Thursday, 20 July 2017

A pilgrimage to Munstead Wood

This story begins many years ago, way back when in the mists of time when I was just in the early days of my total obsession with gardening and the colleague told me that she was a great fan of Gertrude Jeykll.  This was so long ago that Google was not a thing and it took me a little hunting around to find information on who Gertrude Jekyll was.  I was intrigued and bought a book or three.  Some by Gertrude Jekyll and some about her.  I read a lot about Munstead Wood, Gertrude's own garden, but at that time it was not open to the public and I regretted that it was a garden I would never see.

Time moves on and I read that Munstead Wood is now being restored and open sometimes to the public.  It then moved properly onto the list of 'must visit' gardens.  I noted where it was on a map and it was close enough to be doable in a day.  I waited for the opportunity to arise.  Arise it did in the shape of an AllHorts visit.  'Would anyone be interested in a visit to Munstead Wood?' went the conversation; 'me me me me' was my response.  A date was set that worked with my plans for a weekend 'down south' and I looked forward to the day.

The day arrived and I headed towards Godalming.  We were greeted by Annabel Watts, the head gardener at Munstead Wood as visits are soley run as guided tours.  This is very much a private house and access to the garden is by prior appointment and only as a guided tour.
The House and Garden were built as a collaboration between Gertrude Jekyll and Edward Lutyens and was completed in 1895.  It was built as a home for Gertrude and also it was very much a showcase of their work.  Gertrude began gardening the 15 acre site before work on the house commenced.  The house and garden was always a commercial venture.  Gertrude sold flowers and flower seeds, she trialed plants and of course, she also designed planting schemes, all from Munstead Wood.
It is the most beautiful house in a perfect setting.  The sun shone on us even though there had been threats of rain and thunder.



We were talked through the design principles that Gertrude used.  It was fascinating to see what I had read about so much in reality.  What was extraordinary is that this garden largely disappeared after Gertrude's death.  Her nephew inherited the property but for various reasons including WW2, the business and property became too costly to run.  The house was sold and the land sold off in lots.  Today Munstead Wood itself is a 10 acre plot and much of the garden was lawned over.  Following the big storm in the late 1989 the then gardener got permission from the owners to start restoring Gertrude's masterpiece.  The lines of the borders still showed in places and they had the many photographs that Gertrude herself had taken of the garden (and developed herself in her purpose built darkroom in the house).  For the last thirty years this restoration has been taking place and the results are astounding.
This is the primrose garden.  Stop for a moment, think about that, how awesome it must be to have a primrose garden.



As you walk around the gardens you recognise the features that made Jekyll and Lutyens the force in design that they were.

But it was probably here, at Gertrude's long borders, that I really went into 'I'm not worthy' mode. Annabel explained that this border is maintained exactly to Gertrude's design.  It is not low maintenance by any measure, but who wants low maintenance when you can have this?  I could have stood here for hours taking in how well the plants work with each other.  It works at the detail and at the over-view effect level.
and I have to show you this, this is a massive hedgy cat.  It was quite a surprise to see it and it did make me smile.
An important part of the gardens is the wilderness part, that is full of trees and woodland underplanting.  Before the gardens were restored this area was tennis courts and a horse pasture.  The trees are mostly under thirty years old which makes the fact that it looks quite mature rather impressive.
We spent a little time at the greenhouses that Gertrude had built.  They are sited in a sun trap and were very warm.
We then wandered down the lane and various parts of the original garden that are now belonging to neighbours from when the land was sold off were pointed out to us.  This is the thunder tower.  If it was starting to thunder, Gertrude would 'run' to this tower and watch the lightening show over the south downs.  I say run, it is a fair distance from the house so I assume she was fast on her feet.  This actually brings me to an important point.  When Gertrude bought this land she was in her early 50s.  If, like me, you have only seen photographs of her as an old woman it is hard to imagine her being younger.  The only pictures I have in my head of her are as quite elderly and her gardening boots.
We visited the local church where Gertrude, her brother and sister in law are buried. This tomb was designed by Lutyens and I have to admit I was astonished to see it.  I don't know what I expected, but not this.  I think it is a truly fitting memorial.

I have to give a huge thanks to Annabel for showing us around and also to Andrew and all the AllHorts for such a great day.  As I drove on to my next destination I realised I was smiling to myself and thinking how lucky I was to have had such a great time.  Days like this have to be remembered and treasured.

9 comments :

  1. Thank you Alison for this fascinating post about Munstead Wood. I too have longed to be able to visit. As you say it is extraordinary that the Garden disappeared but how wonderful to hear that it has largely been restored. I was able to visit Margery Fish's garden at East Lambrook recently and to be able to actually stand in the garden one has read about was quite an experience.

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  2. A lovely blog! It has made me want to visit and buy all the books!

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  3. When I was there in 2008 the hedgy cat was a lion with mane.

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    1. Gosh - maybe it should be a lion!

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  4. Fascinating post Alison...So good to hear that Munstead Wood has been restored and also is open to visit...Now firmly placed on my not-too-distant future 'must-visit' list : ) Love that her greenhouse is still standing - also the idea of the 'thunder tower'! She certainly had a feel not only for plants, but for the entire landscape and all of its elements. Her writing and work continues to resonate and inspire us all...Thanks for sharing your visit...

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  5. How wonderful, sounds like an amazing day! I recently read Jekyll's book of Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden which largely describes Munstead Wood at various times of the year, a delightful read, must be great to see some of it for real, albeit restored. May I recommend a visit to Hestercombe near Taunton, if you have not been already? The formal gardens and Great Plait there must be some of her best work, and all the planting plans are available to view too which is fascinating. Thanks for sharing your experience!

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    1. Hestercombe is a treat. I've visited several times and seen more each time. Munstead Wood is now on the wish list.

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