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Let’s start with the basics. Tintinhull is a small village in Somerset, not far from Yeovil, with roots dating back to at least Saxon times. It sits on the route of the Fosse Way, the road built by the Romans linking Exeter with Lincoln. Tintinhull House lies on the eastern edge of the village, began life as a farmhouse built of local Ham stone in the 1630s and was subsequently enlarged. It was bought by a Captain and Mrs F E Reiss in 1933. Most sources credit Phyllis Reiss with designing the garden, and she’s done a cracking job. All the guidebooks will tell you a similar thing: that Mrs Reiss created six areas, or ‘rooms’, each with a different character – Eagle Court, Cedar Court, Middle Garden, Pool Garden, Fountain Garden and the Kitchen Garden. In 1953 or 1954, Phyllis gave the house and garden to the National Trust, but she continued living there until her death in 1961. The garden was further developed by Penelope Hobhouse, herself something of a horticultural celebrity, who lived there with her husband between 1980 and 1993.
I am no garden expert and confess I’d never heard of any of these people; yet guidebooks mentioned them in an almost incidental way, as though they should be familiar. It’s like chatting to someone at a party who drops the names of their friends, relatives and casual acquaintances into the conversation, without any explanation whatsoever, assuming you will know who they are talking about. Surely, we’ve all experienced this? After awhile I either get bored, or start feeling guilty that I hadn’t researched more thoroughly before I left home.
Yet it would be interesting to learn more about Phyllis and her husband, the Captain. Using a service rank in civilian life was a slightly pretentious middle-class affectation, common in Britain in the first half of the 20th century. Clearly, they had cash – so it’s more than likely that the heavier work was done by hired help. It would be nice to picture Phyllis Reiss, though, sleeves rolled up, hair pinned back, cigarette dangling, in her wellies, turning the soil. Can you imagine the two of them slogging away, breaking off for the occasional cuppa or loo break, one of them nipping up to the house at critical moments to check on dinner, slapping at midges as the sun goes down and realising that they should have packed up ages ago? Maybe they did all of those things. The point is, having started to produce a brief write-up about their garden, I found myself wanting to learn something about the people they were and spent hours I didn’t have searching for some biographical details, only to discover – very little.
There was a short biography of Ferdinand Edward Reiss on a website selling his First World War medals, a fact which somehow seemed inestimably sad. He was born in Salford in 1875 into a wealthy German-Jewish family, attended Harrow, trained as an electrical engineer and was a businessman before joining up in 1914. He was a decorated war hero, winning the military cross on the first day of the Somme in July 1916 and later transferred to the RAF. He and his wife lived at Dowdeswell Manor in Gloucestershire before moving to Tintinhull, where he died in 1947. Phyllis Emily, née Lucas, was born in Berkhamsted in 1886, the daughter of a Colonel Alfred George Lucas. Scant detail, isn’t it? But maybe their lives are defined by their garden; not a bad legacy.
There was another distraction. The Pool Garden at Tintinhull was created as a memorial to Phyllis Reiss’ nephew, Michael Lucas, who was lost during the Second World War and, according to the National Trust, in whose memory Mrs Reiss gave the property to the Trust. I needed to know more. Eventually, I discovered that Sub-Lieutenant John Michael Lucas of the Royal Naval Reserve died aged 21 on 12th August 1942. I believe he was shot down whilst flying a Sea Hurricane defending a convoy taking supplies to the beleaguered island of Malta. Surely, he must have visited his Aunt and Uncle at Tintinhull as a boy and played hide-and-seek there.
Tintinhull is not an enormous garden, but it’s packed with colour and it’s a place where you can happily spend an hour or two. Personally, I enjoy well-planted borders where bees buzz and butterflies flutter. Knowing even less about insects than I do about gardens, I can proudly tell you that this lovely chap (or chapess) is a Jersey Tiger moth; I know, because I spent another 30 minutes looking it up.
The house is not generally open to the public – but you can book it for your holiday (it has four bedrooms and sleeps 8). More details from Tintinhull’s pages on the National Trust’s website.
Go to A Bit About Britain’s directory listing for Tintinhull and discover other gardens too.