Brian Creasey (above) is a man with a mission - to restore the magnificent gardens at Easton Lodge, once the home of the Countess of Warwick (also known as Darling Daisy), royal mistress and high society hostess. Mary Cruickshank reports.
When Brian and Diana Creasey arrived at their new home in Essex in 1971, their four young children were so horrified by the desolation around them that they refused to get out of the car. "It was like a building site," says Brian. They had no idea what an extraordinary landscape lay under the concrete and rub-ble, and that uncovering it would become a lifelong fascination.
Warwick House is all that remains of Easton Lodge, the home of the Countess of Warwick, who inherited the estate at the age of three in 1865. Darling Daisy, as she was known, was a lady of many parts: high society hostess and member of the Marlborough House set, she succeeded Lillie Langtry as the Prince of Wales's official mistress. Later she became a socialist and philanthropist, and there were plans to turn the estate into a Labour College. Among her schemes were a school at Easton Lodge and an agricultural college for women at Studley.
The Countess also had grand designs for her gardens. In 1902, she commissioned the architect and landscape designer, Harold Peto, to create the glamorous settings for her high society entertaining and scandalous love affairs. She wanted a romantic garden with bowers of flowers.
Photographs of Easton Lodge taken for Country Life in 1907 show a beautiful sunken water garden, planted with water lilies and surrounded by elegant balustrades and terraces. There were formal lawns bordered with rose pergolas, a yew tree walk and an exotic Japanese glade with lanterns and ornaments.
Peto was more used to working in the south of France, where he designed houses and gardens set in dramatic natural land-scapes. The gently rolling Essex farmland presented a different challenge. He disparagingly referred to Easton Lodge as "a small Sat to Mon villa garden". In fact, it was to be one of his grandest and most extravagant creations. Tons of earth were removed by Salvation Army "waifs" to form the smooth contours of the oriental garden.
In 1918 all but the west and Jacobean wings of the house were destroyed in a fire. The Countess was also facing bankruptcy, and started selling off the estate. She lived alone in the west wing from the late 1920s until her death in 1938. During the Second World War the park was used as an American Army airfield; 10,000 trees were blown up to make way for runways. By the 1950s, Peto's lovely garden was smothered in brambles, nettles and sycamore seedlings.
When the Creaseys arrived, it was the Italianate courtyard and fountain designed by Peto in 1903 that gave the first hint of what lay in store. Beneath the rubble they found an intricate mosaic of decorative pebbles.
Brian, who was then running a truck rental company, had no specialist knowledge or interest in historic gardens, but over the years he has accumulated a mass of information about the estate which has guided the restoration. Every week new evidence comes to light - maps, photographs and documents, sometimes sent by former tenants or ex-servicemen. An exhibition in the dovecote illustrates the progress of the work.
Today, the gardens are an evocative mix of old and new with a strong sense of a chan-ging, lived-in landscape. A grove of silver birch has been planted to mark the boundary of the original house, so you step from its shade on to the restored formal lawn with its magnificent cedar, where peacocks roost. The yew and lime walks are overgrown and there is a derelict thatched tree house which had a winding staircase and porthole windows.
The finely carved balusters of the water garden lie crumbling on the terraces, but the pond has been dredged, revealing the original lily beds and barrels, as well as the old lead labels which will be used again when the new plants arrive. It will take at least Pounds 500,000 to complete all the restorations.
Recent history is not overlooked: the reclaimed Japanese garden, for example, will be planted with maple and eucalyptus in memory of the Australian and Canadian servicemen based at Easton Lodge with the RAF during the war.
The gardens have also caught the imagination of local volunteers who help with the day-to-day upkeep and join the weekend work parties - dredging mud as thick as porridge from the pond or scything the undergrowth. Easton Lodge is also popular with horticultural students, from local colleges as well as from Japan. And it welcomes many visitors, particularly in spring, when the woods are full of snowdrops.
When Brian looks at the gardens, he doesn't see shoulder-high knotweed, hogweed and nettles, but imagines swathes of grass leading down to the lakes. Next in his mind's eye are the lily ponds, pergolas and tree house. His vision of the Countess's re-vitalised garden is hard to resist.
Easton Lodge is open every Saturday and Sunday until October 31 from 2-6pm and other times by appointment. Details from Brian Creasey, Warwick House, Easton Lodge, Great Dunmow CM6 2BB. Tel: 01371 876979