Sussex Life November 2014 Poetry + solution
PUBLISHED: 12:42 23 October 2014 | UPDATED: 11:41 20 March 2015
Solution for the ‘The Stage’ piece in the Sussex Life November issue
‘Fairytale gothic mansion’, ‘fake medieval manor’, ‘glorious pastiche’ –
From garden lover’s home to stage designer’s set.
Performers from far-flung climes,
cast by the banker and the plantsman,
partners, promoters, love’s labours found.
Scene I. The House – the Fire.
A library lost, flowers on paper, flowers in flames.
Scene II. The Garden – written through time,
alive in summer borders, in scents of roses, remembered names.
Midsummer Night’s Dreams,
Pimms and Picnics, games on the lawns,
winter nights, winter’s tales,
draw closed the curtains,
draw back the curtains on a smaller stage.
more than the wind in the willows.
Four hours to fell four hundred years,
Redwoods, greenwoods, stand or fall -
a puzzle cracked, puzzle no more.
The challenge met, the woodland healed –
birds singing, children laughing.
The Bookshop by the flower bed,
the Workshop in the potting shed,
the Croquet on the lawn,
We are now the players.
The stage awaits,
no curtain falls.
Solution - Nyman’s, Handcross, nr. Haywards Heath, West Sussex
Explanation of embedded clues
Four generations of the Messel family have developed Nyman’s. The four ‘Acts’ of the poem connect with scenes from their lives. The format also reflects the family’s tradition of open-air Summer Theatre in the garden, a tradition still continued by the National Trust. Originally primarily Shakespeare plays, by 2013 the range extended from Shakespeare and Jane Austen, via trips to Treasure Island and Toad Hall, to a case for Sherlock Holmes.
The romantic ruins of the house provide a ready-made back-drop to the action. The poem’s opening line quotes from various writer’s first impressions of Nyman’s. Although the ‘spectacular gardens’ (Simon Jenkins), acknowledged as some of the finest in National Trust stewardship, still reflect the vision of the garden-loving first generation, the house is now a shadow of its past.
Ludwig and Anne Messel bought the estate in the late nineteenth century ‘to make a dream country home’. Ludwig, a Banker, had moved to England from Germany. Having adapted the original Victorian mansion, he teamed up with his Head Gardener, James Comber, to create a 30 acre garden filled with plants brought back by the global plant-hunters of the time. In 1872 Jules Verne had published ‘Around the World in 80 days’ and inspired by this, together with the opportunities for global travel, landowners competed to outdo their horticultural neighbours. In Ludwig’s case these were the Loders (Leonardslee) and William Robinson (Gravetye). The fruits of the plant-hunters’ expeditions to ‘far-flung climes’ such as South America, the Far East, Burma and Tasmania were Love’s Labours found (not Lost in this case).
Ludwig died in 1915 and the estate passed to his son Leonard. The care of the garden had been continued by Ludwig’s daughter, Muriel, but tragically she died in 1918, aged 29. Leonard Messel and his wife Maud picked up the baton. In 1923, Leonard had the existing house pulled down and in its place built a large medieval-style manor – ‘a glorious pastiche’ (Country Life). They had three children, Linley, Anne – who married Michael, 6th Earl of Rosse, and Oliver – who was to make his mark as an artist and stage designer. Anne had inherited the gardening gene, golden years, but disaster was to strike the house. In 1947, on the morning of Leonard’s 75th birthday the household awoke to find Nyman’s on fire. Leonard left and never revisited the house. Their collection of antique botanical books containing beautiful and irreplaceable illustrations was lost. The record now is the living garden, ‘written through time’. ‘Remembered names’ refer to the lasting legacy of named species including Magnolia ‘Leonard Messel’, Camellia ‘Leonard Messel’ and Eucryphia ‘Nymansay’.
Act Three sees the next generation, Anne and Oliver, play their parts. Anne was the initiator of Shakespeare in the garden. The players were the local Women’s Institute Dramatic Society. The poem alludes to ‘Love’s Labours Lost’, ‘Midsummer Night’s Dreams’, ‘The Winter’s Tale’ and ‘The Tempest’ to connect with episodes in the life of the house and gardens. As well as the Summer Theatre productions the National Trust also relives the days of ‘Pimms and Picnics, games on the lawns’ in the summer events programme. Winter nights are remembered by a reference to one of stage designer Oliver’s somewhat smaller stage sets. He furnished their TV set screen with curtains turning it into a miniature theatre proscenium! This is still on view in one of the remaining rooms open to the public.
In 1954, following Leonard’s death, Nyman’s had been handed over to the National Trust. However this wasn’t to be the end of the Messel family’s connection. Enter the fourth, and present generation. In 1987, Anne, Countess of Rosse, who had continued her involvement with the house as a Director, under the aegis of the National Trust, handed over the family representation to another family member, Alistair Buchanan. Just three days later came The Tempest – the ‘Great Storm’ of that year. Four hundred and eighty six mature trees came down, some of which had been standing for over four hundred years. Among the casualties was a giant Monkey Puzzle Tree. This tree was believed to be the inspiration for the one featured in E. H. Shepard’s illustration of the garden of Toad Hall in ‘The Wind in the Willows’. Ernest Shepard was a family friend of the Messel’s in the 1920’s and early 1930’s and had made sketches in the house and gardens.
Finally, The Epilogue celebrates Nyman’s present and looks to the future. Alistair Buchanan and his team successfully restored the woods and gardens after the storm. The woods are now a ‘Site of Special Scientific Interest’ (SSSI), home to breeding birds, butterflies, dragonflies, woodland flowers and rare plants. The gardens again ring with the laughter of children playing in dens and teepees as in the days of the Messel children. Nyman’s is also now home to a secondhand bookshop, arts & crafts workshops and exhibitions in the potting shed, an excellent cafe and equipment for Croquet and badminton for visitor’s use on the lawns. ‘We are now the players’.
Acknowledgement of sources:
• National Trust Handbook and Website.
• Sussex Life, October 2013 (pages 195-196).
• ‘England’s Thousand Best Houses’, Simon Jenkins, Allen Lane, 2003 (pages 776-777).
• ‘Welcome to Nyman’s in Summer (2013)’, NT visitors pamphlet.
• ‘The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame illustrated in colour by Ernest H. Shepard, Methuen Children’s Books, 1971 (page 226, illustration of Toad Hall • showing giant Monkey Puzzle tree).
• ‘The Oxford Shakespeare: Complete Works’, W. J. Craig (Ed), Oxford University Press.
• The RHS New Encyclopedia of Plants and Flowers, Christopher Brickell (Ed.), Dorling Kindersley, 1999.
• Relevant websites found by searches for ‘Nyman’s house and garden’, ‘Monkey Puzzle tree at Nyman’s’.