Late in 1932, Ellen Willmott got a gut feeling that she needed to visit her old friend Gertrude Jekyll. She was just in time; a few weeks later, Jekyll passed away. We found the order of service to her funeral a couple of weeks ago, which Willmott attended in December with an extremely elderly William Robinson.
Of course this wasn’t the only time Ellen would have visited Munstead Wood, the house Edwin Lutyens had designed for Gertrude in 1896, but it is the only specific visit I know of (so far – it’s always ‘so far’ with Miss W). After some initial circling, these two horticultural doyennes had settled down into comfortable acquaintance and would, eventually refer to each other as ‘My Dear Miss Willmott/Jekyll’ – which was pretty darned close for Olden Times.
Yesterday, however, was my first visit to Munstead. I was delighted to be shown round by Jekyll expert (and Helen Allingham obsessive) Annabel Watts, Head Gardener at Munstead for the past 19 years. As we wandered round I was struck by the similarities not only between these two stellar horticulturalists but their gardens – and even their gardeners.
Munstead Wood is – of course – set in a woodland glade, and on a late June morning nothing could be more beautiful than the dappled shade carefully orchestrated by Jekyll then lovingly recreated after the 1987 hurricane by previous Head Gardener Stephen King after a sad period in the mid twentieth century when most of the garden was levelled for lawn. Luckily Jekyll had made detailed plans of her creation, including planting designs, meaning that everything, even down to the swagged clematis in a nook around the house, is as intended.
Jekyll famously commissioned young Edwin Lutyens to create the house in 1896. Equally famously, it made them both. Yet here is our first similarity. Two years earlier, Lutyens had been working at Warley, remodelling Ellen’s sister Rose’s home Warley Lea. The house had been a wedding present a couple of years earlier and was a bit outdated. Lutyens was still working out his signature style but it is unmistakably ‘Lutyens’. Alas, Warley Lea is in private hands and I have never seen it.
It is possible that that was the first time Jekyll and Willmott met – though I’m betting that they did not have much to do with each other at the time, not least because we find out later that Jekyll fell out with Rose and their mutual friend Lady Henry Grosvenor, but not with Ellen herself. Ellen always took her sister’s side, so I’m guessing she wasn’t present during any unpleasantness…
Jekyll didn’t wait for her new home to be built. She got cracking with the garden, and it was completed long before the scaffolding came off, Her head gardener started around 1894, and here’s where our next similarity comes in.
Three years earlier, in 1891, Ellen Willmott had ‘poached’ a young Swiss gardener to look after her alpine garden. Jacob Maurer was just 19 when he came to live at Warley, and lived in the little gatehouse at the estate’s entrance. Could Gertrude Jekyll have been just a little inspired by Maurer to find her own 19 year-old Swiss gardener, Albert Zumbach? Zumbach lived in a cottage behind a high wall which incorporates one of my favourite features at Munstead Wood, a Thunder Tower:
This extraordinary little lookout was built for Jekyll to rush to as soon as the first rumbles of a storm threatened, so she could watch the streaks of lightning flash across the sky.
Willmott didn’t have a thunder tower, perhaps because Warley is at the top of a hill – she could just look out across the valley. What she did have, which I was delighted to see yesterday, was a nut walk not unlike Jekyll’s:
Warley volunteers have just re-cut Ellen’s nut walk. It is so recent I haven’t photographed it yet, but here is a fantastical drawing of it, which entirely fails to show it is on a steep hill:
Jekyll’s rock garden, uncovered by Stephen King:
is very similar indeed to the newly discovered labyrinth of stony paths in Warley’s old orchard (not to be confused with the alpine ravine elsewhere in the garden):
Willmott’s maze of hothouses and cold frames are disintegrating before visitors’ very eyes:
but it’s possible to imagine what they might have looked like by looking at Jekyll’s restored originals:
Similarities are everywhere. Jekyll’s trial beds have been turned into magnificent Robinsonesque Wild Gardens, filled with perfume and authentic plants by an extraordinary gardener named Gail Naughton whose imagination and dedication have transformed it into something more Jekyll than Jekyll.
The magnificent, 200-foot long herbaceous border, also filled with the plants Jekyll originally intended, hints at how Ellen’s borders would once have looked.
Indeed – a campanula growing at Munstead still grows wild in the ruined Warley border today.
In a shady, dappled glade, Jekyll’s signature yellow and white primroses bloom in great arcs of colour throughout the early springtime (obviously they aren’t flowering at the moment)
echoing the drifts of Spetchley primroses, bred by Ellen’s sister at Spetchley, but which once graced Warley’s spring garden and, indeed, Munstead’s. A letter from Jekyll to Willmott in the early 1920s asks her friend how she can sneakily get hold of some of Rose’s rarer varieties.
The woodland walks at Munstead:
Are, even today, amazingly similar to the walks at Warley:
and Willmott’s rhododendron/azelea walk:
Perhaps the most obvious similarity between Munstead Wood and Warley Place is in their Wild Garden planting and the plants the women used. It is clear they swapped specimens and grew ‘each other’s varieties, something both Annabel Watts and Gail Naughton are keen to continue today. I was particularly taken with a Scabiosa Miss Willmott:
and Gail was good enough to give me four baby Eryngium giganteum ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’ so I can suffer yet more humiliation when I continue my complete failure to grow a single bloom where it romps amok in everyone else’s garden.
Jekyll shares a grave with family members Agnes and Herbert, both of whom were also good friends of Ellen’s.
Munstead Wood was a place of pilgrimage for Ellen – as it should be for any Willmott fan. Annabel conducts guided tours for enthusiasts, which help to keep the garden going. I can highly recommend the experience. Find details here.