Visit to Munstead Heath

Saturday 7 June 2008

The hat was a black felt one, trimmed with black cock’s feathers, and, suitably attired in this and what Lutyens later termed her ‘Go-to-Meetings Frock’, Miss Jekyll set off in her pony-cart one summer’s afternoon in 1889 from Munstead House, the Surrey home she shared with her mother. She had been invited to tea at Littleworth by her gardening friend, Harry Mangles. Little did she know that the afternoon would see the start of a new friendship and satisfying collaboration which would enrich both parties for the rest of their lives.

As we all know, the friendship begun that day was with the twenty year old Ned Lutyens, and her influence on him – or was it his influence on her – began the Lutyens Surrey Style which had such a lasting impact on architecture and gardening until well into the 20th Century. ‘A Lutyens House with a Jekyll Garden’ became the aspiration of many new middle-class people, aware of the new ‘Arts and Crafts’ ideas but not quite sure where to go with them. Moreover, Jekyll’s influence on Lutyens went far further, for many of his domestic clients formed part of the close group of friends and relations circling out from Gertrude Jekyll and her family.

Superbly led and choreographed by Gavin Chappell, our walking tour started with a visit to The Quadrangle of 1890, originally a set of working sheds for the garden at Munstead Wood which Gertrude Jekyll had been creating from 1883 onwards. Clearly influenced by Jekyll’s love of west Surrey vernacular, a still very-young Lutyens designed a grouping which gave the appearance of having grown slowly over a long period of time.

We advanced a year to our next building, Munstead Corner (now Place) of 1891, designed by Lutyens for a local wine merchant, following an introduction from Miss Jekyll. Within the grounds, in 1892, Lutyens went on to design a particularly pleasing and charming lodge.

Our steps then retraced to the ‘Jekyll’ side of Heath Lane where we were privileged to be able to view, both from outside and in, the famous ‘Hut’ which would serve as a temporary home for Gertrude until she reached a final decision about a permanent one.

Gertrude Jekyll was strong-willed and a forceful personality. But she remained a woman of her class and time and this meant that, while she derived a great deal of pleasure and fulfilment from the creation and design of (at first) her own garden, it was unthinkable that she should attempt to do this individually and without assistance. ‘Staff’ were easily obtainable and, although her gardening style tended towards a naturalistic one, the garden at Munstead Wood, in its mature phase, still required the attention of 16 full-time gardeners. Staff accommodation was an important part of the equation and, in 1894, in the northernmost part of the Munstead Wood plot, was built Munstead Orchard, to house Albert Zumbach, her Swiss Head Gardener. Very much a Surrey style cottage, it introduced us to the long catslide roof which became a notable Lutyens trademark.

The catslide roof is to be seen again at Little Munstead of 1896, this time with a ‘Lutyens’ open veranda beneath it. Other Lutyens trademarks brought together in one façade include the three chimney stacks, massed but individual, with the centre turned 90 degrees to both of its neighbours. The 1901 Census tells us that this house was then occupied by Robert Lambert, a farmer, and his family. Was the house commissioned by Jekyll or was Mr Lambert personally influenced by what he saw being constructed nearby?

The year of 1895 was a pivotal one for Gertrude Jekyll. Her mother died and her brother, Herbert, and his family came to live at Munstead House. Gertrude needed a new home of her own, and a house to be slotted carefully into her developing garden across the road at Munstead Wood became a priority. Of course, Edwin Lutyens was to be the architect and the brief from his client was that she didn’t want anything ‘poky or screwy or ill-lighted and, above all, she didn’t want narrow passages’. The resulting building became one of the iconic buildings of English domestic architecture and so much has been written on it, by so many people, over the last 113 years, that I can add nothing which has not already been said by far greater experts than myself. We were all thrilled to be invited by the owners, Sir Robert and Lady Clark, to view the interior in detail, and this was followed by a tour of the exteriors and garden led by Andrew Robinson, the fulltime gardener.

Thus concluded a superb day of vintage Lutyens in a much-changed, but still most attractive, corner of Surrey. Our thanks go to Gavin Chappell for having brought it all together for us with such skill.

John Entwisle