Secrets of a ghostly garden
A band of volunteers work to reveal the hidden beauty of a once magnificent landscape at Warley Place in Essex
High on a wooded hill, the crumbled walls of a ruined house are just visible through a plethora of wild flowers and rare horticultural gems. At the top, the dense, steep terrain levels off into a glade, where sounds of earth being shovelled and undergrowth hacked filter through the trees. A team of dedicated volunteers are gradually uncovering a lost garden. This is the now-sleeping Warley Place, in south Essex, the most secret of ruined landscapes. In its heyday at the beginning of the 20th century, it was renowned for its magnificence. Today, in the short, dappled sunshine of spring, a rolling carpet of wild flowers covers broken brick, collapsed greenhouse and vanished flower beds. Glimpses of its former glory peep through the undergrowth, but there are no intentions of restoring it to its original splendour. “It’s a balancing act. We constantly have to ask ourselves ‘is it a historic garden or a nature reserve?’,” says John Cannell, a retired engineer and volunteer archivist of the garden. To this end, a path being uncovered will not survive exposure beyond lunchtime. “We’re clearing this path to find its full extent. We will photograph it for our records, then cover it over again for its own protection. She would have hated it.” ‘She’ is Ellen Willmott, one of the greatest stars of Edwardian gardening, and the creator of the original garden. She was visited by heads of state, two Queens and the gardening luminaries of the day. Today, she is known only for her alleged habit of smuggling seeds of the giant sea holly, Eryngium giganteum, into every garden she visited. From her actions came its name, Miss Willmott’s Ghost. Her own once beautiful garden is now owned by Essex Wildlife Trust, and forms a 25-acre nature reserve.
One woman’s vision
Ellen Willmott’s solicitor father moved his family to the little village of Warley, near Brentwood, in 1875, to escape the fumes of London. Warley House, built in 1702, was enlarged, and a conservatory added before they moved in. Frederick Willmott was comfortably off, but not wealthy. “He left her some money so she never had to work for a living,” says John. “Then her godmother, Countess Tasker, left her a fortune, and she set about spending it.” She bought 35 extra acres of land at Warley. Here, she began a fantasy garden that included rockeries, hothouses and walled gardens. Despite being on a steep hillside, there was also a boating lake. Somehow, a series of massive boulders from the North of England were hauled up Brentwood Hill and turned into a gorge for Willmott’s extensive Alpine collection. There were tumbling streams, a bridge and even a miniature cave for ferns. ›
At one point, she owned 90 acres of land at Warley Place, as well as chateaux in Italy and France. By the outbreak of war in 1914, however, she was broke. “She eked out the rest of her life mortgaging her various properties and selling a few seeds,” says John. “She was forced to sell most of her jewellery and her historical musical instrument collection, including a Stradivarius.” She sold her foreign properties and took a mortgage on her beloved Warley Place. “After her death in 1934, the estate was bought by a Mrs Grey, and then a Mr Carter. He wanted to build a housing estate,” says Fiona Agassiz, former chair of the management committee and currently in charge of feeding Warley’s large bird population. “The house was demolished just before the Second World War. Afterwards, the area was strict greenbelt.”
From neglect to reserve
The housing development plans had to be abandoned and the land was left to its own devices. The remains of the house, stables and hothouses slipped below thick layers of undergrowth. The boating pond developed cracks, drained away, then sprouted sycamores. Ellen Willmott’s once-magnificent gorge choked with weeds. Her filmy fern house collapsed, and the site was declared a health hazard. In 1977, Warley passed to Norman Carter, a member of the Essex Naturalist Trust (ENT), the precursor of today’s Essex Wildlife Trust. From 1978, he granted the trust a series of short-term leases. A small working party began clearing the worst of the ivy, brambles and sycamore trees from the site. After much discussion between the ENT and the Carter family, Warley Place reserve was formally opened in 1978. Then Norman’s son Paul granted the trust a 99-year lease in 2002. “Because we got the long lease, we were able to raise money to refurbish the conservatory,” says Fiona. “It had been fenced off for years, broken, but still beautiful.” A lady called Phyllis Gregory came forward with a donation of £5,000 in memory of her father. He had trained with Ellen Willmott before the First World War. This gift provided to be a catalyst. “We raised £33,000,” says Fiona. “The majority of the money was just from ordinary members.” Thirty-eight years later, the volunteers’ work is showing results. The foundations of the house have largely, but not completely, been exposed. The stables and hothouses are just visible under a layer of bright green moss, creating an image of how they once were. The walled garden has had many invasive weeds removed. This has allowed rare Willmott-era specimens, such as the elegant Chusan palm and Japanese gingko, to flourish alongside native wild flowers.
Volunteers with passion
The conservatory, though roofless and windowless, is stable, so visitors can enter.
On warm days, it makes a delightful place for volunteers to pause for a cup of tea. The backgrounds of this band of workers are diverse. There are solicitors, teachers, nurses, engineers, and even a GP. “It makes for fascinating tea breaks,” says John. “I wanted to do something outdoors,” says Bob Dawson, one of the volunteers. An ex-surveyor, he is enjoying a busman’s retirement creating the most comprehensive digital map the site has ever known. “I’d been a wildlife trust member for years, and this sounded interesting,” he says. Martin Brown was in the Royal Air Force, and joined as a general volunteer, a “humper and dumper”, as he puts it. “I just ask ‘what can I do to help?’ It’s a magical place, and the people are a pleasure,” he says. “I love the history, and the cold mornings when it’s frosty. People turn up even when it is raining. It’s quite nice in the snow, the animal prints adding an eerie dimension.”
Life is returning
Given light and space, the garden has begun to return to life. Some rarities blinking into the daylight are more than a century old. There is a Japanese paper mulberry, whose bright green foliage looks similar to fig leaves, and a tree of heaven. “The branches grow up like fingers pointing to heaven,” says John. The characteristic tortured black branches of a Persian ironwood are free at last. A rare ‘Middlemist’s Red’ camellia quietly blooms in the walled garden. “DNA tests have proved it is just one of three left in the entire world,” notes John. One ruined hothouse, once home to a heated ornamental pond, supports an overgrown Sabia yunnanensis latiflora. This is a leggy climber, with small leaves and tiny green-black flowers. It was so very rare it was rumoured only Miss Willmott could grow it in England. “When I wrote to the RHS for pruning advice, they had so little experience of it, they could only make suggestions,” says John. “We just chop it back when it gets overgrown.” He points out a Meliosma veitchiorum. “There are only two in the country. One at Nymans in West Sussex, and this one, introduced in 1914. It’s been neglected badly,” he says. “It doesn’t look much, a deciduous tree with fruits like small grapes, but Ellen Willmott was interested in things because they were rare.” Spring is the most productive time for Warley’s volunteer army. “It’s good for major projects,” says Richard Barklem, volunteer warden. “By the autumn, this will be 6ft deep in nettles, way over our ›
heads. We have a tiny window between the end of the snowdrops and the beginning of the nettles. “We have a management plan to 2020, but mainly I walk around with my notebook. We have jobs that need doing every month, and I spot things. There’s always a list of jobs. She had more than 100 gardeners. We have about 15 regular volunteers. Fences need repairing, steps break. Later in the year, we concentrate on felling trees and chopping wood.”
Getting the right balance
There are passionate advocates, even among the volunteers, both for restoring the garden and letting it go back to nature entirely. Most agree Warley is at its most beautiful as a romantic ruin somewhere between the two extremes. “This is a Grade II listed garden, and we have a duty of care to maintain it as it is,” explains Richard. “A lot of people come here for the history. If we just let it go back to nature completely, a bit of that history would be lost.” Striking the balance calls for tough choices. These include a decision to remove self-seeded sycamores from the boating lake. Doing this allows visitors to imagine how its serpentine outline might have looked to Ellen Willmott’s nieces and nephews playing on it. Original iron rungs from the lost boathouse have been exposed, as have the old steps. Intriguingly these were originally milestones telling various distances to Chester. “We assume Backhouse, the people who built the gorge, may have brought them down south with the boulders, but we don’t know” says John. “We even got the Essex Milestone society to investigate, but we have no records at all.” Work clearing the newly-found path stops while a new conundrum is puzzled. “Why do you think they put that dipping tank in the middle of the path?” asks John. “Why not to one side?” “We didn’t know paths existed beyond the tank,” says Richard. “We discovered this figure of eight path this morning. We are always coming across new things here.” “I was wading through the old horse
“The beds and walks were vanish’d quite; And wheresoe’er had struck the spade, The greenest grasses Nature laid, To sanctify her right.” Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ‘The Deserted Garden’
pond and tripped over an ancient iron five-bar gate,” recalls John. “We dragged it out and it fitted those two gateposts over there exactly.”
Underground rooms, tunnels and strange tanks are discovered on a regular basis. Much of the plain mosaic flooring in the old house now makes up part of the path. This allows visitors the eerie experience of walking along Miss Willmott’s corridors in the open air. A recent find, however, was special enough to cover with a membrane to preserve it. “The colours are superb,” says John. Delicate greys, yellows and blacks, with flowers on the corners and a pattern round the edge give the floor an almost Roman appearance. A different mosaic made up of moss and ferns now graces the path, firmly anchored in the membrane itself. The basement kitchens are now a gaping cavern, still neatly tiled, even if sprouting with the odd native fern. The remains of an ancient iron stove rust quietly under a tree. Other finds are smaller, but no less fascinating. “I’ve found 500 old plant labels with my metal detector,” says Richard. The labels provide proof not only of what was growing where, but when. Many labels have dates on them, often going back to the 1850s, before even Miss Willmott’s time. “The gardeners clearly had a little set of letters from A to Z and stamped the names onto the labels with a hammer,” says John. “Sometimes they’re over-stamped where some poor apprentice misspelt something and had to do it again.” Others are handwritten in neat copperplate. “You can scrub them,” says Richard. “It won’t come off.” There are no plans to put back the plants Miss Willmott grew. “We just let things grow now,” says John. Yet the urge remains to discover more about this seductive, mysterious place and its eccentric owner. John recently digitised 930 photographic plates discovered at Miss Willmott’s sister’s house in Worcestershire. Sometimes the urge to uncover proves simply too tempting. “We have to fill in an old underground boiler room that’s been condemned,” says Richard. “I’m going to fill it in with some of this old rubble.” A Second World War bomb fell, sending much of the house to dust. The detritus, now covered with a thick layer of ivy, needs to be cleared, and the boiler room will make the perfect place to move the rubble to. “Then we’ll see what’s underneath it,” says Richard, a hint of excitement in his voice. “Nobody knows.”
Volunteers Bob Dawson, Mick Hedges and John Cannell discuss what to do next (top). John Wileman clears the reservoir helped by Martin Brown, Bob Dawson, Richard Barklem, Roger Branscomb and Glyn Baker (centre). The late Len Dewell and now retired volunteer Elke Taylor helped with the hard work of restoring the south wall (bottom).
Warley’s two major remaining ponds, including the south pond, above, each have a hide for visitors prepared to wait and watch. They may be rewarded by some of the 65 species of bird that have been recorded here since 1977, including nuthatches, tree-creepers, woodpeckers, mallards and moorhens.
The walled garden includes a fine ginkgo tree, magnolias, anemones and comfrey. An extremely rare ‘Middlemist’s Red’ camellia, brought to Britain from China in 1804 by a London nurseryman. Miss Wilmott’s Ghost, giant sea holly, grows to more than 3ft (1m) in height.
Meliosma veitchiorum has dark green leaves with red stalks.
Detail of the mosaic flooring, now part of the path.
The original rail for mooring boats, and the old boat lake steps emerging from the greenery.
Volunteer warden Richard Barklem, Warren Hawkings and Ken Bishop watch as John McLaughlin repairs a fence.
The depths of the tiled basement kitchens, sprinkled with ferns.