Works at Warley

During the pandemic, just like humanity, Warley suffered.

Over lockdown passionate volunteers were barred from carrying out pretty much any maintenance work – though quite how it is impossible to social distance when there’s about 12 of you in 30-odd acres of woodland still beats me.

The hurt was palpable among the volunteers, seeing their beloved charge gradually falling into disrepair while, at the same time watching it being trashed.

Much of the trashing was not malicious – people visited, often for the first time, because there was nowhere else to go, and discovered something wonderful so returned on a regular basis. It is not any genuine visitor’s fault that the sheer volume of footfall brought its own kind of damage.

The other kind of visitor has a special circle in hell reserved for them for when I become God.

Vandals smashed gates, broke fences, used bird-spotting hides for drug deals, uprooted plants and damaged historic walls.

One poor wall in the hothouse complex must have been danced on by an army of louts. I hope they fell off and hurt themselves, so there.

I remember the much-missed Annabel Davenport barely holding back tears as she surveyed the shattered remains of her own work after so many years of volunteering.

Cleaning up an entire 100-box of silver gas containers on the same visit I felt like bursting into tears myself.

To pick yourself up from that and move forward requires guts, determination and love. To cage-up the one remaining piece of Ellen Willmott’s home – the conservatory – for its own good, to fence off places that have never needed fencing off, to restrict access to areas that once welcomed visitors is depressing stuff indeed.

Yet on a visit yesterday I saw evidence of those guts, that determination and yes, that love. Work is going on once more and at a rate of knots.

I know I am notorious for not agreeing with all of the work that goes on at Warley, and I am very aware that since I’m not there personally every Monday wielding the tools myself I’m on shaky ground but today I take my gigantic Edwardian hat off to the sheer amount of graft that’s going on.

It’s all looking a bit ‘new-haircut-y’ just now, but give it a season or two and this magical place will be fighting fit again, and, in some places, better than for a very, very long time.

Warley’s in transition at the moment, moving from carpets of snowdrops to drifts of daffs.

There are still some very fine snowdrops to be enjoyed and plenty of early daffodils are out, but I’d say leave it a week or so for the real hosts of golden trumpets.

Let’s take a tour. I suggest the anticlockwise route; the one I suspect Ellen used to wow her visitors to greatest effect. The driveway is, as always, covered in early-spring-whiteness:

I am glad to see the East Meadow is enjoying more snowdrops now…

… but although there are plenty of croci on the main drive up to the car park, there is still no sign of them in the meadow. It’s hard to know what happened there, the purple crocus drifts of my childhood just aren’t there any more. Just look at this postcard – I don’t know when it was made but I’d say 1990s:

That’s how I remember it…

One of the changes at Warley which I utterly, utterly applaud is the opening up of the old Orchard.

As more of Ellen’s images of this part of the garden emerge, it will be possible to exactly place them thanks to the gradual uncovering of the paths.

These have not been seen since Ellen’s day, and it’s wonderful to see them now. The rockeries are also very clear at the moment – I’m always astounded by their sheer size – they just don’t look that big on the Kip drawing.

The volunteers are making a good fist at dealing with the overgrown box. It was almost certainly once low formal hedging (the Kip drawing is inconclusive) but it’s now a monster.

They can’t do too much to it as the dreaded box tree caterpillar is doing its worst and they can’t further weaken the poor thing; I hope it survives. At least it isn’t competing with undergrowth any more.

I am very much looking forward to seeing the magnolia blooming without being choked.

While you’re there, it is currently really easy to see Ellen’s secret gate – do take a little detour, it’s lovely:

I guess the most obvious work has been done on the brickwork and walls, many of which really, really needed it.

I am notorious for believing that the cold frames didn’t need it – I have always been uncomfortable about their being ‘restored’, I am definitely on the ‘conserve, don’t rebuild’ team, but, given the decision was made to rebuild them, the job’s been done well.

The ‘secret garden’ isn’t as secret as it once was, but clearing away everything to stabilise the wall does mean visitors can actually see – if still not visit – it, and again, the work is very nice.

A bit bald, but it will soon bed-in and it won’t fall down which is a definite plus…

The walled garden did need work and that work is excellent. It doesn’t look as though any major plants have been lost in the process – indeed some have been planted – I’m not sure how they have been chosen but I’m sure thought has gone into it. I was particularly interested in a camellia that I failed to photograph.

One wall in particular, at the east, was clearly in a LOT of danger. It’s been propped up with gigantic iron girders and, ugly though they may be, only just in time. Just look at that angle:

That particular corner is very special to me thanks to a photo I uncovered, which deserves a post of its own (big old tease that I am…)

The poor old walled garden itself looks very poorly indeed at the moment. I have no idea what the plan is there but I’ve never seen it looking so empty and sad.

I am sure there IS a plan and I’m pretty okay with whatever’s chosen (other than any more trees). Ellen herself used this area as an experimental ground, constantly changing and innovating.

OH, dear, oh, dear. The Conservatory is STILL behind bars. I understand it is on the list to be stabilised this year, I really hope so, not least because there is a lovely blue plaque to go on the wall – unveiled last year, but still currently without a home.

Because the conservatory is still fenced in, it’s currently impossible to see the basement kitchen. I am sure this will all be sorted when the work is done. If memory serves it was delayed for weather, but I might be wrong.

One bit I do really like is the exterior of the Walled Garden, especially on the west side. It looks marvellous. It’s been beautifully stabilised and you can clearly see where the summer house was. There’s also a fantastic curved corner which I’d forgotten about but love.

It’s now easier to see where Ellen’s orchid house was…

…and the fabulous cobbled path is currently uncovered too.

The nut walk is a new addition. I’ll focus on that another day.

Taking the ‘old’ walk around the current perimeter, you can look back across the daffodil grounds. I have never understood tree management so I’ll run with ‘whatever was needed was needed’…

I am delighted that we can now see the old railway girders that Ellen imported in a fit of pique when her neighbour decided to built cottages in Dark Lane overlooking her previously secret garden. Ellen had these erected and covered the result with nets, training ivy up them to create a screen.

They’ve not really been viewable before, but it’s interesting to see the results of a serious falling out 120-odd years ago, where said neighbour threatened to shoot Ellen on sight…

Last year’s hot weather did unspeakable things to the fabulous carpet of moss under the Spanish Chestnuts, which has been growing here since at least Ellen’s time. It looks as though it’s recovering, I hope so.

For those of us used to seeing South Pond all dark and mysterious it is, at first, a bit weird to see it opened up. But this is much more like it would have been in Ellen’s day and has the added benefit of clearing the water. I like.

The work done by Warley’s volunteers always astounds me. I am in awe of their dedication and determination – and if I have any small criticisms they are always outweighed by the utterly brilliant work they do, year in, year out. Bravo, all…


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Christine McLaughlin says:

    Oh to be in England now that Spring is there!
    Thank you Sandra for this walk around Ellen’s secret gardens and to enjoy vicariously the snowdrops, crocus and daffodils and to be reminded of the wonderful work of the good volunteers.
    Here in Ottawa we are still under three feet of hard ice and snow!


    1. It would be great to see you, Christine! May the snow soon recede into spring flowers for you, too…


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