The Secret Gate

Everyone who visits Warley Place will know the tiny building at the south entrance, officially “South Lodge”, more affectionally known as Jacob Maurer’s cottage.

Image: (C) Sandra Lawrence

I’ll talk about that one another day, as I also will about the lesser-known but still-standing North Lodge. Each is worth its own separate post, but today I want to look at a much humbler, but far more romantic entrance to Warley…

Image: (C) Sandra Lawrence

When Ellen’s sister Rose got married to the aristocratic Robert Valentine Berkeley, these two extremely close sisters feared they would be parted. Thanks to some newly-discovered and frankly unpleasant jiggery-pokery that I’ll go into in the revised paperback edition of Miss Willmott’s Ghosts (out in May, sorry, I’m going to be a big old tease until then…) a minor scandal turned out to be a blessing for Ellen: the newlyweds didn’t immediately move to the Berkeley estate in Worcestershire.

Even so, Rose and Robert Valentine could hardly live at Warley Place – what would the neighbours say?

The answer was Warley Lea, a grand house across the road – another building I’ll go into in another day as it is definitely worth a spotlight of its own.

Image (c) The Berkeley Family and Spetchley Gardens Charitable Trust

‘The road’, of course, was the lane going into Brentwood, and just that at the time: a country lane, not the modern rat run for posh executive cars attempting to break the sound barrier we know now.

Even so, it was a good ten-minute walk between the houses if you went out past North Lodge. Ten minutes that Ellen could be spending with her sister.

As the crow flew, it would be much easier to go through the woods next to the old orchard – the bit that now has these strange, curling rockeries:

Image: (C) Sandra Lawrence

I don’t know whether the little hole in the hedge was already there before 1891 when Rose married, but I’m willing to bet not, because there would have been no reason to make one. I’d put money on Ellen making the little path shown on the early 20th century map the moment Rose moved in…

… and installing a little picket fence and gate so she could visit her sister in the quickest possible time.

Image (c) The Berkeley Family and Spetchley Gardens Charitable Trust

Ellen loved that gate. She photographed it on several occasions, from both her garden and the road. To me those images are better expressions of love than any of the images she ever took of her sister or her home. It had the added advantage of one hell of a view: Warley Lea’s magnificent double herbaceous border, leading towards Rose’s house, another aspect that will warrant its own post.

Image (c) The Berkeley Family and Spetchley Gardens Charitable Trust

Amazingly the gate is still there, broken, lost and overgrown. Today’s model is probably a replacement for the very first gate, but must surely almost certainly still be from Ellen’s day because without Warley Lea to visit, it serves no useful purpose – it comes out into the middle of a road and nothing else. Ellen kept Warley Lea after Rose eventually moved but her visits diminished. To my mind, it’s even more romantic that Ellen loved it enough to replace. She wouldn’t have done it to give her gardeners an easy time; they would mainly have come from another area, anyway; either the Headley Garden on the way into Brentwood or the gardeners’ bothy, both roughly behind the Headley Arms on Headley Common.

Spring is the best time to see the little gate because there is the least amount of undergrowth to get in the way.

Image: (C) Sandra Lawrence

It is one of my favourite parts of Warley: secret, silent and achingly touching. I recommend a brief excursion, standing by that little gate and thinking of two sisters, each for whom the other was their world.

Image: (C) Sandra Lawrence

Just don’t try to open or climb over it. It’s wrapped in barbed wire and will cut you to shrebbons.


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