Normally I have a stack of posts waiting to be published, and if I think of a new idea it just joins the end of the queue. Today’s is an exception.
I visited Marks Hall in Essex this week and decided there and then that it had to take immediate priority in the hope that it will encourage you to visit to see the amazing autumn colours before the weather changes and the rest of the leaves fall!
Read on to find out the story behind this wonderful arboretum and walled garden set in the historic landscape of a now-demolished Jacobean mansion.
The Marks Hall estate has a long history dating back to the Domesday Book. In 1605 it was bought by Robert Honywood who modified the timber manor house and began building a brick mansion.
His son, Thomas, was a Parliamentarian, who commanded militia during the Civil War, and local legend has it that the lakes in the valley were dug by Roundhead troops. The house was extended in the late 17thc and remained in the same family until, in 1859, William Philip Honywood died without issue.
To avoid the estate going to his brother, a notorious gambler, he left it to his wife for her lifetime and then to a godson, fearing that otherwise within 6 months “there will not be a timber tree left on the estate”.
Endless lawsuits followed, leading ultimately to the sale of the estate, the house and its entire contents in 1898.
The purchaser was Thomas Phillips Price, a former Liberal MP from Monmouthshire who had inherited a fortune at an early age, and needed a base nearer to London. Marks Hall, with its romantic house surrounded by a mediaeval deer park fitted the bill perfectly. He was passionate about trees and woodlands and so from 1907 was in correspondence with Kew suggesting that Marks Hall might make a suitable new home for them, if pollution from smog, which was a major problem at the time, were to worsen. He intended the mansion to become the Director’s official residence.
On his death in 1932 he left the estate to the nation for the advancement of agriculture, arboriculture and forestry, and on condition that the estate’s ancient oaks should not be felled.
However his third, and much younger wife, who he had married when aged 83, was left a ‘life interest’, and according to Prof. James Raven of Essex University who is leading a research project on the estate’s history, she was not best pleased with this and took her revenge by beginning to cut down the historic oaks. [For more on this story see Lost Mansions: Essays on the Destruction of the Country House edited by James Raven, 2015]
As with so many other great estates, the house and most of the land were requisitioned during the war and in 1941 work started on building nearby Earls Colne Airfield. By the spring of 1943 with construction finished Marks Hall became the HQ for Earls Colne, and a number of other local airfields, and 3000 RAF personnel and American GI’s moved onto the site.
Concrete roadways, additional military installations, hangars, workshops, a hospital and a chapel, were constructed on the estate along with dozens and dozens of Nissen huts.
After the war these were taken over by the local council to house people displaced by the conflict. However by 1949, as a result of vandalism the mansion was said to be in a perilous condition. Questions were asked in parliament, since it was a Grade 1 listed building, but did not stop the contents being auctioned and the house torn down in 1950.
There is now an archaeological project under way with the University of Essex based around the site, not just trying to find what is left but also looking to find new ways of reconstructing the site’s history to capture the imagination of the visiting public. For more information follow the link on the photo.
Mrs Price moved to the nearby Dower House during the war and never returned, and the rest of the estate was neglected. She finally moved to a nursing home in Bournemouth where she died aged 90 in 1966. It was only then, more than 30 years after Thomas Phillips Price’s bequest was first made, that the estate could be offered to the nation. But circumstances had changed and both Kew and the government viewed the gift with considerable misgivings.
The house had gone, the grounds including the old walled garden had become over-grown with a jungle of weeds, self-sown trees and bushes. The lakes were choked with mud and overhung with trees, the roots of which had severely damaged the brick-lined banks and cascades. The deer park with its fine collection of trees was gone and in 1956 the bulk of the land had been leased to the Forestry Commission for 999 years for commercial forestry. Even the farms were run down.
It was, according to the estate’s website, only in the early spring when sheets of snowdrops still appeared beneath the trees to the north of the lakes that it was possible to catch a glimpse of the former glory of Marks Hall.
Luckily it was decided that the bequest could not be refused and eventually the Thomas Phillips Price Trust was established as a registered charity to administer and manage the estate. The Minister of Agriculture appointed the first trustees on the 15th November 1971 and the following year they decided to create an arboretum of national status within the garden and parkland areas, persuading the Forestry Commission to give up sufficient land from their 999 year lease.
Slowly this resulted in the area around the mansion house site and the old walled garden being cleared and landscaped. The ornamental lakes were cleaned out and the brick lining of the banks and cascades reinstated.
The early 19thc iron bridge across the stream was restored with help from the National Rivers Authority and a fifteenth century timber framed Essex barn moved from Bouchiers Grange and rebuilt as the Visitor Centre.
The 200 acre estate was opened to the public in 1993.
Entering at the visitors centre [little green tree at the bottom of the map above ] you walk through the European section of the arboretum and uphill past  the site of the mansion, where the outbuildings have been converted into the mainstay of many historic houses and gardens, the wedding venue with a small and secluded formal flower garden.
On this approach you get first glimpse of the lakes before entering  the Birkett Long Millenium Walk [sponsored by a local firm of solicitors] which is planted for autumn and winter interest, particularly scent, and to provide stunning reflections in the lake below. The lower banks have the remains of the original nuttery and are planted with spring bulbs and cowslips.
The walk follows the boundary of the mediaeval deer park, which was enclosed by cleft-oak fencing until largely removed during the war. Just the other side of the deer park boundary is the 3/4 mile long formal avenue that formed the main approach to the mansion. Originally probably all oak, the southern end was partly replanted with lime by Thomas Phillips Price in the very early 20thc. It was badly affected by the 1987 hurricane and replanted with small-leaved lime. The northern section is mainly oak thought to be over 200 years old. Apparently the avenue is a favourite haunt of the rare Silver Washed Fritillary which disappeared from Essex in the 1950s but which has been reintroduced by the Trust as part of their conservation programme.
Beyond the lakes the paths lead through areas where the commercial firs have been partially cleared away to create large glades. Nearby is a taxodium swamp, inspired by the Florida Everglades. Every now and then there are sections of concrete paths which were laid for vehicle access during the war.
At the far end of the arboretum  is an area created as a memorial to the estate’s connection with the airfield. There is a monument dedicated to those who worked at, and flew from, Earls Colne between 1942 and 1945. The grass paths and plantings here mimic the original wartime runways.
Heading back through what was once commercial plantations, now partially cleared and differently managed, eventually you arrive at  the Walled Garden.
Work began here in 1998 to mark the centenary of Thomas Phillips Price’s purchase of the estate. Brita von Schoenaich was commissioned to design the scheme. She said at the time that she knew her work had to be subservient to “the grace of the space – its emptiness.”
As a result one of the striking features is the low level of the planting, mostly hidden behind the hornbeam hedge that runs the entire length of the site, so that viewed from the other side of the lake, the surrounding 18thc warm red brick wall would still largely dominate the view.
The entire southern/lakeside half is laid to grass and five separate gardens areas have been laid out in the northern section, between the hedging and the surrounding wall. There is also a 140m long border running the full length of the wall.
The land slopes south on a substrate of sandy gravel and, of course, is in an area of low annual rainfall, so the wall creates a microclimate ideal for Mediterranean and drought-tolerant plants, including several which, like pomegranates [in fruit!], echiums and mimosa are only borderline hardy in Britain. Elsewhere there are some simple land sculptures and visual ‘tricks’ with paths, slopes and holes in the hedge.
The work was done in phases as money allowed, and the garden finally being opened in 2003 by the Duchess of Devonshire.
An avenue of cherries outside leads back to the woodland and following paths through more cleared plantation eventually the paths reach Gondwanaland, the name given to the area given over to plantings from the southern hemisphere.
This includes the largest planting in Europe of Wollemi pines, impressive stands of eucalyptus, already looking quite mature, swathes of cortaderia grasses interspersed with kniphofias and a large number of scattered araucarias or monkey puzzle trees.
Heading back towards the visitors centre the paths pass the last remaining of the historic oaks, known as the Honywood Oak has a girth of 27 ft and is thought to be 800 years old.
Marks Hall has an excellent website site where you will find a lot more information and links: http://www.markshall.org.uk