East Lambrook Manor Gardens
- Credit: RHS Lindley Library
How one of the leading gardening writers of her day created her quintessential English cottage garden, which decades later, is still a delightful Somerset visitor attraction
In 1956 Margery Fish published her charming book We Made a Garden, in which she recalled how she and her husband, Walter, set about transforming the wilderness around their new home.
They had moved from London to Somerset in the late 1930s and just how these former city dwellers went about the job of creating a beautiful cottage garden in East Lambrook out of ‘a farmyard and a rubbish heap’ is recorded in the book which is now a classic.
Before her new life in the county, Margery Fish had worked as a secretary to six editors of the Daily Mail. These included the famous publishing magnate Lord Northcliffe and also the man she was to marry: Walter Fish. On their retirement they found ‘unpretentious’ East Lambrook Manor with its 14th and 16th century origins.
“It was a disused chicken farm,” the house’s current owner Mike Werkmeister tells me as we chat in this beautiful spot near South Petherton.
“Margery wasn’t a gardener but she wanted to create a garden in keeping with the old medieval hall house.”
But during the creation of this modest garden with ‘crooked paths and unexpected corners,’ it seems that Margery and Walter didn’t always agree.
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Mike explains: “She says in her book that if Walter didn’t like something she planted he’d pull it up and drop it on the path for her to clear away!
“Walter died in 1947 after which she had a free hand to do what she wanted.”
Creating her beloved garden using informal planting, Margery did a lot to save old cottage garden plants, such as those which had gone out of favour, and East Lambrook is known as a ‘plantsman’s garden.’
She established the nursery in the 1950s and it has been selling specialist plants ever since.
East Lambrook is noted for its snowdrops and Margery was keen on hellebores and Astrantria. She advised gardeners: ‘When in doubt plant a geranium.’
It’s a delight to wander along the small stone pathways of East Lambrook at any time of year through the terraces planted by Margery.
She created a garden with what she referred to as ‘good bone structure’ – something that Walter taught her.
“You mustn’t rely on your flowers to make your gardens attractive. A good bone structure must come first, with an intelligent use of evergreen plants so that the garden is always clothed, no matter what time of year.”
Margery was the author of a number of books and became an admired garden writer. Since her death in 1969, the garden has passed through various hands and it was awarded Grade 1 status by English Heritage in 1992. The Werkmeisters arrived here in 2008, after reading about the sale of the house in the Sunday Times.
For two and a half years they still lived in London while Mike, who is a graphic designer by profession, commuted down to Somerset for three or four days at a time.
Head Gardener Mark Stainer has worked here for many years and the team today includes Charlotte, one of Mark and Gail Werkmeister’s children. The privately owned garden is open to the public so that others can enjoy it too.
Mike says: “We bought it because we thought it would be fun, which it is for most of the time, and would be an interesting and enjoyable challenge to be the latest custodians of the famous garden. We always saw it as a philanthropic venture rather than a business venture.”
The garden first opened to the public in 1950 and Margery said she and Walter never regretted their ‘foolhardiness’ in taking on the task of creating their garden.
“There is a certain satisfaction in making a garden that is like no one else’s and in knowing that you yourself are responsible for every stone and every flower in the place.”
How to find the gardens
East Lambrook Manor Gardens are in the village of East Lambrook near South Petherton, TA13 5HH. For admission prices and opening times see eastlambrook.co.uk Enjoy the work of watercolour artist Moish Sokal in an exhibition at The Malthouse in the gardens from 2 June to 19 July.