On a sunny summer’s day, Nymans Gardens just outside Handcross near Haywards Heath conjures up all the romance and idealism of the early 20th century.
A family home for the affluent
Nymans was originally built in the early 19th century but was bought, along with 600 acres, by Ludwig Messel (a German émigré who was a successful stockbroker) in the 1890s. Messel commissioned his brother (a famous architect) and set about redesigning the house and gardens, a passion that would be handed down through the subsequent generations. His son Leonard carried on redesigning and developing Nymans, but the house and ruins as they are now don’t look remotely like they originally did. The medieval facade was actually built post-1915.
Sadly, in 1947 (only 19 years after completion) there was a terrible fire that destroyed a large part of the house and with it, brought an end to the Nyman’s heyday. The deprivations caused by WWII meant it wasn’t possible to restore the house and the family moved out.
The Messels had moved with an affluent set and in its heyday, Nymans must have been a great show of wealth as well as luxury. Leonard’s daughter, Anne, married the Earl of Rosse (one of her sons was the Earl of Snowdon who married Princess Margaret). Having made safe the remaining part of the house, Anne moved back to Nymans in 1979 and carried on working with the head gardener until her death in 1992.
You can visit some of the rooms she lived in including the garden hall, dining room, book room and library, complete with family photos, books and piano. But Nymans has actually been owned by the National Trust since 1953.
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again
Nowadays, Nymans does have a touch of Manderley about it with its empty windows and charred ruins. But that just helps add to the sense of Edwardian nostalgia and romance.
When visiting Nymans Gardens, you have to start with a walk around the perimeter path which takes you past a rather charming pavilion and a huge clump of hydrangeas and opens on to the first of the great views. From this path, you follow it round to the side of the ruined house and you can see right across the Ouse Valley including to High Beeches and the Balcombe Viaduct in the distance.
From here, it’s a journey of the senses with a series of different gardens to discover. In the far corner near the old croquet lawns is a long pergola-covered walkway that drips with wisteria in early summer. Some of the wisteria may be over 100 years old and the trunks are twisted and gnarled.
Then there is the rock garden with an exotic feel and a viewing tower. Succulents mix with alpines and spikes of fiery colour, and when we visited on one of the summer’s only really hot days of this year, we felt like we’d escaped to the gardens of Africa.
From there it’s an easy saunter to the Sunk garden and Italianate Loggia and across the sweeping lawns past huge old trees to the tropical planting at the front of the house. Huge banana plants and canna lilies are mixed with more traditional planting and with a sunny blue sky, the impression it creates is remarkable.
From the house, there is the courtyard garden with its dovecote at the back and then on to the stunning walled gardens with its long stretches of borders and fountains and the delightfully delicate rose garden. This is another of our Sussex gardens where you can almost hear the echo of the long-since gone raising of glasses, and light laughter as ladies in long dresses saunter across the lawns while secret romantic exchanges take place in the rose garden.
Vast Edwardian-styled borders are filled with a variety of colour, structure and texture with clumps of salvias, dahlias, sunflowers and geraniums along with water features, forgotten orchards and arches of pale pink blooms. It’s overindulgent and enchanting and takes you back to an era that we think of as innocent and everlasting in the days before the Great War.
Anne Messel, AKA the Countess of Rosse, led what might be fairly described as a high society lifestyle. But it’s perhaps no surprise that she chose to return to the home of her parents and grandparents for her later years. The hazy, hedonistic days of Nymans in the early part of the 20th century must have been such a powerful memory and the pull of this beautiful country home must have been strong.
if you’re visiting Nymans Gardens and want to make a day of it, why not try lunch at the nearby Red Lion or our 6 km Handcross circular walk from Nyman’s woods. Alternatively, you may also wish to visit the botanical Wakehurst Place and Gardens.