Marie Evelyn, Viscountess Byng (1870-1949) fell head-over-heels in love with the stunning gardens and 'sheets' of water at Thorpe Hall, the now-demolished main residence, then a substantial villa that had been rebuilt on the site of a previous house in the 1830s.
Lord and Lady Byng bought Thorpe Hall in 1913 and immediately felt they had found their 'spiritual home'. Take one look at the elegant landscape and magnificent array of trees, plants and flowers and you'll understand why.
Lady Byng laid out her gardens so that they would become a sort of scrapbook to contain her memories of years of travel. The rock garden was home to her Californian plants and those Southern hemisphere specimens she collected in South Africa or received from Hanbury at La Mortola. It is more than a collection of souvenirs; it seems almost to be an attempt to recreate those countries within the Essex garden. Many plants have disappeared through neglect, weather or during the period when the grounds were open to visitors and unguarded. Those that are left are remarkable for this part of the country, and often a reminder of the characters involved in the gardens’ creation. They are plants that we can enjoy for various reasons throughout the year.
Today, Lady Byng is remembered for creating a vivacious 'wild garden' landscape, with a variety of lavish plants from across the globe. Her plant gathering was much inspired by travels in north America where her husband served as Governor General of Canada in the early 1920s.
Gardeners, nurserymen and unusual plants
When Lady Byng returned to Thorpe Hall in 1926, she enlisted the help of celebrated gardeners, nurserymen and designers, who also supplied many plants and advised her over the next several years.
During this period, Lady Byng introduced many wonderful botanical species to the gardens. She accepted gifts of plants from John Boscawen of Cornish gardens fame and Edwin Hillier of Hillier's Nursery, as well as receiving a share of plants from Harold Combers' second plant hunting expedition - she had invested in the venture. Some of these plants can be found in the gardens today.
Lady Byng was also helped by Robert Wallace of Colchester, an academic nurseryman who wrote papers on lilies and irises. He had an enormously successful business named Wallace and Barr, producing bulbs and corms.
Lord and Lady Byng liked to entertain, and a vast selection of guests visited Thorpe Hall. Lord Byng often met with the King and Lady Byng was a friend of Queen Mary. Queen Mary is said to have adored the grounds and is even reputed to have advised Lady Byng of some modifications she could make to the lake. As a result, a tranquil summerhouse and lush green walkway were named in Queen Mary's honour.
Rudyard Kipling and Winston Churchill were other distinguished guests - we also have a summerhouse named after the great wartime Prime Minister, who had served under Lord Byng during the Boer Wars where they became close friends.
The small summerhouse was a favourite spot of J. M. Barrie, who was regular visitor to Thorpe. The plinth at the top of the grass slope used to carry a copy of the well-known Kensington Gardens statuette of Peter Pan, and the slope has come to be known as the Peter Pan Walk.
Thorpe Hall Gardens today
Strolling through these gardens you'll instantly feel the care and dedication that is being put into their restoration. Slip your shoes off and feel the grass between your pampered toes. Take a deep breath of fresh flower-scented air and think of the work and vision that have gone into these surroundings - we hope Lady Byng would be proud to see them today.