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The history of Nymans house and garden

The Gothic ruins at Nymans, West Sussex in spring
Gothic ruins at Nymans | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

There have been generations of Messels at Nymans since the 1890s. From its beginnings as a simple Regency house, Nymans has been through several transformations to become the house, ruin and garden you see today.

The Regency house

Before the Messel family lived here, Nymans was a plain Regency style house, probably built around 1839 by a man named George Harrington.

The Messel family arrive

Ludwig Messel was the first Messel to live at Nymans and, as a German émigré who had set up a successful stockbroking business, the purchase of a country estate was the ideal way for him to integrate into English society.

With his wife Annie, he bought the 600-acre Nymans estate in 1890 where he could cultivate his love of gardening, sharing it with family and friends.

Remodelling starts

Ludwig commissioned a larger Germanic-looking house, adding features such as a conservatory, billiard room, and tower. Designs were drawn up by his brother Alfred Messel, who was already a famous architect in Germany, and work was carried out by local builders.

He continued to remodel the house over a number of years and by the time Ludwig died in 1915 the house had changed again though the main structure stayed the same.

Ludwig's vision for the garden

Ludwig Messel wasn't just a plantsman, he was a designer too who carefully considered his planting schemes. He worked closely with his trusted Head Gardener James Comber.

They were a perfect partnership, with Ludwig providing the inspiration and Comber the horticultural expertise. Ludwig was passionate about plants and happy to spend vast amounts of money on his garden, working with Comber to breed new cultivars.

Together they created what is now called The Nymans Collection, which are plants raised and connected with Nymans.

A summer home

The Messel family lived predominantly at Nymans in the spring and summer months, returning to their London home in the winter, so the garden was planted to hold most interest in these months.

The famous summer borders were planted in the Edwardian period to give maximum colour impact, and they're still as flamboyant today as they were back then.

Arboretum is planted

Planting in the arboretum started in the 1890s and you can still see some of these trees today. Muriel planted the spring borders between 1904 and 1915 and they were developed further by her niece Anne, Countess of Rosse.

Wisterias at Nymans

Wisterias have always played an important part in the history of Nymans. Following the Japanese Exhibition in London in 1903, it became fashionable to introduce some of the features on display into homes and gardens.

Nymans was no exception, and Ludwig installed the stone lanterns he had seen at the exhibition and built a pergola beside the croquet lawn.

Wisteria sinensis and Wisteria floribunda 'Multijuga' were planted so they could climb over the top of the structure, and some of the original plants may still exist at Nymans, though records were lost in the fire in 1947. The wisterias also suffered in the storm of 1987, when the original pergola had to be demolished.

The Forecourt garden, with stone-paved paths, square lawns and small trees, with the house behind, at Nymans, West Sussex
The Forecourt garden at Nymans, West Sussex | © National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

Leonard's house

Ludwig and Annie had six children with the eldest, Leonard, inheriting the estate in 1915.

Leonard only convinced Maud to move to the property by promising to completely redesign the look of the house yet again, so this time the house was transformed into a mock medieval mansion.

The couple started the remodelling using the architect Norman Evill, who used stone throughout.

Change of architect

However, after a disagreement halfway through the remodelling, the architect Sir Walter Tapper took over the project from Evill. He completed the house, including the impressive Great Hall, but using brick with stone facing rather than just stone.

Tapper was known for his work designing churches and this is reflected in the cathedral-like proportions of the Great Hall.

Carrying on the garden tradition

While Maud directed significant changes to the house, Leonard focused on developing Nymans’ plant collections and worked closely with James Comber to realise his plans.

The two became friends and developed Nymans’ collection of rare plants alongside Harold Comber, James's son, who became a well-respected botanist and plant collector.

Plant collectors

Harold collected plants from the Andes and Tasmania while other plants were sourced by plant collectors Ernest Henry Wilson and George Forrest.

The Rose Garden at Nymans, West Sussex, in July. The Messel Fountain seen in the centre was designed by Vivien ap Rhys Pryce, and takes the form of a bronze rose.
The Messel Fountain in the centre of the rose garden at Nymans is in the form of a bronze rose | © National Trust Images/John Miller

Creating a rose garden

A rose garden was created by Maud in the 1920s as part of her romantic vision for the planting schemes to surround the medieval style house. She filled it with herbs and old-fashioned roses, sourcing many of the plants from gardening friends, swapping cuttings and plants from a variety of rare species.

Anne's retreat

Leonard and Maud’s children Linley, Oliver and Anne spent much of their childhood at Nymans. As an adult in the 1940s and 1950s Oliver become a famous theatre designer and Anne married into the aristocracy on her marriage to the Earl of Rosse.

Her eldest son was the Earl of Snowdon, who married Princess Margaret in 1960.

Fire ravages the house

Most of the house was destroyed by fire in 1947, tragically only 19 years after the last remodelling work finished. With rationing and restrictions on building materials still in place after the end of the Second World War, it was impossible for the family to rebuild.

What survived of the house was made safe for the family to use as a base when visiting the magnificent garden.

Lord and Lady Rosse would visit here often and Anne moved back permanently in 1979 to a partially ruined house.

The Forecourt Garden at Nymans, West Sussex in June

Discover more at Nymans

Find out when Nymans is open, how to get here, the things to see and do and more.

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