Dances with the Daffodils, Warley Place, Essex

Written by Irene Tibbenham and Mavis Smith. Posted in News

Dances with the Daffodils, Warley Place, Essex

What could be greater proof of a good lecture than motivating action to do something!  We refer to the lecture by Andrew Sankey, on Ellen Willmott and Warley Place, originally scheduled at Hethersett Village Hall, but relocated online to a Zoom presentation in March 2021.  In this case, two Group members, both keen on narcissus, were moved to visit Ellen Willmott’s Essex garden after hearing the latest lecture, which included photographs of Warley Place.

As write-ups have been hit and miss since we moved online, we recommend the following article ‘Ellen Willmott:  Gardener and Plantswoman’ by Petra Hoyar Millar, who writes a blog entitled Oxonion Gardener which gives a greater account than we could write and touches upon much of what we covered in the lecture.

Having heard how Ellen gathered the breeders of her day together, including the likes of George Engleheart and Robert Backhouse, we were intrigued to reconnôitre the once famous garden at Warley Place in Essex, as soon as meeting restrictions permitted, which for us meant Wednesday 31st March 2021.  Both of us have a keen interest in narcissus, one specialising in historic Engleheart narcissus, the other in modern split-corona daffs.

Here we encountered the remnants of Ellen Willmott’s grand garden plan, now a nature reserve managed by Essex Wildlife Trust and gardened with a light touch by volunteers; a mere shadow of a grand garden where once more than 100,000 plants were looked after by 140 gardeners.

Ellen Willmott amassed more than 600 narcissus cultivars, and today few survive of that original collection.  On the other hand, those that have survived have clearly thrived and augmented their numbers naturally, testament to the longevity and resilience of certain historic cultivars.  Many of these display a delicate and fragile frame - twisted perianth segments courtesy of Engleheart’s breeding with Narcisssus poeticus - in sharp contrast to today’s cultivars.

To protect her precious narcissus from theft, Ellen Willmott is said to have had trip wires installed to trigger air rifles should any one dare to pilfer these beloved plants.  Today, barbed wire separates the millions of daffodils from serious physical incursion, and domestic dogs are banned.

The site and sight of thousands of dainty daffodils–conveys the scene from William Wordsworth’s poem ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’, written after a visit to Gowbarrow Park in Cumbria 1802:

I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o’er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

He finishes his poem with ‘And then my heart with pleasure fills, And dances with the daffodils”.  Born 56years later, is it possible Ellen Willmott was inspired by these words?  Certainly today, the sheer magnitude of planted area is just staggering and is guaranteed to warm your heart on a sunny spring day.

The following photographs are a foretaste of the botanical treasures seen that day.  Identifying cultivars is almost impossible, given today there are 27,000+ registered, but those identified with some certainty included ‘Van Sion’ (‘Telamonius Plenus’ in RHS) and ‘Seagull’.

We would recommend a visit here highly but set off in March or April so you can ‘dance with the daffodils.’


Irene Tibbenham and Mavis Smith