Warley Place

How the world has changed in the last month or so.  At the beginning of March we were in London for the weekend, visiting family – something we are no longer allowed to do.  Covid19 was just appearing on the horizon so I’m glad we made the most of opportunities to get out into rural Essex with Pat rather than heading for the city.  Our visit to Warley Place LNR had plenty to offer apart from the Boraginaceae I talked about in my last post.  The 10 hectare site is now managed by the Essex Wildlife Trust but, oddly for a nature reserve, was once a garden.  In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, horticulturalist Ellen Willmott planted species from all over the world here.  Some have been naturalised and still thrive.

Ellen Willmott’s garden by Alfred Parsons (1847-1920), who illustrated her books – Internet, Public Domain

Miss Willmott sounds to have been quite a character, having a reputation in later life for eccentricity.  She allegedly carried a revolver in her handbag, booby-trapped the estate to deter thieves and secretly planted seeds of Eryngium giganteum, the giant prickly thistle, in the gardens of rival horticulturalists.  This plants is commonly known as ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’!

More modestly proportioned Eryngium biebersteinianum near Srinigar, Kashmir

Ellen Willmott came from a wealthy family who moved to Warley Place in 1876, when she was a young girl and she was bitten early by the gardening bug.  Her 21st birthday present was to be allowed to create a gorge and rockery in the alpine garden and she carried on plant collecting and developing the gardens when she inherited the property on her father’s death.  She seems to have spent every penny available, and some that were not, on her passion for plants and gardens; buying houses in France and Italy, sponsoring plant hunting expeditions to China and the Middle East, cultivating some 100 000 varieties of plant and publishing a beautifully illustrated book on Warley Place and one on The Genus Rosa. At its peak, Warley Place employed 104 male gardeners (ironically, Willmott didn’t trust women) and was as important as Kew or Edinburgh Botanic Gardens for its range of plants.  Rare plants from all over the world sat cheek by jowl in the walled gardens and carefully constructed rocky ravines, so beloved of Edwardian gardeners. The rare alpines and ferns which used to grace the ravine are long gone but a walk through the woodland still reveals many more common introduced, naturalised plants – Green alkanet, Abraham-Isaac-Jacob, Lungwort and Yellow figwort. The common name Abraham-Isaac-Jacob refers to the fact that the flowers change colour during their lives, like many other Boraginaceae

Left to right: Green alkanet, Pentaglottis sempervirens; Abraham-Isaac-Jacob, Trachystemon orientalis; White comfrey, Symphytum orientale and Lungwort, Pulmonaria officinalis

Yellow figwort, below, is another introduction – a statuesque plant, which I’d not come across before, identified by helpful folk on Twitter!

Yellow figwort, Scrophularia vernalis

Ellen joined the Narcissus Committee of the Royal Horticultural Society and won medals for four of the hybrid daffodils which were one of her great passions, alongside tulips, crocuses and irises. Today, the gardens and fields of Warley Place are full of naturalised spring bulbs.

Ellen managed get herself taken seriously by the male-dominated botanical establishment, winning the Victoria Medal of Honour for British Horticulturalists in its inaugural year, 1897, and becoming one of the first women to be elected to the Linnean society, in 1905.  She eventually overstretched herself financially, however, and had to sell first her European properties and then many personal possessions.  The army took over the estate lands during the first World War and many of those close to her, who’d tolerated her eccentricities, died in the 1920s. By 1934, when she herself died of a heart attack, alone at home, she cut a lonely figure despite being her many accolades. Her name, and that of Warley, live on in the names of many of our garden flowers – narcissi, primulas, tulips and roses, in particular.

Rosa willmottiae, from western Sichuan, China.

A dilapidated Warley Place was auctioned after Ellen Willmott’s death to pay her outstanding debts, with the aim of turning the house into a luxury housing estate.  Fortunately, for nature conservation and those who crave open spaces near the city, this never happened.  The buildings were demolished in 1939 and the gardens reverted to wilderness. In 1977 the land was leased to what was then the Essex Naturalists’ Trust, now Essex Wildlife Trust, to use as a nature reserve. They have tried to retain as many features as possible of the original garden whilst improving the range of habitats available for wildlife, with woodland, meadows and ponds.  

Trail guide to Essex Wildlife Trust’s Warley Place

It seems a lifetime ago, at the beginning of this month, that we were able to wander freely through the old walled gardens and woodlands with others, revelling in the patchy spring sunshine and dodging rain showers in the South Hide with a friendly birder keen to show us his stunning photos.  In this time of ‘lockdown’, where we are only supposed to socialise with those we live with and not travel any distance for our daily exercise, such memories are precious.  Spring will come, and summer though.  With our movement restricted, we may just have to get better at looking for the signs closer to home – valuing small things for the sense of connection they give us to nature and for the knowledge that time is passing. Covid19 will not dominate our lives forever.   

The scientific evidence for the importance of nature in our lives is growing ever stronger so, particularly at this stressful time, we need to find ways of engaging with it locally.  

Bratmana G.N. et al. (2015)  Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation. PNAS, 112 , pp. 8567–8572


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