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

Landscape (UK) - - Contents - Words: San­dra Lawrence Pho­tog­ra­phy: Clive Doyle

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.”

Serendip­i­tous dis­cov­er­ies

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.

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