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.