprise is amazing. If I lived nearer I would love to be a volunteer working there for Essex Wildlife Trust. There is still a lot to discover.
You are right, seeing the ruins of the garden, it is sad for us that her garden is lost. Is any part being restored as the former garden? You have taken some lovely photos on your trip too.
Not really, I don’ t think they have the funds to do any restoration but they are trying to keep to the spirit of the place and they have cleared a path through and done an enormous amount of clearance.
What an interesting, well-done piece of research, especially with your illuminating photographs. The chestnut trees look magnificent and the daffodil covered hillsides are stunning. Thanks for sharing this.
Thank you,the ancient chestnuts are magnificent. It wouldn’ t be such a long way for you to visit sometime. I do recommend it.
What a wonderful trip to this garden still blooming in part…especially stunning are the hills of daffodils….her legacy.
The daffodils are indeed a wonderful sight. They are indeed quite a legacy.
Very sad indeed to see the garden in such a state of disrepair. I’m also intrigued to know how a boating lake could be constructed on the side of a hill. A duck pond would suffice for me and even that would be a challenge.
Yes, you know all about gardening on a slope. I think a pond might be a problem. The water would be forever sloshing over the edge.
Wow, the Narcissus are lovely! I’m imagining Ellen sitting there drinking her coffee and contemplating the day’s activities. It’s sad that so many of the plants are gone.
The conservatory must have been a wonderful place to sit. I imagine it was full of rare and fragrant plants. Yes nearly all of the plants are gone, it is such a shame.
It’s almost unfathomable to me that one person could create such a garden in a single lifetime – but I suppose having a legion of gardeners helped.
Well yes, over 100 gardeners are quite a help but she had enormous vision.
A fascinating post and history of this historic home and set of gardens. It is odd that most of the plants are gone; could they have been lifted by the neighbors over the years and spread around the nearby communities? And what a shame that there is little remaining of that beautiful home. Thank you for this history and the wonderful photos.
I believe the family removed many of the treasures. The property was neglected for so many years that much would have been stolen and many others choked by weeds.
Sad but fascinating. Sic transit gloria mundi…
It is sad to think the same thing will probably happen to many of our gardens unless another enthusiast takes over. So much hard work and dedication and then it disappears forever.
What a lovely post, but so sad that garden has been lost! It would be impossible to maintain such extensive grounds though without investing an awful lot of money in it, so it seems a good solution has been found with the nature reserve. Those masses of daffodils are a wonderful sight. I bet there are still a few hidden treasures lurking beneath weeds and ivy, perhaps later in the year, but a garden can disappear so rapidly if not tended. Thanks for sharing Chloris!
You are right, there must be some treasures still hidden away. I would like to see it when the snowdrops are at their best, there are probably some exciting new varieties.
Such an interesting post about the garden. The daffodils are wonderful, I’m so glad that it has been turned into a nature reserve and that people are still able to visit.
Yes, it is still beautiful although not a garden. The daffodils are amazing.
A most enjoyable post and wonderful pictures about what sounds and looks like a really fascinating place. xx
Thank you Flighty, it is well worth a visit.
I agree that is a beautiful narcissus! Try looking though Mr Scamps selection it might be in there, I started to look but have to dash …… http://qualitydaffodils.com Let me know if you find it. (ps lovely post)
Thank you for the tip Gill, but I can’ t find it anywhere. Perhaps it is a seedling. It is beautiful.
Oh a fascinating glimpse into Warley Place Chloris. It does indeed sadly seem a very much lost garden now 😦 The wild daffodils are splendid and I can understand why the pale lemon and white one caught your eye. I’m trying to get my head round a family with nine children living in that tiny lodge!
It certainly is a fascinating place. She was obviously a perfectionist but her gardeners had a tough time. The lodge is really tiny, I can’ t think how they managed to squash in here, but then all the gardeners were exploited and badly paid.
I’m always drawn to ruins, especially when they were once so grand, in time I suppose, everything reverts back to wilderness……I’m glad that it’s now a nature reserve. I loved the carpets of daffs and those chestnut trees….it’s all very Bronte and brooding though isn’t it, and hauntingly sad, to think so many plants disappeared/were stolen/taken…..If ghosts exist and linger I have no doubt she still roams the garden, but of course it will be as it was, in all it’s glory.xxx
It is very atmospheric, I’ m glad you could pick up on that. It would be quite spooky to walk there at night. You wouldn’ t want to bump into the ghostly Ellen with her spectral gun.
It is both good that the garden is now a nature reserve but sad that what must have been one of the great gardens of its time has been lost for ever. At least she is remembered by the plants that are named after her and Warley Place.
Yes, and it is amazing how many plants bear her name or that of Warley Place. So at least she has a legacy. But the garden should have been saved, it was unique.
The daffodils are spectacular and I love the ruins. How interesting that it is now a wildlife trust. I wonder what their vision is exactly. Wildlife have specific needs. I went to their site but didn’t find much of a mission statement or philosophy. I’d love to learn more.
I think they are trying to preserve what they can of the site and make it wildlife friendly. They have done a little restoration here and there; for instance they have started to rebuild the terrace, but oh dear, they have used modern bricks and it looks terrible. If I lived near enough I would love to get involved as a volunteer. It would be so exciting.
There’s something about these old places, ruins, days gone by, isn’t there. It’s nice to see that nature has found as spot to unfold and the ghosts will remain and give the place its special atmosphere. That daffodil meadow will haunt me in my dreams, Liz, wow what a sight! Henri Correvon planted the amazing alpine gardens of Flores Alpes in Champex-Lac by the way which is close to where we are based in Switzerland. Worth a visit, if you go there.
Lost gardens hold so much magic. This place is incredibly atmospheric.
There is a Clematis ‘ Madame Julie Correvon’ isn’ t there? Is she a relation?
First of all I think it’s great that you were able to visit this garden after reading the book. It must have really heightened you perceptions of the park and landscape and I bet it made it an even more fascinating visit.
What a shame it’s all nearly gone, but I suppose the nature of gardening sets you up for that from the start. If it was completely static it could possibly be finished some day, and then what? So we keep on tinkering and hope for the best, but I often look at old garden photos and wonder if the garden I had might not be better than what I have now.
There was an old estate nearby to where I grew up. The grounds were neglected for years and the magic of the place was in the leftover treasures and graceful decay of the older parts. The state took over and brought the gardens back, but even in its current beauty there’s something I miss from the old days. There’s nothing left to the imagination now.
The daffodils are amazing. I think you’re right that the snowdrops would rival that show.
I agree about the magic of neglected gardens and of course that is why the children’ s book ‘ The Secret Garden’ has such perennial appeal. I used to visit an abandoned garden as a child too and I was enchanted by it.
How sad that such a grand garden and home are gone but as you said, gardens are ephemeral.
They are indeed ephemeral but I think important ones like this should never be allowed to fall into neglect.
Thanks for an evocative post that has generated equally evocative responses – and reminded us how temporary we and our gardens are. I imagine there are still other great gardens out there waiting to be rediscovered – hard to believe that places like Heligan and Dewstow just disappeared for decades, to name just a couple.
The problem is that a garden like this would cost so much money to restore. All the same it would be wonderful to see it it as it was in Ellen’ s day. Maybe one day, someone will realise its importance and do something with it.
I am so glad you made the time to visit and show us this old garden Chloris – the daffodils give such a tantalising glimpse into what it must have been like in its prime.
It is worth visiting Julie, specially at daffodil time.
“Given that Ellen grew 100,000 species and cultivars of plants, it is strange that there are so few plants left.” Was the garden ever left untended for long periods?
If so, overgrowth might explain some of the loss, but also, neighbouring gardeners might have come out with their scissors in the moonlight (and flashlights) and taken their pick?
It was empty and neglected for years. Many plants would have been strangled by the undergrowth and many more would have been taken.
Thank you so much for the posts on Ellen Willmott. Fascinating background to Miss Willmott’s Ghost, which is doing brilliantly in our garden this year.
Thank you for the nice comment and for visiting my blog.