Wednesday, 21 July 2010
Miss Willmott's Lost Garden
Ellen Willmott booby-trapped her daffodils, employed 100 gardeners and brought Alpine Ravines and boating lakes to Great Warley
Collapsed cellars, a ruined conservatory, hidden reservoirs, stone paths, cold frames and boating lakes emerging from the undergrowth. If Warley Place were in Cornwall it would surely be the subject of a Lost Gardens of Heligan-style TV series.
Warley Place was a welcome discovery while visiting my late father’s old farm in Great Warley. As a child I remember scrambling up a huge earth bank in Dark Lane and discovering the Narnia-like ruins of an old house in the woods. It was, in fact, the remains of one of England’s finest gardens created by the formidable Ellen Willmott, one of the top gardeners of her day.
Forty odd years later it’s been renovated by the Essex Wildlife Trust. The entrance is next to the busy Thatchers Arms pub.
MISS WILLMOTT'S GHOST
Ellen Willmott moved into Warley Place with her parents in 1875 and spent a lifetime developing a sumptuous garden. Numerous plants are named after her (the Eryngium giganteum is still called "Miss Willmott's Ghost) and she once employed more than 100 gardeners. She was a big mover in the Royal Horticultural Society and was awarded the Medal of Honour in 1907.
She died penniless in 1934, perhaps having perhaps spent all her dosh on mail-order seeds, and the grand house was demolished in 1939.
The walk begins along the old main road to Brentwood which medieval pilgrims once used when travelling from Walsingham to Canterbury. Past the old crocus field is South Pond, Great Warley’s watering hole in medieval times. Then it's in to the woods and the ruins of the Willmotts’ old house.
The roofless shell of the grand old conservatory is still standing, an evocative sight in the dappled green light. While around it are drops in to the old basements. You can still see the tiled walls of the kitchen and the overgrown alcoves of the old cellars.
Mosaic stone paths have been unearthed by the Wildlife Trust's dedicated staff and the 17th century walled garden is relatively intact, still housing a palm tree, a ginko tree, magnolias, comfrey and anemones.
The wooded trail continues past wild garlic and the remains of Willmott’s cold frames, greenhouses, and a half-moon shaped pond and a deep reservoir.
Down the hill, the boating ponds are empty but the brickwork is still there complete with a mooring rail. A huge earth bank, now supported by steel trusses, descends to my dad’s old farm workers’ cottages in Dark Lane. You sense the huge effort Miss Willmott went to in taming and controlling nature — a very Victorian philosophy.
There’s still a carp pond with water and past the seven Spanish chestnuts, planted by the diarist John Evelyn who briefly owned Warley Place, there's a viewpoint by a daffodil-strewn meadow. Here you can gaze across the fields of my dad’s old farm, towards the M25 and then in the distance the towers of the City of London. You feel the history of encroachment at Warley Place; of both time and the city of London.
The tour ends with a bridge over a gorge that Willmott created to showcase her Alpine plants. Water used to flow through it and in to the South Pond. The huge rocks in the gorge were lugged all the way from Yorkshire by the company she employed.
REVOLVER IN HER HANDBAG
Willmott never married and as she grew older she became increasingly eccentric, relying ever more on her faithful butler Robinson (whose daughter was my headmistress at primary school). She was arrested for shop-lifting (the charges were eventually dropped), carried a revolver in her handbag for those late-night walks back from Brentwood station and booby-trapped her daffodil fields to ward off bulb thieves.
Yes, Miss Willmott’s project was the work of a loaded toff. She wasn’t great on workers’ rights, and was said to sack any gardener if he allowed a weed to show. But the scale and ambition of her life’s work is still inspiring. She spent everything on her garden and died penniless.
After her death Warley Place was sold to developers (nothing changes there) but then the Second World War intervened and afterwards the area was designated part of London’s Green Belt.
Ellen’s pristine garden was overtaken by undergrowth, decay and Japanese knotweed, until volunteers unearthed it in the last decade. And the sense of decay makes it even better, within sight of the M25 lies a place to reflect, wonder down mysterious overgrown, shadowy paths and move back in time to an era of grand projects in the shrubbery.