The story of the garden at Nymans, today recognized as one of the most beautiful in the south of England, began nearly a century ago when the place was bought by Mr Ludwig Messel. At that time, the property lay in isolated countryside, far from the nearest railway station, and in a corner of Sussex which was difficult to get to in those far-off days before motor cars. Now a main road from London to Brighton, the M23, runs within a few hundred yards of the house, but once inside the garden, an extraordinary sense of peace falls on the visitor, the noise of the traffic fades to a soothing hum and the only apparent sound is the cooing of innumerable white pigeons.
Ludwig Mussel, who was an inspired gardener, had the almost ideal terrain to work on. There were the ancient trees of St Leonard’s forest to shade and shelter his young plantations, a rich sandy loam in which his infant trees and shrubs could grow and, an essential to successful gardening, sharpoverall. The acid soil was perfect for magnolias, camellias and , which, though the garden has become rich in every other sort of rare and difficult tree and shrub, are the three plant families which remain the star attractions of the garden.
Nymans is famous too as the birth place of Eucryphia nymansensis, one of another beautiful family of flowering trees which revels in the very special growing conditions to be found in the garden. The Nymans eucryphia is the result of a cross, effected in 1915, between the evergreen Eucryphia cordifolia and the hardy, but deciduous Eucryphia glutinosa. Its garden value lies in its toleration, unlike most other eucryphias, of some lime in the soil, its shining evergreen, its pure white, golden-anthered , and its general hardiness inherited from its parent tree, Eucryphias glutinosa.
The gardens at Nymans are divided into many different sections, each with its own character and its own period of maximum attraction. To aid the visitor, attractive little folders are available and offer valuable advice, season by season, of where, at Nymans, the most telling plant pictures are to be found. At almost all seasons, every part of the garden has much to offer, but the Nymans folders make it easier for the visitor without a whole day at his disposal to make the very best of the time he has to spend.
The Spring Walk, for instance. This starts at a heraldic sculpture of a lion and passes under an arch of holly which must surely be one of the most impressive in the country. A wide field lies beyond, planted with naturalized narcissi and daffodils which, coming ‘before the swallow dares’, lay a golden carpet at the feet of the tall mixed conifers which half-surround them. Specially worthy of note in this area are a fine Japanese cedar (Cedrus spiralis) and a golden juniper (Juniperus aurea Youngii) of gleaming beauty. If it is April or May, there areall about in flower, and masses of azaleas to scent the air with their pungent perfume. Following the instructions in the Spring Walk Folder, the visitor then traces his way to the Lime Walk, and uphill to the junction with the North Drive. From here the whole of Balcombe Forest, carpeted early in the year with and primroses, can be surveyed. Back into the main garden, and the visitor is confronted with a collection of camellias second to none in the country, many of which were hybridized and raised at Nymans, and bear names, such as Leonard and Maud, of members of the Messel family. (Leonard Messel in particular has become a prestigious name in the gardening world, both Leonard Messel and the magnolia of the same name having won world-wide acclaim.) Near the camellias grow clumps of that loveliest of all small magnolias – Magnolia stellata – with starry, sweet-scented and a compact habit of growth which makes it such a suitable plant for the smaller gardens of today. So the walk goes on, past the Prospect, with its balustrade and classic obelisks, built as a point of vantage, with a wonderful view over the surrounding park and woodland.
Next on his verdant, flowery progress, the spring visitor to Nymans reaches the Sunk Garden, with an ancient Byzantine vase for centre-piece, and a brilliant planting of tulips rising from a blue haze of forget-me-nots. The heather garden lies nearby, and the rock garden, always full of colour in spring. It is in this area that some of the oldest trees planted by Leonard Messel are to be found – Cedars of Lebanon, ‘Chief Champions of trees and forrestes’, as the Scottish traveller, William Lithgow called them, and deodars from the slopes of the Himalayas. From this part of the garden there is a fine view of the house itself, and we might break off our walk to mention, with regret, that the house at Nymans is largely a ruin. This is the result of a disastrous fire about thirty years ago. Few gardens in England can have such a romantic background as is offered by the ruined house walls of Nymans, walls grey and calcined, with their glassless mullions curtained, but on the outside, with camellias, and with creamy Banksian roses climbing up to what were once the eaves, and red roses cascading down. But that was in summer time, and our Spring Walk is not yet completed. The Dovecote looks its best in May, grown all around with camellias, and with its conical roof a-flutter with white pigeons. Further on lies the walled garden, its herbaceous borders not yet in flower, but full of promise in spring, with their varying clumps of different greens. The walk makes its way under an Italian arch, wreathed in sweet-smellingarmandii, and brings us back to the North Drive. Here are some of the great-leaved Chinese rhododendrons for which the garden at Nymans is famous – the yellow flowered macabeanum amongst them.
Such is the Spring Walk at Nymans. There are Summer and Autumn Walks as well. All three offer endless treats, and the attractive folders describing them make them easy to follow and to enjoy.
The garden at Nymans is a very great garden indeed. It is full of rare plants, delicate and seldom-grown shrubs, unusual trees. But though it is of absorbing interest to the connoisseur, it is far from being merely a plantsman’s garden. Room in it has been found for all of the best loved, simple flowers of England. ‘Rarities which can only be addressed in Latin, but Lady’s Smocks too’, foxgloves, bergamot and bluebells, as well as rhododendrons from the distant uplands of Burma.
OPEN April – October: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday 2 p.m. – 7 p.m. (or sunset). Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays: 11 a.m. – 7 p.m. (or sunset). Last admission 1 hour before closing.
LOCATION South-east edge of Handcross on B2114 (ofFLondon to Brighton A[M]23 road). Signposted. ‘W