There are so many wonderful historic gardens to visit in England that picking only one to write about has been a challenge. I have chosen Mottisfont, near Romsey in Hampshire, a romantic house and garden which lies beside the River Test.
As it’s only twenty minutes from where I live, I often pop in there when I’m at home and whatever the season, there’s always something to see: hamamelis and daphne in the Winter Garden, carpets of bulbs in the Spring, in June old fashioned roses in the Walled Garden and as summer slips into Autumn, the magnificent reds and golds of the trees. Mottisfont belongs to the National Trust and as well as a shop, there are two places to have coffee and lots of areas to explore around the estate. Most of the grounds are accessible by wheelchair with the paths surfaced with a mixture of stone and clay which can be uneven in places. The paths in the Walled Garden are narrower but still wide enough for a wheelchair. Paths through the meadow walk are rougher and can become boggy in wet weather.
And now to its history. Mottisfont is first mentioned in the Domesday Book when it belonged to William the Conqueror but by the end of the twelfth century it was owned by William Briwere who founded a Priory of Augustinian monks here c.1201. Pilgrims would stop at Mottisfont on their way to Winchester to worship a relic, said to be the finger of St John the Baptist. [A recent music installation in the grounds called ‘Pilgrim’ has come across some technical difficulties but hopefully will soon be up and running]. The Priory was disbanded during the Dissolution of the Monasteries and in 1536 was given to Sir William Sandys, 1st Baron Sandys; he was also Lord Chamberlain to Henry VIII. Sandys transformed the priory buildings into a house centred around two courtyards with two wings either side of the existing church nave. [The sacristy and cellarium can be seen on the lower ground floor and last time I visited the area was filled with the magical sound of Gregorian chants.]
The Sandys’ fortune dipped in seventeenth century and William, 6th Lord Sandys sold his other house, The Vyne, [also owned by the National Trust] making Mottisfont his principal home. The 8th Lord Sandys had no children and on his death in 1684, the property was inherited by Sandys’ nephew Sir John Mill; the barony became extinct. Sir John’s second son, Richard, succeeded his father in 1706 and remodelled the Tudor house to virtually how it is today. Mottisfont remained in the Mill family until the nineteenth century but by 1922 the house was empty and it was not rescued until 1934 when Mottisfont was bought by Gilbert and Maud Russell. They began the restoration of the house and appointed Rex Whistler to decorate the gothic room with a spectacular trompe l’oeil echoing Mottisfont’s medieval past. [On your visit, ask the volunteer to point out where Whistler painted: ‘I was painting this Ermine curtain when Britain declared war on the Nazi tyrants. Sunday September 3rd. R.W.’ Sadly, Whistler was killed in action, 18thJuly, 1944.] Gilbert Russell died in 1942 and in 1957 Mrs Russell gave Mottisfont to the National Trust although she continued to live in the house until 1972.
Although records of c1340 describe the gardens at Mottisfont, the Russells used a garden plan of 1724 for the restoration of the garden. They commissioned several garden designers to reflect the different periods of the house’s history. Norah Lindsay designed a box-edged knot-garden in front of the house taking her inspiration from a piece of Tudor glass which has since been lost while Geoffrey Jellicoe created the pleached lime walk to the north of Mottisfont to echo the medieval priory’s cloister.
In the Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, 1980, an article records a lecture chaired by Sylvia Crowe, of a discussion between Graham Stuart Thomas (who designed the rose garden in the Walled Garden) and Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe. Sir Geoffrey had returned to the garden after thirty years:
I looked at my own work and I came to the conclusion that it was forgivable. I think it fitted in with the beautiful building at Mottisfont, with its glorious Gothic and early Renaissance facades. One had to suppress one’s ego and I think it is true that at Mottisfont the fact that one did reduce one’s ego to very simple lines (it is not easily done, it took an awful lot of working out) and seeing all the clipped hedges and so forth and the long terrace that I made, I think it is modest enough in the historic context. You see, when a place has got powerful ethos like Mottisfont, you have got to respect it with every line that you do.
Thomas’s words are more practical and modest, saying that all he had to do at Mottisfont was put the roses ‘in order’ as there was already in place ‘a surrounding wall, box hedges, a fountain, a pool and sentinel yews’.
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