When Morris found Kelmscott Manor in 1871 the garden delighted him as much as the house. Enclosed by high walls and divided by hedges, it conformed to his ideal of a garden ‘fenced from the outside world’ and he therefore altered it little.
Kelmscott Manor is a remarkable well-preserved seventeenth-century Manor farmstead complex located on the river Thames, near Lechlade. As well as the Manor, the site comprises its beautiful garden and important group of historic barns, dovecot and former stabling (for ‘Mouse’ the Icelandic pony, brought back from Iceland by Morris for his daughters). It is situated in a beautiful village, totally unspoilt, reflecting the vigilance and energy of Morris and his family to preserve the site and area for the future.
From 1871-1896 Kelmscott Manor was Morris’s summer retreat from the pressures and smog of London. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelite artist, was a co-tenant with Morris 1871-’74. The architecture, history landscape, flora and fauna of Kelmscott had a profound effect on Morris, his designs and his thinking.
As you wander through the gardens, you can begin to see how he was inspired to create so many of his now internationally famous and much-loved designs from plants, trees and shrubs grown in the Manor gardens, such as Willow Bough (1887); Strawberry Thief (1883) and Kennet (1883). These designs are all reflected in his textiles once you enter the Manor.
Recent Garden History
When the house was restored in 1967 not much attention was given to the gardens. During the mid-1990s the Society of Antiquaries of London began to restore the garden to something, which Morris would recognise, highlighting the rich botanical content of his designs. Slavish restoration has not been the intention. Practical constraints of maintenance preclude this, as in true cottage garden tradition, most of the area was cultivated ground, with mixed flowers, fruit and vegetables. The main aim was to re-create the framework of footpaths (completed in 1996 with a grant from the Carnegie Trust) and to fill the beds with a medley of cottage garden plans, which Morris loved. We have included many plants from Morris’s designs and where possible used old varieties. We have tried to reflect the choice of plants the characteristics of Morris’s patterns; the large flowers with small infill, the twining stems, the deeply-incised foliage; abundant fruits, and many flowers. Pre-1900 photographs are scant, so research extended to the OS map of c1870; the drawings of EH; the stunning paintings of the Manor by Maria Spartali; and a fine set of Country Life photographs of 1921.
Morris’s letters refers to crocuses, aconites, ‘snowdrops everywhere’, violets, and primroses, as well as quantities of tulips; also to roses and hollyhocks, scabious and cottage annuals; poppies, Sweet Sultans, China asters and Dianthus Heddwigii. We also know that May’s writings tell of the garden ‘gay with thousands of Tulips’, the ‘white foam’ of cherry, the ‘first purple-red rose’, of collecting apples and turning strawberry beds into onion beds during World War I.
The Front Garden
The Front Garden is depicted in CM Gere’s 1892 frontispiece to ‘News from Nowhere’, with its description of the roses ‘rolling over one another’. Roses have been re-planted to flank the path, cover the porch and to clothe the stump of the Thuja. Many different varieties have been planted such as Eglantyne; Cottage Rose; Gertrude Jekyl; Sir Edward Elgar; and Mary Rose. New trees such as Quince and silver-leafed Pear have also been added.
Adjacent to the Front Garden is the large Yew Hedge clipped into a topiary dragon, originally by Morris himself: the ‘Fafnir’ depicted in his Icelandic poems following trips to Iceland.
This has been restored with the help of experts from the National Trust.
The Lawn Garden
The Lawn Garden at the northeast corner was originally a kitchen garden. New planting includes cardoon and herbs. The pergola is coppiced chestnut, a traditional method of supporting vines, harking back to medieval arbours and Morris’s own trellis patterns.
The Mulberry Garden
The impressive and ancient Mulberry tree dominates this part of the garden. Photographs from 1921 show lashed fencing, which has since been copied using local ash and hazel. We believe that this originated in 1896 when Morris was pleased by ‘the raspberry-canes, which Giles has trellised up neatly, so that they look like a medieval garden’. There are also an abundance of tulips. May mentions the ‘beautiful wild tulip that my father called the Persian tulip and that he used a great deal in designs, simply runs riot all over the beds’. Snakeshead fritillaries are also a special feature, especially seen by visitors during April.
The Orchard has been re-planted with Victorian varieties of apple and plum. The grass beneath has been planted with bulbs and small flowers to create an effect of the ‘millefleurs’ tapestries.
The Yard, Tea Lawn and Meadow
These areas were part of the farm in Morris’s day. The Tea Lawn is directly outside the Tearoom with many picnic benches and seats to enjoy your afternoon tea and to soak up the atmosphere. The Tea Lawn leads down to the ‘Cut’, a former agricultural but picturesque stream that runs throughout the garden.
The Meadow is allowed to grow to form a ‘flowery mead’ with wild flowers and bulbs. The grass is cut in August. Mown paths allow visitors to explore but please don’t walk on the long grass. Elm trees has robbed us of the high trees which Morris loved but the rooks are still ‘garrulous’ from the willows and new trees have been planted, including the scarce Black Poplar.
We hope you enjoy wandering around the peaceful and beautiful grounds, as much as Morris and his family did.
The gardens are constantly evolving and the upkeep is challenging. Our ongoing fundraising efforts are enabling us to restore more of the historic buildings and gardens for future generations. If you would like to know more about our plans or would like to contribute in some way, please get in touch, we would love to hear from you.