Warley Place is always slightly mysterious. It reveals its deepest secrets only to those who really – but really – look.
We have no idea whether Ellen was aware, for example, that some of the stone her builders used in various parts of the garden is not quite what it first appears to be…
The most obvious example is in the remodelling of the lake in the very bottom of the valley, now sadly completely dried out.
When the Willmotts first moved in, this was a vast, meandering, two-part lake, divided north/south with a path running between the parts and an ornamental island.
Today’s arid basin is nothing like that. It consists of two parts – but these two parts are east/west.
The island – of which there are plenty of very clear photographs – is gone and the surroundings have been formalised with a winding, brick containing wall.
Certainly the shape of the big lake has always mystified me: the archaeology on the ground just doesn’t match the original photographs.
There are two separate sets of steps into the lake that are very obviously old milestones. The first batch are on what I suspect is what is left of the island, now a peninsula and easily visible from the public path.
There is no way Ellen would have missed the glaring fact that one end of each of her steps is considerably chunkier than the other (milestones were usually made larger at the bottom to anchor them securely), so I think she was complicit in their use. Perhaps she enjoyed the ‘recycling’, ‘salvage’ angle – though if she did, surely she would have kept the milestones with the writing side up, revealing – as Bert Brecht would say – the artifice.
If you want to read the stones, you have to lie on the ground.
The other steps into the lake are closer to the main path but harder to find. They lead down from the walkway at the bottom, presumably for getting into and out of rowing boats. They are usually covered in undergrowth, but may be visible at the moment.
There is one other part of the main lake that has milestones. These are on the very steep slope leading down into the eastern end of the pond.
John Cannell and I spent a happy day there, bracing ourselves against the slope, trying to uncover what we could. In their day these would probably have been used as flat, dry areas to stand and admire the lake – perhaps there were also small steps down to get to them but nothing is marked on any map.
These stones are not currently accessible as it’s one of those parts of Warley that just isn’t safe to get to any more. They’ve been covered up for safety to prevent broken necks, but are all logged as part of Warley’s topography.
The other area where you can find old milestones is around South Pond – the baby lake at the lower end of the ravine, near Warley’s entrance:
Here, it only becomes clear that Ellen reused milestones because, during the demolition in the 1930s, someone decided they could reuse the stone again and tried to take it away.
They soon realised just how heavy the slabs were and dropped them where they stood. A couple went into the pond itself and in doing so one flipped over, revealing its original purpose:
There are about 10 very similar stones, still in position around the edge of the pond, all of which are upside down, but my money is on their also turning out to be milestones should some burly character choose to take a peek.
Another, likely-looking stone in the old Orchard Garden was turned over by volunteers some years ago but frustratingly had no inscription.
So where were these stones pointing to? How did they get to Warley? Who put them there?
Ellen famously employed famous Yorkshire landscaping firm Backhouse & Son to build her best-known garden feature, the alpine ravine, and I am pretty sure she got them back for other jobs. At the time she had vast sums of money to throw at projects…
…which makes it all the more intriguing that she should choose to reuse old milestones instead of virgin rock.
We know that at least some of the work must have been done fairly early in Ellen’s time. Boat moorings that would have been underneath ‘Napoleon’s Hut’ – installed in 1880 – are still there, even though the chalet itself has been gone for decades.
Yet a report made by the Milestone Society (who have also logged all the inscriptions) implies this is from a deaccession of milestones by Cheshire County Council when they changed over to new-fangled cast-iron signposts in the 1890s.
My money is on Backhouse supplying and installing the stone because they all point to destinations in Cheshire and surroundings, where the boulders for Ellen’s alpine gorge may have come from. Perhaps they got a job lot and made Ellen an offer she couldn’t refuse.
Ellen had her filmy fern cave grotto built by Backhouse in the winter of 1894-5, perhaps she had a little remodelling done elsewhere, too, working around the hut on the lake.
The truth is that we may never know when and why Ellen chose to reuse rock signposts when she could easily have afforded new stone.
What is pretty certain to me is that we haven’t found them all yet. I am absolutely sure that one Monday morning Warley’s volunteers will report a new find or two – and they’re always happy to welcome new members.
In the meanwhile, I count these hidden, humble stones as another silent addition to Miss Willmott’s Ghosts.