Another place I recently visited on the Ashridge Garden History Summer School is Nymans, in West Sussex. Nymans is an amazing garden created by several generations of the Messel family from the 1890s onwards.
Ludwig Messel, who had been born into a German Jewish family of traders and bankers, moved to England in 1868. His stockbroking business flourished and after a while he began to look round for a suitable country house. The railways had opened up Sussex and Kent, making this something of a ‘stockbroker belt’.
Ludwig Messel bought Nymans in 1890 and began creating a garden, spurred on by the development of other nearby gardens such as Leonardslee, Gravetye Manor, Wakehurst Place and Sheffield Park. Nymans soon became a treasure trove of East Asian trees and shrubs.
Ludwig’s son Leonard Messel and his wife Maud continued to enrich the garden, adding plants from Tasmania and the Andes and creating numerous prize-winning hybrid rhododendrons, magnolias and camellias.
Leonard Messel bequeathed the garden to the National Trust in 1953. His daughter Anne, Lady Rosse, continued to be involved in the management of the garden. Nymans was one of the first properties to be acquired by the National Trust purely for the importance of its garden.
Alastair Buchanan, the current family representative, gave us a fascinating and entertaining talk about the history of the Messel family, including uncanny vocal imitations of past Nymans head gardeners and of Lady Rosse. The latter was apparently never concerned about the inequality between men and women, because it never occurred to her that any man could be her equal.
One of Alastair Buchanan’s contributions is clipping some of the sculptural yew hedges. Originally they were cloud-shaped, but they have now evolved into almost Henry-Moore-like compositions.
A fellow summer school student mentioned that she found the layout of the garden a bit confusing. The reason for that is probably that the garden grew piecemeal, as the collection of plants increased - Nymans is a bit like the Wallace Collection in that respect, a collector’s paradise, crammed full of treasures.
Ed Ikin, the current head gardener, who kindly took the time to show us round, has been trialling a tougher watering regime for the ornamental borders. Summer watering is now only done once a month. The plants have adapted their root systems and leaf sizes accordingly, and the borders seem to look as lush as ever, even in this extremely dry summer.
Ed has just published a book called Thoughtful Gardening, with practical advice on how to garden in harmony with nature.