Madresfield Court, at the foot of the Malvern Hills in the English Midlands, is protected by a moat, dozens of noisy geese, and a ha-ha. The side it shows to the world is tall and forbidding, while the intriguing facade, further protected by yew buttresses, is turned away. It’s private, in other words, hindered by its lead role in the novel Brideshead Revisited. And yet, it would be churlish not to share its acreage of spring bulbs, so join us on a tour:
Photography by Jim Powell for Gardenista.
The Lygon family (pronounced Liggon) have lived at Madresfield “since records began,” and they continue to live here. The house, just over two hours from Oxford, avoided the fate of many stately homes after World War II because the family was not impoverished gentry. A protracted inheritance case (said to have inspired aspects of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House) was central in securing the fortunes of the medieval house.
Daffodils spread themselves around the avenues between house and village. Although there is a family (high anglican) chapel incorporated into Madresfield Court, several earls and their children are buried at the parish church. The chapel in the house is decorated as a garden of Eden, with the seven children of the 7th Earl depicted on the grass. An amalgamation of them became immortalized as Sebastian, Julia, and Cordelia Flyte, as well as Bridey, in Brideshead Revisited.
With money, in the 19th century, came an earldom, and the collecting began. Even before the significant contributions of the 7th Earl, by way of Arts and Crafts treasures, the house had been remodeled and rearranged in high Victorian style.
According to one of the gardeners, the Lygon Family formerly owned land near Newent, in Gloucestershire, home of the wild Narcissus narcissus. A small, native flower, it has spread itself around that district but is not often seen in vast numbers elsewhere. Some bulbs found their way to Madresfield and have proliferated over the years.
For poetic associations with this daffodil, see The Road Not Taken: Robert Frost’s Daffodils in Gloucestershire.
The back of the house is secretive and enchanting, with parts of it rising straight out of the moat. On one edge, a bistro table and chairs totter, barely accessible from the house. With its remote location and excellent moated security, Madresfield was earmarked as a residence for the Royal Family in the event of evacuation from Buckingham Palace during World War Two. This was not in the end necessary.
In the Wild Gardens, on one side of the house, can be found fritillaries, anemones, cowslips, and violets. Native orchids follow later.
By the time Evelyn Waugh wrote Black Mischief (dedicated to Dorothy and Mary Lygon), the family had gone its separate ways; the 7th Earl banished to “the Continent” and Lady Beauchamp having decamped with her third son. The other children had the run of the house, while Evelyn wrote in the nursery.
Ducks and geese provide another line of defense after the encircling moat, flanked by more ponds.
Once a year, the gardens are (usually) open for public visiting, to see the daffodils. This is in mid-March, so you will need to make a note for next year.
The brochure produced at Madresfield is a riveting read, while maintaining the stance of a discreet butler: “Waugh’s imaginary house (especially the chapel) was partly modeled on Madresfield,” it reluctantly acknowledges. With Florentine chair covers embroidered by the 7th Earl in the library, and crystal balustrades and glass domes above the Staircase Hall, there is so much more to talk about.
N.B.: Planning a grand tour of our favorite gardens? Don’t miss:
- Garden Travel: An Insider’s 9 Favorite English Gardens to Visit.
- Bloomsbury in Sussex: Garden Visit to Charleston Farmhouse.
- Garden Visit: Snowdrops Season at Cotswold Farm.
Finally, get more ideas on how to successfully plant, grow, and care for daffodils with our Daffodils: A Field Guide.
Interested in other bulbs and tubers for your garden or indoor space? Get more ideas on how to plant, grow, and care for various bulbs and tubers with our Bulbs & Tubers: A Field Guide.
Finally, get more ideas on how to plant, grow, and care for various perennial plants with our Perennials: A Field Guide.