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You don’t need great plants to have an attractive garden. But having lovely views, a romantic ruin and, in the first place, loads of money, helps no end. Fortunately, Nymans has benefited from all three of the latter. To be fair, it probably has some great plants too; however, my knowledge of horticulture is only marginally better than my knowledge of nuclear physics.
Nymans is a showcase National Trust property, once a home, now most famous for its cleverly crafted gardens, where formal and informal join and part, and climbers gently caress, like lovers’ limbs, the grey walls of a partly-burnt-out Gothic mansion. The location, just outside the village of Handcross in West Sussex, slopes away to the west, with soothing views over the beguilingly beautiful High Weald. Yet the A23 London to Brighton road snarls gently just 2 minutes to the east, while less than 10 miles to the north lies the architectural wonder that is Crawley and, just beyond that, the tranquillity of Airwick Gatport.
Nymans seems to have been a medieval estate named for an otherwise forgotten family called le Nynweman in the early 14th century. The property went through various hands, the Gatland family building a house on the site of the present one sometime in the 16th or 17th century, before the it all ended up in the 19th century with one George Harrington, who rebuilt the house and enlarged the estate. In 1890, the entire 600-acre plot was purchased by Ludwig Ernest Wilhelm Leonard Messel, originally from Darmstadt. The Messels have proved to be a talented bunch, and intriguing, so I’ve pieced together a bit about them, which I hope is broadly accurate; as is so often the case, details vary from source to source.
Ludwig was the son of Simon Messel and Emilie Lindheim and he was born on 9 January 1847. In 1816, his grandfather, Aron, had founded a banking house in Darmstadt, which was then part of the Grand Duchy of Hesse, and in 1859 his father, Simon, died from typhoid fever, contracted after visiting, or having visited, the battlefield of Solferino. (The horrific Battle of Solferino was fought on 24 June 1859 between the French and Sardinians on one side, and the Austrians on the other; the Franco-Sardinian army won). Young Ludwig came to Britain in 1868 with his brother Rudolph, allegedly with gold coins sewn into their shirts with which to ease their early days in the country. Some say the Messels came here to avoid persecution, for they were a Jewish family. However, this makes little sense – Hesse seems to have been no more or less anti-Semitic than anywhere else in north-west Europe at the time, including the UK, and, anyway, according to one account, Rudolph went back to Hesse to serve as a stretcher-bearer in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. Moreover, Ludwig and Rudolph’s brother, Alfred, became a successful architect in the newly formed German state after 1871. Perhaps, like the Rothschilds, the Messels hoped to establish an international family business. Perhaps they were simply seeking their fortunes, and looking for opportunities, as people have done before and since.
Rudolph returned to the UK at some point and went on to concoct a career as a brilliant industrial chemist. Ludwig, meanwhile, got himself a job in the London branch of Seligman Brothers, a wealthy US merchant bank founded by the Seligmans who, incidentally, were born in Bavaria. The head of Seligman Brothers in London was Isaac Seligman, who had married Ludwig’s 18-year old sister, Lina, in c1869. Ach – so, maybe Ludwig’s trip to England was for no other reason than to learn banking under the watchful eye of his brother-in-law. Maybe Ludwig didn’t even intend to stay; but in 1871 he married Annie Cussans in Lambeth and in 1873 founded the stockbroking firm of L Messel & Company. The firm, incidentally, was bought by Lehman Brothers in 1986; at the time of writing (February 2018) there is still a Seligman Brothers registered in London.
Ludwig bought Nymans, according to the National Trust, “to integrate himself into English society”. It’s a curious expression, given he’d lived here for 20 years, married an Englishwoman, established a successful business and had a family, all before he acquired his grand domain. Maybe he purchased Nymans simply because he wanted a big estate, loved gardening, and had amassed enough of a fortune to indulge himself. Maybe, like his wealthy Victorian contemporaries, he felt he needed a suitable country pad in which to fashionably entertain. Maybe, despite apparently being a British subject by this time, his German-Jewish background was unacceptable to some and having a nice property helped overcome some social prejudice. During WW1, when there was considerable anti-German feeling in the country, Ludwig’s son Leonard was barred from active service because of his German ancestry – a sad piece of hypocrisy, given the mixed heritage of many fighting men – and the British Royal Family, of course. Leonard, a colonel in the territorials, repaid this snub by unselfishly helping to train men of the East Kent Regiment (the Buffs) and carrying on an extraordinary full and helpful correspondence with many of the soldiers he knew serving at the Front.
If Ludwig planted the seeds of today’s Nymans, enlisting the support of top gardener James Comber, it was Leonard who nurtured it and retrained the growth. Leonard engaged the help of professional plant hunters (isn’t it amazing the jobs people end up doing?) and thus acquired many rare specimens from Chile, China, Nepal, New Zealand, South Africa and Tasmania. Today, Nymans boasts the largest collection of South American plants in England and the second largest in the UK. (No, I don’t.)
However, Leonard and his wife Maud Sambourne disliked their accommodation. In 1923 they commissioned a replacement of the old house – described as a nondescript Regency residence – with a picturesque and quite realistic medieval-style stone manor house. It would not have looked out of place nestling in the Devon countryside. And here they lived, in a kind of sanitised pastoral idyll, generously opening the gardens to the public on many occasions. Their children, Linley, Oliver and Anne, spent part of their childhood at Nymans. Oliver became a famous theatre and film designer – a favourite of the actress Vivien Leigh, who wrote to him that “no other designer in the world will do”. During the Second World War, Oliver worked as a camouflage officer, among other things disguising pill-boxes. Anne was a great beauty and socialite who married barrister Ronald Armstrong-Jones. Their son, Antony Armstrong-Jones, was a successful photographer who married the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret, in 1960 and was created Earl of Snowdon and Viscount Linley, of Nymans. Anne divorced Ronald in 1935 and married the 6th Earl of Rosse, becoming the Countess of Rosse.
It all sounds perfect, and a long way from Darmstadt. Didn’t they do well? But you’re wondering what happened to the house, standing there like something from a Daphne de Maurier novel. The tragedy struck on the night of Leonard’s 75th birthday in 1947, when fire broke out and swept through the building, consuming most of the Messels’ much-loved home and its contents, including their collection of antique botanical books. They moved out, but never abandoned the garden. Leonard died in 1953 and Nymans passed into the care of the National Trust. Maud died in 1960.
When I first visited Nymans, it was not possible to enter the house. Anne, the Countess of Rosse, moved back to Nymans as a widow in 1979, occupying surviving ground floor rooms, which she called ‘my potting shed’. She died there in 1992 and these rooms are now open to the public. They are surprisingly modest, with a curiously Tudor-like feel, yet light and homely. Furnished with a mixture of antiques and memorabilia, they provide an apartment I’d certainly be quite comfortable in – particularly with the gardens just outside the door.
My most recent visit was in early spring 2017. The gardens were not at their best and I’m guessing they’d be better from May onward. Even so, Nymans is lovely to just bumble about in. There is the usual National Trust café – quite an extensive one, including considerable outside seating – plus what they euphemistically call ‘a plant centre’ – more like a small market. But, once you’re past that, on a warm spring or summer’s day, Nymans is sublime.