Part three in my year’s exploration of the extraordinary ruined garden at Warley Place, Brentwood, Essex, looks at what’s left of the house and spectacular gardens. Last time saw a potted history of how Edwardian Plantswoman Ellen Willmott’s cossetted baby became so very ruined and overgrown. This time we’ll take a quick hike around what a dedicated team of volunteers have been uncovering on a weekly basis for the past forty years.
Those volunteers are remarkable – we’ll meet them sometime; they’re worth knowing. They gather once a week, come rain, come shine, armed with machetes, forks and Thermos flasks, and what they’ve achieved is nothing short of miraculous.
It’s partly buoyed by their discovering something new every week – unearthing bits of the ruined house, garden, plant tags, garden features, basements, underground caverns – you name it – and, of course, a few of Ellen Willmott’s rare plants, still just about managing under their native wild cousins and, with a little careful help, able to live alongside them with enchanting harmony.
So – what exactly is left? Well, to be honest, we still don’t know – it changes all the time, which is why the only way to really enjoy Warley is to return again and again.
There is the old rockery, out front. No one knew it was there at all until a couple of years ago.
Then there’s the old hothouses. Volunteers have uncovered the brick bases, now endearingly covered in moss.
They’ve even found one of the old heated conservatory ponds, and behind it, running rampant where others can’t coax it to grow at all, an ultra-rare sabia latifolia. *
There’s the old horse pond which, when one of the volunteers was wading around in it, fetched up an entire cast-iron five-bar gate.
There are all manner of underground chambers, hideously unsafe, so mainly blocked off.
There are the black and red tiled conservatory floors, with the odd fancy hot-pipe cover.
The old walled garden has had a lot of work done by the volunteers. Sadly a giant camellia had to go when the wall became unsafe but there are some other, very rare plants in there.
There’s an old bread oven*
and the remains of the basement kitchen.
Colourful fancy mosaic tiling has been re-covered to preserve it, but there is plenty of white mosaic (see above) and the conservatory has been stabilised and is now used by the volunteers as somewhere to take a break from serious hard graft.
The boating pond will never fill again – but the volunteers have removed weed-sycamores and revealed its walls so visitors can dream of days messing around in a dinghy. The remains of iron mooring rings enhance the romance.
The boating lake’s steps are made from old milestones and others can be found dotted around the place.
One pond that does still exist is from long before Ellen Willmott’s day – it’s an old carp-pond, left over from when Warley was an outpost of Barking Abbey on the Pilgrims’ Way. It is now a Mecca for wildlife and has one of two bird-spotting cabins.
Possibly my favourite part of Warley is also from before Miss Willmott’s time – a stately row of chestnuts watching over London’s smoke, surrounded by a carpet of bright green moss.
Another recent discovery is the ha-ha, which volunteers have restored enough to make it stable.
The ‘gorge’ will never have a cascading mountain stream down it again, but volunteers have cleared it and reinstated the old wooden bridge and the view down to the top pond.
They’ve also cleared out where the old filmy fern house still has traces of its cast-iron ribs though the only ferns growing there now are of the native variety.
What else is fetching up? Well, bits of old fence
and, so far, over 500 plant labels, often with species and date of planting.
While there are no plans for reinstating Ellen Willmott’s remarkable garden, there is so much archaeological information about what she grew, there is still much to be studied about this remarkable place.
Next time, we’ll go back to what makes Warley so very popular – its drifts of wild flowers – lovely to everyone, not just garden history geeks. It’s almost time for most people’s favourite carpet of all: daffodils….
Warley Place is open during daylight hours. Please remember that it is a wildlife garden, so not suitable for dogs, even on leads.
*Some of the areas shown here are not accessible to the public for safety reasons – Warley Place is really rather unstable. I was allowed escorted access in the company of one of the lovely volunteers, who you’ll meet very soon…