Eight down, 250 to go! Well, I guess I’m making progress of sorts…
Number eight was Nymans in West Sussex, primarily a garden but with parts of the old house also open to visitors. Having realised at Hatchlands that any visit in August will involve children, I took a can’t-beat-em-join-em attitude and went along with my cousin and my little second cousin, who was good as gold as we dragged him around the gardens… quite literally at times as the loose gravel in places is not conducive to the turning of buggy wheels!
This was another revisit as I have been several times before but I paid a lot more attention this time. If you skip the arboretum and the wild woodland garden, there is a fairly circular walk you can follow to take in everything else. This includes the pinetum, the lime avenue, the lily pond (not particularly picturesque as it tends to drain away if they try to fill it up!), the holly garden (a work in progress), the heath garden, the rock garden, the new sunken rock garden (another work in progress), the wisteria pergola, the South African bed (a relatively new addition), the Italianate loggia and sunk garden, the dovecote and knot gardens around the house, the wall garden (complete with spectacular summer borders), and the rose garden.
There’s a small drawback in recording my garden visits in as much as the things I see may vary considerably from what others would see if they go at a different time… they’re certainly fluid things gardens. In fact, the summer borders at Nymans that are so dazzling at the moment have recently undergone a major transformation, having been completely replanted this year after everything was dug up to remove bindweed that had got into the roots of some plants. There’s a short display in the old kitchen block to explain what was done and what the usual annual process is for these borders. An interesting piece of information I gleaned from this was that planting is based around the lunar cycle, with the gravitational pull during a new moon bringing the water table higher and thus nearer to the roots… who knew?! (I expect there are some know-it-all readers now sitting there saying ‘well, yes, I knew that actually’, well bully for you!)
Anyway, back to what I was saying about the fluidity of gardens. The guidebook has some lovely photos of Nymans in the spring and early summer with an abundance of daffodils, bluebells galore, stunning magnolias and a pergola overflowing with wisteria, all well worth seeing I would imagine. I was far too late for these and a little too late for the rose garden, which has just tipped over the edge from glorious to slightly bedraggled. But the summer herbaceous borders are truly spectacular at the moment so well worth the visit on their own. Another striking bed is the fairly new South African Bed on the tennis lawn, with its red hot pokers and orange daisy-like flowers. Sorry, folks, if you’re after detailed Latin names for all these plants, you’ve come to the wrong woman. After all, I came across a burgundy-coloured lobelia and was amazed that it came in any colour other than blue. My fingers are definitely a delicate shade of pink and not at all green.
Perhaps one of the most interesting things about Nymans is its resilience to disaster and the way it has adapted to changes that have been forced on it. For example, the house was largely destroyed by fire in 1947 and much of it is still in ruins today, but this has simply added a new charm to the gardens and various climbing plants now grow up the roofless, windowless walls. Then, in October 1987, the Great Storm that hit the south of England took down 486 trees in the gardens (486!!), including most of the pinetum, in which only two giant redwoods were left standing. Today, the pinetum is home to many new conifers and maples and is recovering well, albeit at tree-growing pace, i.e. sloooooowly.
I’ll give you a brief bit of info about the house but if you’re a paying visitor, I would say that the house alone is certainly not worth the admission fee. There are only a few rooms open and it is laid out mainly as a museum to the Messel family rather than as a collection of exhibits. It is the third generation of Nymans Messels that are the main focus of the literature in the house, with Oliver Messel having become a well-known artist and stage designer, while his sister Anne ran the gardens after they were given to the Trust but was rarely resident there as an adult (affectionately calling Nymans her ‘potting shed’). Another of her claims to fame is that her son from her first marriage is Anthony Armstrong-Jones, Earl of Snowdon and husband to Princess Margaret.
Anne’s input into the gardens followed the example set by her grandfather Ludwig, who first bought the property in 1890 and started the garden, and her father and mother Leonard and Maud, who continued his work as well as replacing the old Victorian mansion on the site with their own medieval-style manor house, said to have been so convincing as to fool many people as to its age. They clearly had no knowledge of the fire that was to come but I am sure the ruins as they stand today are far more attractive than would have been the case if the Victorian building had never been replaced… I am sure that would have been little consolation for the loss of their house but as far as the modern NT visitor is concerned, it was a lucky break!
Just a couple more things to mention (have I been slightly more succinct this time? Probably not!). Firstly, the National Trust has a gallery in one of the buildings to the rear of the house and this season it is home to a collection of Wind in the Willows pictures, including a few of EH Shepard’s original pencil-drawn sketches for the book and others that were hand-coloured by the artist. There is also a pencil drawing of Nymans that Shepard did during a visit there and it is suggested that Toad Hall may have been based partly on the Nymans house. The eagle-eyed visitor exiting the exhibition may spot Mr Toad hanging from a window on a knotted sheet in a re-creation of one of the paintings. This is a nice touch by the organisers but I think they’re trying to pull the wool over our eyes a little bit… it looks suspiciously like a stuffed Kermit in a tweed jacket!
And a few last notes… The restaurant at Nymans is often very busy so sharpen your elbows if timing your visit at lunchtime in the summer! We arrived slightly before 12pm so the hot dishes were not yet available but having to queue actually paid off for once as the tasty pasta and vegetable bake appeared just as we reached the front. We also saved a few pennies by taking advantage of the free water that is often available in NT restaurants. The pasta sent us on our way around the gardens with plenty of energy and then we replenished afterwards with a spot of tea and cake eaten outside. We chose to share slices of the Marmalade and Scotney Ale loaf cakes, which were ginger cake with a marmalade topping and a fruit cake with slightly boozy fruit… both very nice.
As usual, I couldn’t leave without buying something from the second-hand bookshop (although where I’m going to find the time to read all these books I have no idea!). My cousin also treated me to the Houses of the National Trust coffee table book for my birthday and I took advantage of the sale price and bought the companion Gardens of the National Trust to go with it. These will be very handy as a brief introduction to each property before I go. And Nymans didn’t let me down with its fridge magnet as it matches the set I started at Sutton Hoo and Ickworth.
I also came across another name for my growing collection of comical monikers. I have decided to give them their own page, see Miscellany in the top menu.
Highlights: Summer herbaceous borders
Refreshments: Pasta & Vegetable Bake with salad, pot of tea, Marmalade Cake, Scotney Ale Cake
Purchase(s): Guidebook, fridge magnet, Gardens of the National Trust book, The Radleys by Matt Haig
Companion(s): Lise and Jim
NT Connections: Hidcote (Lawrence Johnston, creator of Hidcote, features in the Nymans visitors book)