The first in a new series of posts on the blog! English houses and gardens are a consuming interest of ours; our affection and admiration for them feeds our work and drives us to take pride in our national heritage and celebrate this, not only in the style of our floral designs, but, increasingly too, the provenance of our ingredients and vessels. Over the past few years we have visited plenty of old houses and many famous and little-known English gardens, and here we have found inspiration for growing our own flowers, for interior design; we've seen beautiful glasshouses, exceptional plant collections, had restorative walks on days of mind-boggling admin, and of course, just occasionally, partaken of tea and scones. With so much material at our fingertips we thought we'd be mad not to start a collection of combined photographic and written accounts of our regular forays into the countryside, and hope you'll enjoy the journey too. If anyone has any tips for us to add to our (rather extensive) list, we'd love to know!
The National Trust, which if you are reading from abroad may not know, is the largest private landowner in the UK and owns two hundred properties - country piles, stately homes, castles, abbeys, estates and famous gardens. English Heritage cares for over four hundred sites, then we have the RHS gardens, and numerous open house and open garden schemes throughout the year. The properties we've seen have invariably been impeccably restored and lovingly cared for, not only by the organisation responsible for its upkeep, but by its many vastly knowledgeable local volunteers who will often enthusiastically regale you (or sometimes bore you to tears, depending who you get) with tales of each place’s heyday, its decline, the attributes and idiosyncracies of its owners and all the goings on and intrigue that make up the narrative of historic dwellings.
As girls, we remember traipsing such places lackadaisically on soggy school holidays; we didn’t appreciate them then as we do now - Stourhead, Brownsea Island, Corfe Castle, Tintagel, Drogo - probably eager to get back to whatever game we’d interrupted or Enid Blyton we were reading. Our father loved Drogo and we would stop there every time we drove back from Cornwall. We didn’t know then how fortunate we are to live in a country that has open access to so much extraordinary heritage and antiquated beauty.
Last week we jumped in the car and drove south down to Sussex to visit Nymans, a country estate, house and gardens in the High Weald. Nymans has a fascinating history; bought and developed in the late 19th century by Ludwig Messel, a German Jewish stockbroker and passionate plantsman, Nymans was his dream family home and country retreat outside the hustle and bustle of London. Ludwig collected rare species of plants from around the world to develop the garden, inspired by the woodlands and countryside that surround it and worked closely with James Comber, who he appointed as the Head Gardener in 1895. In 1915, Nymans was passed on to his son, Colonel Leonard Messel who replaced the previous Regency house with the current fairytale gothic stone-built manor; his wife, Maud, created the exceptional rose garden in the 1920s with over six hundred old-fashioned varieties and herbs.
Leonard and Maud had three children; their second son, Oliver, went on to become an acclaimed artist and Hollywood set designer, and during the early 1940s served as a camouflage officer disguising pillboxes as follies, haystacks during the British anti-invasion preparations, a task that was an excellent use of his creative talents and that he reputedly enjoyed immensely. In 1947 there was a catastrophic fire in the main house, the ruins of which still stand, and add to the romance of the exquisite garden, which has grown up around it - rambling roses and vines intricately weave around the bones of the old house, through the skeleton that remains. In 1953, on Colonel Messel’s death, the house was bequeathed to the National Trust, though Lady Rosse, his daughter, served on as Garden Director. In the autumn of 1987 the Great Storm partially destroyed the gardens and they have been lovingly restored since to Ludwig Messel’s original garden plan.
Nymans is a special kind of loveliness, a place with a character both of resilience and vivacity. It has survived catastrophe and indefatigably evolved with it; the destroyed gardens have been returned to their former glory and the ruined section of the house destroyed by the fire have been conserved and celebrated, merging the house seamlessly with the gardens which meander on like a series of exterior linking rooms divided by hedges and pergolas and stone walls and abundant June borders. It is not hard to imagine how it must once have been as a family home; Maud pruning her roses, afternoon drinks in the cool of the Italian summer house in the sunken garden.
That day we had our own cocktail of archetypal English weather, sunbeams colliding with rain showers and overcast by scudding clouds, the dogwood enveloped by streaky pink flowers, the heady scent of rain-battered roses, Turkish delight mingling with orange blossom. Alluring snowbell trees, Styrax japonica strung overhead in a cascade of white petals - and wild orchids, foxgloves, a riot of honeysuckle...
A quintessential English retreat for a few hours, Nymans indulged us further by way of a nostalgia-inducing lunch of piping hot baked potatoes fluffy with melted cheese and butter. Nothing warms the cockles on a damp day quite like a baked potato. And later we pottered back to London, via oak tree tunnels and along verdant lanes of dog rose and cow parsley, stocked to the gunnels with a new batch of beautiful terracotta pots for the garden and lemony, rose-scented pelargoniums. This morning I write pooled in the first dappled sunlight we have seen all week. On the mantelpiece, a Fentiman’s rose lemonade bottle supports one lone digitalis, its formerly pink petals faded almost to white, and shedding gently over the fireplace; memories of a magical day.