Layer Marney Tower gardens: Revealing its fascinating historical significance
PUBLISHED: 16:09 10 July 2018 | UPDATED: 16:58 10 July 2018
Layer Marney Tower near Colchester is one of the county’s most iconic landmarks, but its shadow falls over one of the county’s most striking and historically significant gardens
Layer Marney Tower, situated about five miles to the south west of Colchester, is a Grade I listed building dating back to 1520. With picturesque views of the Blackwater estuary and boasting the tallest gatehouse in the country, this is a beautiful example of a grand Tudor home.
Henry VIII was so impressed by its magnificence that he came to stay for a couple of nights in 1522.
Layer Marney Tower is a member of Essex Houses and Gardens, a group founded to showcase a collection of glorious destinations across the county. Sheila Charrington, who lives at Layer Marney Tower with her family, was on the founding committee.
Sheila explains: “Essex Houses and Gardens is a group of 11 historic and distinctive buildings and gardens across Essex. Members are located throughout the county, ranging from Hyde Hall in the south west of the county to Beth Chatto Gardens in the north east. As well as gardens, several members also have other delights, such as Audley End’s kitchen garden and house, Marks Hall’s arboretum and Bardfield’s vineyard.”
Very little is known about the original Tudor gardens at Layer Marney Tower, though there are some unlikely theories of how the tower was used to view tournaments. Following the death of John, 2nd Lord Marney there was a succession of different families who lived at the Tower.
Most of them did little to either the buildings or the gardens, indeed the story seems to have been one of gradual decline. Prints and early photographs show a carriage sweep to the south, cattle grazing outside the tower and even a range of pig and livestock buildings adjacent to the main buildings.
In 1884 there was an earthquake which seems to have acted as a catalyst for improvements to both the buildings and gardens. The garden layout as seen today took shape in this Victorian era, when the building and grounds were owned by Alfred and Kezia Peache.
They turned the approach to the house around, putting in to the north the drive that visitors use today. The south was transformed from a track into formal gardens with terracing, lawns and flowerbeds.
In 1904 Walter de Zoete bought Layer Marney Tower and made further changes to the house and gardens (with the help of their 14 outside staff). While in the de Zoete’s ownership, an Edwardian Folly was built about 330 yards to the south, linked by rolling lawns and long herbaceous borders.
Known as the Tea House, de Zoete and his family would walk down to take afternoon tea and enjoy the views. The butler would push the tea trolley down from the Tower – it was always said that the lawns were so well rolled that the china on his trolley never chipped!
The next owners were the Campbells. Maybud Campbell was a very keep gardener who introduced many exotic species. She and her husband spent little time at Layer Marney from 1939 onwards, and much of the gardens were used as a market garden.
The Campbells moved to Mortain in the south of France and established an outstanding garden there, leaving Layer Marney to gently decline.
Gerald and Susan Charrington bought Layer Marney Tower in 1957 and gradually re-developed the gardens. The workload was made more manageable by removing some of the yew hedging, and colour was brought back with a programme of bulb planting.
The work has been ongoing and now the gardens provide interest and colour throughout the year. This year the daffodils, tulips and other primroses were especially brilliant and hopes are high for a really good display of roses – that flourish on the heavy Essex soil.
For the best view of the grounds, a climb to the top of the tower is extremely worthwhile. Surrounding the tower is a beautiful, wide and open Essex landscape, as well as magnificent views down to the Blackwater estuary, meandering from Maldon to the sea.
The stunning array of foliage and flowers that surround the tower complement its terracotta décor and grand Italian design. In keeping with the history of the Tower, the Charringtons developed a knot garden to mark the Millennium.
This was created with box hedging and features a design that dates back to Tudor times when Henry, 1st Lord Marney and Henry VIII’s Lord Privy Seal, built the building.
Providing visitors with the perfect picnic spot, Layer Marney Tower’s gardens are home to unusual trees such as the Swamp Cyprus, a native of Louisiana swamps, and a specimen Tulip tree.
For a tranquil walk, visitors can follow a path that goes for about 2 kilometres past deer and sheep, along Layer Brook, with some of the best views of the tower. Guests are never left lonely as they venture around the grounds, with the resident chickens, goats, sheep and horses always nearby.
The pond area and walks around the field margins by the Layer Brook also provide ideal habitats for smaller animals and are a hot spot for dragon flies throughout the warmer season.
Team members, Vanessa Hart, George Bell, and David Dale are currently developing the Edwardian greenhouse which will open to the public this season. In this greenhouse, tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers are grown along with pumpkins, which are used throughout the Halloween activities that take place in October at the tower.
Head gardener Vanessa Hart comments: “The garden has interest and perfume for much of the year; roses particularly love the heavy clay soil and warm south-facing aspect, they put on a glorious display throughout the summer.
“Another exquisite aspect of the garden has to be the Rosa Banksiae which grows across the walls of the building. Back in autumn we planted 1,000 tulips with the aim to bring colour when spring arrived. However, our main focus is on growing perennials to help provide a backbone for the garden.
“When these herbaceous plants die at the end of the season, they regrow from the same roots the next year, which is ideal.”
For the ultimate countryside experience, Layer Marney Tower’s glamping is a must. Made up of six tented encampments named after each of Henry VIII’s wives, guests can enjoy a luxurious get-away in a harmonious setting.
For the last 25 years The Charringtons and staff at Layer Marney Tower have been dedicated to creating an interesting, colourful and beautiful backdrop which all visitors can enjoy.
Its undeniably distinctive and iconic, so why not pay a visit to this historic house and glorious garden on your next outing?