The idea of a lost Eden is a commonplace in myth and literature – think Le Grand Meaulness. How compelling is the idea of a perfect place to be discovered or rediscovered – and to be expelled from. Masaccio’s painting in the Brancacci chapel captures the idea only too well. Adam and Eve look spectacularly miserable. Not one blade of grass to be seen!
And of course the place they were expelled from was a garden! Another mythical – but very real – place was The Secret Garden where Frances Hodgson Burnett managed to weave every single heart-tugging strand together: the grumpy child, the bereft husband, the huge old manor house,the mysterious cries in the night, the local boy in touch with nature – all heading towards healing. Needless to say, like a very large number of other girls, I was madly in love with Dickon. How could I not be?
When I was a child – my very own lost Eden – I lived in a place very rich in history. I grew up in what had once been a gamekeeper’s cottage on a huge estate in Essex. The Petre family, hugely wealthy in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries – despite remaining Roman Catholic – had built Thorndon Hall, a magnificent pile designed by Thomas Paine. Building began 1764.
By the 1950s, after several disastrous fires, the house had been abandoned and only the shell remained in various states of decrepitude. As children we were warned never to go in it. So, needless to say, we went into all the bits of it that we were able to.
In the woods there were reputed to be mysterious trees rarely seen in England and planted by one of the lords who was a ‘famous botanist’. Then there was the myth of the First Thorndon Hall which had entirely vanished and had been some mile and a half to the south. All this was rather hazy and ill-defined, and though we did a lot of exploring – as one did before the internet and the constant monitoring of children’s whereabouts -we never did find the old hall.
So, many years later, researching a story for children, I came upon a most fascinating person, Robert the 8th Lord Petre, who died shortly after his 29th birthday, leaving his heir a baby only three months old.
Robert’s acheivements were remarkable. Between 1740 and 1742, some 60,000 trees of at least 50 different species were planted at Thorndon Hall. His hothouse – here referred to as a ‘stove’ was reputed to be the largest hothouse in the world, was fully 30 feet (9.1 m) high and contained trees and shrubs 10 to 25 feet (7.6 m) tall including specimens of guava, papaw, plantain, hibiscus, Hernandia (Jack-in-a-Box), ceroid cacti, Sago Palm, annatto (a red berry used for edible dye) and bamboo cane. The walls were hung with trellises covered with passion flowers, a wide variety of clematis and creeping cereus. Robert was particularly fond of the white lilac and, on one occasion, culled sufficient seed to raise in his nursery 5,000 new plants. Unfortunately, the principles of plant genetics and cross-pollination were then little understood; all but twenty of them bore purple blossom. Between 1740 and 1742, some 60,000 trees of at least 50 different species were planted at Thorndon Hall.
Twenty years after Robert’s death all remained was a scene of desolation: the house was falling down having been partially burned by a fire caused by lightning in 1757, the nurseries were overgrown and the stoves empty, apart from two date palms, a cactus and a few sickly shrubs. Even the menagerie had vanished.
Robert’s son, who had not known his father, had the new grandiose Thorndon Hall built and the old one was almost entirely obliterated and forgotten. Only two images of the Elizabeth building exist.
I cannot discover a single image of Robert himself who after his death was described thus: “He was a fine, tall, comely man. Handsome, had the presence of a Prince, but so happily mixt that Love and Au was begat at the same time. The endowments of his mind are not to be described. Few excelled him in the liberal arts and sciences – a great Mechanic as well as a Mathematician, ready at figures and calculations, a fine taste for architecture, and drew and designed well himself” – a great Ardour for every Branch of Botanic Science, – whoever sees his vast Plantations and his Catalogue will not doubt it. In his Religious way an Example of great Piety, Charity and Chastity. Strict in his Morals, of great Temperance and Sobriety, no Loose Word, no Double entendre ever dropt from his lips”.
And now to write my story about how 20th century children rediscover this lost earthly paradise.
I wonder what passion drove Robert to create this fleeting marvel and why it was so utterly forgotten?
8 thoughts on “Writing about the Past and Mythical Gardens”
I wonder if the Essex Public Records office has maps – it would be interesting to see the layout – we all remember the pathway network and some of the ancient trees. I know my father did a good deal of historical research on Thorndon, Ingrave and Herongate and sent it all to Lord Petre who copied it to the Records Office in Chelmsford.
Interesting story Elizabeth. You sound to have had an idyllic childhood.
I’m glad that I checked in here today: I know that name, the 8th Lord Petre. He is discussed in a book called The Brother Gardeners, about six important botanists of Petre’s day; Linnaeus, Bertram, Miller of the chelsea Physic, etc; Petre was in that circle. Luckily, the book has an index, so you can look up just the bits that concern your Robert. Frances Hodgson Burnett is buried in Roslyn, about three miles from where I live; –she wrote The Secret Garden right here on Long Island. She is quite a character — the local library has an archive that includes her own handwriting! It will give you shivers — if you ever want to do research on the dear gutsy lady, I’ll take you there.
Oh wow! Thornton Hall was quite literally grounds for inspiration for you. What a magical place that must have been for you and your friends growing up. Now I have two recommendations for you – a book and a place for you to visit. The book is Landscape and Memory by Simon Schama. The place is Duke Island in Hillsborough, NJ. During the summer there are cycling tours at dusk….GO!
I will definitely get hold of the Simon Sharma – and consider going to New Jersey which I do not know well! Thanks for the heads up.
Quite fascinating, Elizabeth! I’m anticipating a delightful story from you . . .
What a lovely and mythical (yet true!) story of Thorndon Hall – I am caught up already !
The gardens at Thorndon Hall are definitely a nice way to spend a summer afternoon these days followed by afternoon tea.