Through the Oval Window: Ellen’s Summer Houses #1

Image: Sandra Lawrence

Today I’m starting the first in an occasional series on Ellen Willmott’s (many) summer houses. By far the majority of them were in her main garden at Warley Place, which boasted at least eight, but that’s not counting the gazebos her sister Rose had at Warley Lea and Ellen also had a couple of cabins at Tresserve. I haven’t found any evidence of summerhouses at Boccanegra yet, but I live to be corrected.

Image: Sandra Lawrence

I’m going to start with Ellen’s most historically complex summer house, not least because it’s the one that bears most evidence today. It’s been heavily restored – and may yet see more as part of an intriguing plan a little bird tells me about, to reinstate its roof.

But which roof? Aye, there’s the rub…

Image: Sandra Lawrence

Just to get our bearings, if we’re taking the anticlockwise route around the garden, this little building is just past the Spanish chestnuts at the top of the hill, overlooking the west meadow – the one that gets covered in daffodils every spring. Here it is on the 1904 Walker map (ignore the path, it continues on to the alpine garden these days):

Image: Warley Place Volunteers

The building turns up very occasionally as part of some of Ellen’s general photographic vistas. The earliest modern image of it that I know of is from the 1980s/90s when it was being used as a leaf mould store:

Image: Warley Place Volunteers

It seems to have changed at least once during Ellen’s day but I do wonder if it has older roots. My thinking? Well, it was Dad that first pointed it out to me…

Image: Sandra Lawrence

For some, strange reason, the north wall has ground-level brickwork that looks for all the world like the top of a window, complete with vertical brick lintel that Mr Google tells me is a ‘relieving arch’. Underneath that is a metal supporting rod.

Image: Sandra Lawrence

See – just like the top of a Victorian window. What the bloomin’ heck..?

There surely can’t be a window beneath that brick floor – what would be the point? But equally, why would anyone make fancy brickwork with extra strengthening for the base of a building? Is it some kind of ventilation hole? The beginnings of a chimney? Provision for a storage chamber? My only real theory is that some brickwork from elsewhere was re-used wholesale. There’s also what looks like the meanest, thinnest (and darkest, once the roof’s on…) ever flower bed running alongside it, before the brick flooring.

Whatever – there it is.

Image: Sandra Lawrence

Thing is, that that is not the strangest thing about this building.

In theory it isn’t the first building on the spot – just look at this, one of Ellen’s glass plates, so some of her earliest work:

Image: (c) Berkeley Family and Spetchley Gardens Trust

Now, obviously it seems to be a totally different building – wider than the current structure, more open and probably curved at the back. The roof looks flat or very shallow – little more than a windbreak. Here’s a terrible closeup:

Image: (c) Berkeley Family and Spetchley Gardens Trust

Inside, it has a table, chairs and what looks like a banquette to enjoy a nice cuppa on a stroll round the gardens.

Now, this bears so little relation to the archaeology we have today that the only reason it looks like it’s an earlier incarnation is that it’s in the correct place geographically.

Let’s park that one for the moment, and look at one of Ellen’s prints. Now, these are almost always later than her plates, and much more like what we have now. Check out the circled bit in this vista shot taken from across the lake, and incidentally including two more of Ellen’s gazebos:

Image (c) Berkeley Family and Spetchley Gardens Trust

Here is that circle in close-up:

Image (c) Berkeley Family and Spetchley Gardens Trust

It’s hard but not impossible to tell that that is actually this:

Image (c) Berkeley Family and Spetchley Gardens Trust

This is a much more substantial building, and looks enough like what we have left to imagine that this is our guy.

So – a rebuild, yeah?


Image (c) Berkeley Family and Spetchley Gardens Trust

It’s the right shape, and has an extremely steep, pyramidical tiled roof. It also has two rather lovely (probably) wooden columns, supporting the roof. The picture’s not good enough to see what’s inside, but I’ll wager more tables and chairs.

It would have been a lot more sheltered but afford less of a view than the open windbreak. I find myself wondering if it was constructed after the very tough winter of 1889-90 but this is pure conjecture.

However, just to add more confusion to the story, the Kip shows a different interpretation. Here is the summerhouse from the rear, complete with a regular pitched roof:

Image (c) Berkeley Family and Spetchley Gardens Trust

It’s in the right place, by the pergola, just up by the Spanish chestnuts and showing an alternative path in Ellen’s day, turning left towards the dwarf wall, instead of continuing down to the Alpine garden as it does today.

Here’s the rear now:

Image: Sandra Lawrence

There’s no apex. Of course, that could have been taken down but it does point more to the pyramid roof.

The little curved windbreak looks to be in the same place as the brick summerhouse, so far, so convincing as a direct replacement. In fact I was convinced…until I spoke to John Cannell, who threw a completely different spanner into the earthworks, and showed me this:

Image (c) Berkeley Family and Spetchley Gardens Trust

A little wooden, thatched-roof circular hut. Now – I’ve always taken this as a separate summer house.

It’s almost in the right place for the little square house and John says that the measurements, while hard to be exact, thanks to imperial/metric and measuring accuracy issues (then and now – the land is just really different now…) seems to put it in the right place.

There’s only one summer house in this area on the Kip, though, and it ain’t round or thatched:

Image (c) Berkeley Family and Spetchley Gardens Trust

There is another alternative theory. Let’s look again at that first image again, with added arrows:

Image (c) Berkeley Family and Spetchley Gardens Trust

…and another image of the round summer house, also with added arrows:

Image (c) Berkeley Family and Spetchley Gardens Trust

That looks to me like another building…

The Kip is inconclusive, with an inconvenient clump of trees in the way:

Image (c) Berkeley Family and Spetchley Gardens Trust

…which bothers me, as surely Ellen would have wanted to show off the rather fine, pyramidical roofed gazebo in her special drawing. But could it have started out as a rather dull shed-type building that wasn’t worth including in the Kip, that Ellen later adapted into a splendid summer house?

I’m pretty sure that whatever there was, what we have now are the remains of this:

Image: (c) Berkeley Family and Spetchley Gardens Trust

I went to look at it with Linda Carter, Warley’s current owner and spent some time looking at the area. I checked it against the dwarf wall that separated the formal lawns from the bowling green and does still exist:

Image: Sandra Lawrence

In the photo, the ‘ghost’ building seems to be at the end of that but it is just too far away from the brick summer house to be the same thing, so I think it must have just been a gardener’s shed.

For what it’s worth, then, here is my current theory:

The windbreak IS an earlier incarnation of the current building, which would have been the one with the very high pyramid roof. I believe the Kip gets it wrong – that that summerhouse never had a pitched roof. I’m willing to bet it was a twinkle in Ellen’s eye when the Kip was made (it’s very ‘Edwardian’ in style…) and she just got the artist to include ‘something’ there.

The circular, wooden, thatched-roof summerhouse was removed when the brick building was made and replaced with a lovely, circular flower bed that used its foundations:

…and which was separate – but complementary to – the rose arbour:

IMAGE (c) The Berkeley Family and Spetchley Gardens Trust

This theory puts all summerhouses in their right places, according to the photos and maps; I can’t make any other suggestions fit with both those and what’s on the ground.

While we’re on theories, here’s another one, based on very little evidence indeed.

That oval window.

What was it for? It was very fancy for something that wasn’t really going to be seen:

Image: Sandra Lawrence

…with pretty detail:

Image: Sandra Lawrence

It doesn’t look as though it ever had glass in it, so I find myself pondering on purposes…

Okay, just for a moment, let’s take a brief excursion to Nunhead Cemetery in Southeast London, and a special ‘window’ cut into the trees to give visitors a lovely image of St Pauls:

Image: Sandra Lawrence

This long-distance vista-thing was a popular conceit in Victorian gardening. I wonder – did Ellen intend to have – or even, at one point, actually have a ‘vista’ cut into her trees so that her guests could view her alpine garden for the very first time?

Here’s a section from the 1904 Walker Map:

The red arrow shows the brick building. The yellow arrow shows what the view would have been from the oval window. It’s not perfect; perhaps Ellen fancied it then decided it wasn’t as exciting as she’d hoped once it was made, but kept the window anyway.

Who knows – this is just my fancy. I’ll not die on any hills for it, but I will stand by my thoughts on the summerhouse itself.

And yet, STOP PRESS…

…another picture just rocked up, this time specifically of the summerhouse.

And from it a few things become clear. 1) If there was ever a gardeners’ shed beyond it, it was gone by the time this photo was taken. 2) It has a rough-cast wall inside. 3) It once had an corresponding oval window on the north side as well:

…, which has clearly been rebuilt, though this still does not explain the ground-level ‘window lintel’ Dad pointed out.

However we look at it today, the remaining window makes a great frame to remember lovely trips to Warley, here’s Linda Carter having a splendid time:

Image: Sandra Lawrence

And whatever its story, it’s a lovely, extant – if a little battered – piece of Ellen’s world…

Image: Sandra Lawrence

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