Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Warley Place - my annual pilgrimage

Every year I make a pilgrimage to Warley Place, one of our Essex hidden gems. This was once a magnificent house and estate, and in 1875, aged 17, Ellen Willmott moved here with her family. Over the years Ellen created a garden here at Warley, and a reputation for herself as a plantswoman. She subsidised the excursions of plant-hunters who would bring back plants for her and sometimes name species in her honour. 

Ellen never married and lived at Warley Place until she died there alone, in 1934. Ellen was quite a character and sadly her fortunes dwindled over the years due to her excessive spending. Warley Place was sold to a developer to pay off Ellen's debts but luckily the proposed plans were rejected. The war came, and after that the land was declared Green Belt. But by this time the house and its buildings were in such bad state that they were demolished. 

Over the years the land became overgrown and a haven for wild life. The loss of the garden is a travesty, but thankfully, in more recent times, The Essex Wildlife Trust leased this wilderness and started to reclaim it. Gradually, just like Heligan Gardens in Cornwall, Warley Place has slowly began to reveal some of her history and splender. Let me show you....

Here is one of the gateways into the former garden.

Among a field of narcissus stands this ancient walnut tree, part of
its trunk now artificially supported.

And here is the same tree, with Ellen Willmott taking tea.

This is part of the formal garden. If you look at the wall closely  you will find metal pins which once supported climbing plants.  It is said that Ellen was a harsh employer and she would sack a gardener who left a weed in place. Nowadays foxgloves and wild flowers are now left to grow freely. I'm not sure what Ellen would say, but I know I love to walk between these shoulder high plants that line the woodland paths!

Where the house once stood you will find this wonderful basement kitchen with it's glazed tiles.  Listen quietly and you can almost hear the chatter of scullery maids and a bustle, as meals are prepared.  

This plant tag is dated 1859 - it's handwriting still as legible as the day it was written.

Other plant tags found in the garden are beautifully stamped. But it is the collection of handwritten labels that I admire and wonder about. What was the name of the person who wrote them?  And did they shared Ellen's passion for gardening, or was their labour a means of providing a roof over their head and food on the table?

If you look for them, there are lots of hidden clues and remains to find as you wander around the garden.  I liked the layers of rust and beautiful shape of these gates. They were once the entrance to a gazebo that is currently being rebuilt. 

And this lovely flint is the original floor of the gazebo. How exciting it must be to clear the thick undergrowth and find original features such as this.  Gradually the garden is revealing her glory, though there are no plans to rebuild it.  I like that it will always retain its mystery and be a haven for wildlife.

This is the former conservatory where Ellen Willmott would sit and write letters. You can still see the remains of its mosaic floor and channel where the central heating pipes ran.

There is a story that John Evelyn, diarist, bought the Manor of Warley Magna in 1649 and planted a row of sweet chestnut trees. The first tree in this photo has been dated to around this time, so could this be one that still stands? I bet it's gnarled trunk could tell a story or two.

And finally, the reason for my annual pilgrimage. How could I miss these spectacular drifts of narcissus?  It  is fitting that a track runs through Warley Place, the original route for travellers going to Canterbury in the Middle Ages. It is a place of sanctuary and solitude and I feel blessed that it is somewhere I can visit whenever I choose.

If you would like to read more about Warley Place this is a brief but interesting article.
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