Romance in Ruins

Recently, we’ve been doing more NT’ing again (visiting National Trust properties) and they’ve been the jewels in the crown of the National Trust. These are famous places that are known in the UK and beyond. Their reputation precedes them and they have no equal; places such as Sissinghurst, Mottisfont, Winkworth Arboretum and I can now add another one on the “been there!” list. This place encapsulates irony, tragedy, history, drama, beauty and romance in one spine-tinglingly short word: Nymans.

Nymans

Notice something odd about the house?

In its reductionist form, Nymans is a mostly-derelict house in the Weald of Wessex surrounded by restored gardens; however it’s the history of the occupiers, the grandeur of the house, the tragedy of its ruin and the beauty of its gardens that places Nymans firmly onto the list of “Most romantic UK gardens”.

From what I’ve read, seen and heard of Nymans, one interpretation is that it is the result of one plant-lover’s determination to have the country house, the view and the garden to “fit in” with his aristocratic neighbours and to be accepted by them as a bone-fide English Country Gentleman. Leonard Messel, a Jewish man of German origin bought the “country pile” at Nymans in 1920 and transformed it into a stunning and very traditional, Mediaeval Manor House. He developed the gardens around it to turn Nymans into an English Country House that had a proper English Country Garden to match. Despite the house and the gardens, his Jewish, Germanic ancestry meant that he was never allowed to fully “fit in”, no matter how “English” his house and garden were. His love for plants, plant collecting and plant breeding mean that you see his name in garden centres today with plants such as Magnolia x Loebneri “Leonard Messel”.

It was during a particularly harsh winter in 1947 that Nymans caught fire. It was so cold that the surrounding ponds and lakes where the firemen would normally pump the water from to put the fire out were frozen and inaccessible. The fire raged through and tragically gutted most of the house and while no-one was hurt in the fire, the house was irrevocably destroyed.

Nymans Info Board

The irony is that Leonard Messel tried so hard to create the ultimate English Garden, that it took the destruction of the house in order to create the perfect romantic ruin – indeed a real “folly” – that is a quintessential part of the English Landscape or Romantic-style garden. The ruins of Nymans and the gardens that wrap around it are today considered to be one of the most beautiful examples of the romantic-style garden in the UK.

Nymans has a legendary status in gardening circles and from looking through the pictures in the gallery, I hope you can see why.

10 Comments


  1. Thank you for that Sunil – I loved the agapanthus in the wooden containers. Love them and always “trying” although never successful with them. Some truly lovely pics there – what a treat to be an armchair visitor.

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    1. Hello Mrs Mac. I was jealous of the Agapanthus too. We have some from seed that are tiny and will take several years to get to flowering size. I’ll just have to gaze wistfully at those pictures until then!

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    1. Hi Tammy, it was a beautiful garden and there was so much more of it than we originally thought. Catching glimpses of the house from various parts and the views over the Weald were really special.

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  2. Poor Leonard! He should have just concentrated on his garden and his love of plants and forgotten about all the local snobs. This story reminds me a bit of the Trollope novel “The Way We Live Now”, though this is not fair to Leonard since in the novel the upwardly striving outsider turns out to be a swindler. Anyhow, this is a very beautiful garden – one I will add to our list of gardens should we ever travel to the UK again.

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    1. Hello Jason, I hope you do travel this way again, it may be a hassle, but once you see the massive wisteria clambering up and round the ruined window mullions and the towering magnolia against the old walls, all that is forgotten!

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  3. Beautifully and lovingly photographed, Sunil. A shameful confession: I wanted to boot that one couple off the bench so I could hog it all to myself.

    I was thinking of Trollope, too, when I read gardeninacity’s comment–not necessarily that novel, but different characters’ efforts to assimilate into British, Victorian-era culture.

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    1. Thank you Stacy, I don’t know how much the “social integration” part was emphasised in comparison to reality, but it makes the whole story all that more romantic (and ironic) for it.

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  4. This garden gives me shivers up my spine. A wonderful garden and such a tragic story. This is a lovely post – great photos too.

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    1. Hi Sarah, when we were there I kept getting tingles up my spine on each new view of the ruins, on discovering each new secluded courtyard and secret garden and each new “vista”. The garden does have a great deal to offer and I’m glad you enjoyed the virtual tour.

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