Nymans takes you back to a bygone era of a sophisticated private rural retreat. It was designed to embrace quintessential English style, to exhibit exquisite taste without brashness, and to display expert skill and plantmanship. Beyond this though, it is an intimate family garden that tells the tale of success and tribulation over time.
Ludwig Messel emigrated from the Grand Duchy of Hesse in the 1860s determined to carve out a successful life in England. Hard work within stockbroking paid off handsomely, and Ludwig was able to provide a fine and priviledged life for his English wife, Annie, and their six children.
Still, the Messels yearned for a rural estate as was fashionable in Edwardian England to escape from polluted city life. In 1890 they found Nymans in Handcross. Ludwig hired his younger brother Alfred to develop the existing Regency villa adding a conservatory, billiard room and a three storey Gothic tower. Alfred also designed a summer house in the form of a Greek temple which still exists today.
Ludwig became increasingly interested in the garden developing a heather garden, an arboretum with many fine rare and imported specimens and double herbaceous borders. As his knowledge grew, he sought out rare varieties and bred new versions of old favourites. In time, he became well-known for his ‘bravery’ in trialing new and exotic species sourced from all over the world. Nymans was fortunate to be surrounded by esteemed horticulture neighbours including many who sponsored plant hunters and William Robinson at Gravetye, whose influence on the garden can still be seen today.
After Ludwig’s death the estate was inherited by his eldest son, Leonard, and his wife Maud. The house was too Germanic for Maud’s liking and so renovations were undertaken resulting in a medieval-style manor with nods to Elizabethan architecture. Leonard Messel himself became increasingly more interested with the garden and built on his father’s legacy. He amassed an astonishing collection of rhododendrons, camellias and hydrangeas and held the best private horticultural library in England.
Then in 1947 tragedy befell the house as it was engulfed in flames. The house and the fine art, furniture and books that it contained were destroyed. Unable to rebuild Nymans, both emotionally and due to the shortage of building materials post-war, the Messels moved to nearby Holmsted Manor and maintained the gardens from a distance.
In the post-war period, the National Trust stepped in to support many estates that could not sustained in the difficult conditions. It was at this point that Nymans became a National Trust property, although management of the estate was overseen by Leonard and Maud’s daughter Anne until her death in 1992.
Today, Nymans is perhaps most famous for its theatrical double herbaceous border, first mentioned in the magazine Garden Life in 1905. The borders are filled with old-fashioned flowers, mostly annuals, dazzling and full of intense and rich colour. The borders remain largely unchanged from their original incarnation and provide a dramatic visual feast.
The gardens at Nymans developed organically over the years with new sections added reflecting different moods and planting schemes. Despite not being designed with a unifying plan, the distinct areas combine harmoniously into an intimate, romantic family garden where nothing feels out of place. Not even the haunting ruins of the house; a symbol of hope, loss and perseverance that has seen this remarkable garden withstand the test of time.
We visit Nymans on our Spring Treasures & the Chelsea Flower Show tour in 2021.
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Images © Eliza Ford