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Gardener's notebook: the daffodil-obsessed horticulturist whose forgotten legacy has been rediscovered

 (Courtesy of Berkeley family and Spetchley Gardens)
(Courtesy of Berkeley family and Spetchley Gardens)

Ellen Willmott is a name you’ve probably never heard of.

In her time she was one of the most famous and influential gardeners in England, but she and her garden have been almost lost to history.

Willmott lived at Warley Place in Essex from 1875 to 1934, where she transformed the garden, growing hundreds of thousands of plants from all over the world.

At its height, it had more than 100 gardeners tending to the site, before Willmott ran out of cash and the gardens slipped into decline.

Warley Place, where Wilmott lived and transformed the gardens (Sandra Lawrence)
Warley Place, where Wilmott lived and transformed the gardens (Sandra Lawrence)

I met Sandra Lawrence, Willmott’s biographer and historian, at Warley Place, to learn more.

“After her death, the house fell into disrepair. Local residents and those who knew about her collections ransacked the garden over a number of years, depleting it of many of Willmott’s prized plants,” Lawrence explained.

“There was one thing the thieves missed: the daffodils.”

“But there was one thing the thieves missed: the daffodils.”

Willmott loved daffodils and planted them obsessively.

“For much of the year the bulbs are hidden beneath the ground, they were lucky enough to survive,” Lawrence tells me.

They have continued to multiply, and the result is one of the best spring bulb displays in the country.

Wilmott’s beloved daffodils live on (Sandra Lawrence)
Wilmott’s beloved daffodils live on (Sandra Lawrence)

The entrance to the garden from the car park follows the original driveway up to the house.

Everywhere you turn there are surprises, from ruins of the house, old paths and garden features being rediscovered by volunteers, and an array of intriguing plants between the spaces nature has reclaimed.

The gardens and ruins of the house, plant nursery and stables are now in the care of the Essex Wildlife Trust.

Its mission is to stabilise the decay of the buildings, and find the balance between nature and the memory of Willmott’s horticultural legacy.

You can catch the best of the early blooms at Essex Wildlife Trust’s Spring Bulbs Spectacular at Warley Place on April 6 and 7.

The trust asks for donations to visit on these days, and will also be offering guided walks by appointment on Saturday mornings.

Miss Willmott’s Ghosts: The Extraordinary Life and Gardens of a Forgotten Genius, by Sandra Lawrence (Blink Publishing, £10.99)