Lawn restoration at Osterley and a horticultural ghost

Volunteering in the gardens at Osterley House, the National Trust property a few miles from Heathrow Airport, is a special experience. Today was a day of autumn sun, long shadows and little wind. To see my Friday team colleagues clustered under a tree in the further reaches of Mrs Child’s flower garden, preparing an area for re-turfing, evoked a timeless scene. As I approached them from the work yard with a replenished barrow of soil, I might have been seeing Osterley gardeners from several centuries earlier. Silhouetted against the autumn sunshine, working with tools little changed over time, mattocks, shovels and landscape rakes, I had a strong sense of time suspended.

Today was devoted to lawn repair, with the morning occupied with removing ivy from a bed previously occupied by rhododendrons, where the stumps have recently been ground down. Having ripped the ivy stems from the soil, we raked level the area to be seeded, using wide wooden landscape rakes. We broadcast the grass seed generously across the plot and marked off the sowing area with rope, slung between shepherd’s crooks.

In the afternoon we moved into the sunny area mentioned above and created a neat rectangular plot where again roots and stumps had been ground out. We dug out the spent soil and sawdust to a depth of three or four inches and introduced more soil which we levelled in preparation for the turves. These had been dug from elsewhere in the garden some weeks ago and were stacked in the area occupied by the glasshouse, cold frames and nursery beds. After placing them carefully in a long low barrow, grass facing grass, we trundled the precious cargo around the Tudor Walled Garden to the denuded patch, where we placed the turves in a neat patchwork within the rectangle. The yellowing blades of grass in some of the turf pieces should green up satisfactorily, once exposed to the sunlight from which they have been shielded whilst in their temporary location.

At home in Kew the two pots of  Ceratostigma willmottianum plunged into the blue glazed pots in the front garden, have transformed in the last several weeks from their intense blue flowered prime, into bonfire hued red and gold. I knew the species epithet ‘willmottianum‘ to refer to a horticultural personality whose name features in some species and common names, Ellen Willmott. Earlier this week, when reading about Miss Willmott’s early life, I discovered that she was brought up near Osterley in the area of north west Isleworth known as Spring Grove, and attended Gumley House School. So after leaving Osterley, I took a detour by bike to see the area where she lived before her wealthy solicitor father moved the family to Warley Place near Brentwood, Essex. Spring Grove is an area of substantial Victorian properties and the Willmott family home at 52 Spring Grove is described as a three storey double fronted suburban villa with its own coach house and private three quarter acre formal garden. 

Wouldn’t it be intriguing to know if the protagonist of the ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’* legend visited the garden at Osterley House as a child and whether it contributed to her lifelong passion for plants and horticulture? What is likely is that she would have been taken to Kew Gardens given the proximity of what was once known as Spring Grove & Isleworth railway station (now Isleworth Station) on the Barnes to Feltham railway loop line, three stations from Kew Bridge Station.

*’Miss Willmott’s Ghost’ is Eryngium giganteum, a short lived perennial up to one metre tall with spiny silvery grey bracts, the seeds of which Miss Willmott is said to have surreptitiously scattered in gardens she visited.


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