Nymans: a theatrical garden for all seasons

Overlooking the beautiful South Downs in the West Sussex village of Handcross, Nymans, now a National Trust garden, was once home to the Messel family, whose descendants included the famous theatre designer Oliver Messel and photographer Lord Snowdon.

The garden is perhaps best known for its herbaceous border, which blazes with colour in the height of summer and has been compared by the garden designer Chris Beardshaw to a 1980s disco. But when we visited recently on a crisp November afternoon, the play of the light on flowers, shrubs and trees, not to mention the romantic ruins of the manor house, which was partially destroyed by a fire several decades ago, proved that this garden still possesses a theatrical beauty as autumn turns into winter.

First to that herbaceous border, which still boasts plenty of colour in late autumn in the form of Salvias, off set by the flame colours of trees in the background.

Salvias in the November herbaceous border at Nymans
More Salvias in the late afternoon sun

The garden at Nymans is filled with interest, from immaculately clipped yew topiary to views across bucolic fields.

Yew topiary provides visual interest
The garden offers views across the beautiful South Downs

Nymans was bought by a German Jewish emigre, Ludwig Messel in the 1890s, as a place where he could integrate into English society at the same time as indulging his passion for gardening. He and his wife Annie had six children, the eldest of which, Leonard, inherited the estate in 1915 and with his wife Maud created the garden we see today. Leonard and Maud had three children, Linley, Oliver, the theatre designer and Anne, who married into the aristocracy and was mother to Anthony Armstrong-Jones, who became the society photographer Lord Snowdon.

The house was ravaged by fire in 1947, but the family continued to live in the habitable part, which is still open to the public. There is now a project to open the ruins up to the public, but for now, they provide a wonderfully romantic stage setting.

The ruins of Nymans in the late autumn sun
The forecourt garden
The ruined front of the house looks for all the world like a stage set
Ruins in the late afternoon sun
Lush creepers cover the front aspect of the house

This Christmas, Nymans is celebrating the 40th anniversary of Raymond Brigg’s The Snowman, with an exhibition of original art work from the film The Snowman and The Snow Dog, as well trails, drop-in crafts and giant snow dogs around the grounds. We visited rather late in the day, but just had time to pop into the exhibition and Littlest Weed dressed up and performed his signature robot dance.

Littlest Weed dressing up and robot dancing in The Snowman and The Snow Dog exhibition

One of my favourite things about Nymans is the second hand bookshop, which nestles in this little clapperboard hut and contains a host of literary treasures.

The second hand bookshop at Nymans

Last, but not least, we visited the plant shop, which was looking pretty theatrical in its own right, with fairy lights strung around tree trunks. I managed to speed buy some winter violas, pacifying the Little Weeds with chocolate lollipops.

The plant shop at Nymans

I have never yet managed to visit Nymans in summer, but I will definitely be back next year with the added draw of an exhibition based on The Lost Words, the children’s book by artist Jackie Morris and my favourite writer about nature and landscape Robert Macfarlane.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Eliza Waters says:

    That house, post-fire, had me flashing on Daphne Du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca.’

    Liked by 1 person

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