Nymans, a National Trust garden in West Sussex, has unveiled a new ‘Garden in the Ruins’, created within the remains of the Great Hall which was destroyed in a fire in 1947.


The new garden, designed by assistant head gardener Nick Delves, pays homage to the celebrated set designer Oliver Messel, whose grandfather Ludwig began the gardens at Nymans in the 1890s.

Ludwig and his son Leonard were keen plantsmen, sponsoring plant hunting expeditions and working with their head gardeners James and Harold Comber to introduce many plant hybrids to western horticulture that remain popular today.

Nymans new garden
A weathered metal screen echoes the Gothic-style windows of the ruined Great Hall. National Trust, Lawrence Perry

The space is divided by six weathered steel screens, inspired by the ‘flats’ Oliver Messel used in his theatre scenery. This has created intimate spaces beneath the open roof, in which you'll find water features that reflect the fountains in the wall and Rose gardens, and giant oak planters based on originals that once stood in front of the house in the 1920s.

Reflecting on the work carried out for planning the design, Delves says: "During research at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Glyndebourne and the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, I found that Oliver used gardens and landscapes extensively in his sets, such as statuary, topiary and viewpoints. As well as celebrating the unique plant collection found at Nymans, I wanted to reflect the importance of Oliver Messel’s theatre design work and creative flair.”

Set designer Oliver Messel
The new garden pays homage to set designer Oliver Messel, a former inhabitant of Nymans

The plant choices, which celebrate the horticultural legacy of the Messel family, include Camellia ‘Leonard Messel, Eucryphia x nymansensis ‘Nymansay’, Forsythia suspensa ‘Nymans', Magnolia x loebneri ‘Leonard Messel’ and Rhododendron decorum ‘Mrs Messel’.

Magnolia 'Leonard Messel'
Magnolia 'Leonard Messel' © National Trust, Susan Guy

The garden also features a number of ferns, which were selected by members of local dementia support groups: Dicksonia antarctica (soft tree fern), Matteuccia struthiopteris (shuttlecock fern) and Osmunda regalis (royal fern), which is descended from original specimens planted next to the pond in the Arboretum.


As the garden evolves, the Nymans team hope to add further features including topiary and sculpture to reflect more of the wider garden.


Abigail is a freelance writer and editor based in Hereford.