‘Walled gardens – and restoring them – is what we really want to be doing,’ says Bridget Elworthy. Four years ago Bridget and her friend and partner, Henrietta Courtauld, started the Land Gardeners. Cutting gardens and seasonal cut flowers, soil and plant health, vegetables, teaching courses, potting sheds and making microbial aerobic compost are all part of their remit too.
Bridget, her husband Forbes and their family live at Wardington Manor in North Oxfordshire, formerly a medieval manor of the Bishops of Lincoln. This is not the Cotswolds and so Wardington’s gateposts are built in the rust-coloured ironstone of Northamptonshire, the county lying immediately to the north of here.
The old house dates from the sixteenth century but it was altered and reconfigured in 1665 and greatly added to and improved again from 1919-29 in the comfortable Arts and Crafts style. The architect responsible was a disciple of Lethaby and E.S. Prior called Randal Wells, his client here was John William Beaumont Pease, later the 1st Baron Wardington, a keen sportsman, huntsman and banker from Northumberland who had bought the manor two years earlier.
While Wells was transforming the old manor house, inside his new wife Molly was encrusting the passageways and staircase with this remarkable, idiosyncratic plaster-work. Chevron zig-zags are cut with friezes of Jacobean-style fruiting boughs, ears of corn, briar swags and perching birds, giving way at strategic intervals to strange little icing sugar pictorials such as fantastic 1920s circus figures.
Molly was an beautiful Irishwoman with bright red hair. Before she met Wells she had been embroiled in a love affair with Lord Wardington, once divorced from her first husband and remarried to Wells she established herself in a London studio with a band of female art workers known as The Guild of Veronica.
Molly Wells (1875-1942), one of 13 children born to Samuel Waters, an officer in the Royal Irish Constabulary. When she arrived in England as a young woman she was taken in by the aristocratic Wyndham family who were part of the cultivated, arty circle known as the Souls. Molly associated with Detmar Blow and Augustus John and made a whirlwind first marriage to a wealthy establishment chap. (There is much more about Molly in the excellent piece on Wardington by Mary Miers, published in Country Life. Mary’s splendid book, Highland Retreats, the Architecture and Interiors of Scotland’s Romantic North, was published last year.)
Ground floor corridor
Grand piano and drinks tray (out of shot), Crewel work hanging and rush matting.
Small winter sitting room, aka the smoke room. The fireplace here is attributed to the maverick architect and conservationist Clough Williams-Ellis, creator of the model village at Portmeirion in North Wales, who worked here after Randall Wells.
Mid C20th vase by Wedgwood.
The Land Gardeners have become justly famous for the quality and quantity of the cut flowers – particularly dahlias in high season but also early spring flowering boughs and blossoming shrubs – that they supply and send up to a few London clients and friends including Lulu Lytle at Soane Britain – by the bucketful.
‘By summer I’ve picked all the shrubs, but there’s peonys and roses.’
The flower room in intensive morning use, flowers are cut very early and bunched and sorted here.
‘This house, I didn’t really think about it too much. I literally was just filling rooms. I’m much more interested in the garden and my business.’
Kitchen. When they came here there were lots of plasterboard walls and a concrete kitchen floor.
Un-fitted kitchen, Carrera marble counter-tops.
Scullery /pantry /back kitchen, poured rubber floor.
Sluice room by the back door onto the yard
In the yard
A corner of the double height Library cum Drawing Room
The Library-cum-Drawing Room, created for ‘Monti’ Pease, later Ist Baron Wardington, in the 1920s. When they came here, Bridget Elworthy’s solution was to bring in the kind of brown furniture, chintzes and ‘old granny sofas’ that she had grown up with. ‘I hate buying anything that’s really expensive; my decorating style comes from a very low base. Everything here has pretty much got a leg missing or a crack, something that didn’t sell or nobody wanted.’
The paneling here is lime waxed a biscuity silver-gray.
Aerial view from the gallery. Early in the C20th this room was transformed into a double-height space with an arch-braced pseudo-medieval timber roof and much older paneling brought in from Theydon Bois in Essex
Library fittings and display shelves for rare books created for the bibliophile 2nd Baron Wardington, passionate antiquarian book collector
Botanical prints in the dining room. Paneling probably by Clough Williams-Ellis
Now the palette throughout the house is mostly white with the original dark or limed paneling left as found, some red and many very beautiful vintage textiles.
The C17th staircase survived a fire in 2004 although the plasterwork in this area has since been restored.
Plaster relief panel on the upstairs landing
‘When I was a child I painted my whole bedroom gloss yellow.Then my mother got Laura Ashley and wallpapered the whole thing.’
These testers were made in-house using vintage hangings found in French junk shops and a staple gun.
View from the bathroom
Bedroom books and pictures
Angus Wilson, The Middle Age of Mrs Eliot. Highly recommended.
Master Bedroom, with Jazz Age oak panels, created by Wells in 1923 as part of a new south-west wing for Lord Wardington shortly before his marriage. The original colour scheme was of dark blue or black and silver.
‘That bedroom of ours is so like something that Syrie Maughan or Constance Spry would have done – completely! Constance Spry was the kind of book my grandmother would have had in New Zealand.’
Looking across the road towards the cutting field
‘Forbes said, Let’s grass it all over and get some sheep.’
Audrey, Lady Wardington, who died in 2014, was a model turned journalist and author. She married and came to live in the manor in the 1960s. To generate some income she carried on the practice started by her mother-in-law, supplying spectacular lengths of rose bough or early flowering shrubs from Wardington’s mature gardens to certain elite London florists, ferrying them up to London by van. This is a tradition that Bridget continues.
But they are not worthy. ‘We wanted fun,’ says Bridget, so they designed themselves uniforms like those worn in the 40s and 50s by Miss Beatrix Haversgill, Principal of the Waterperry Horticultural School for Women and her gels, navy linen smocks ‘with big pockets that say the Land Gardeners on them,’ worn with leggings and Jekyll-esque rubber boots.
‘We are moving from floristry and garden design to the whole business of soil health, looking for ways, a solution, for farmers and growers to look after the soil itself without having to call in other people. The whole essence of soil is its microbial makeup.’
‘The Archers is the best way to get the message out to farmers! We want to get hold of The Archers!’
The Land Gardeners, courses, garden design, organic cut flowers, compost.
With grateful thanks to Bridget Elworthy.
Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to bibleofbritishtaste, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.