In a quiet Oxfordshire village, close to the infant River Thames, the ancient and beautiful Kelmscott Manor is a haven of peace. A living memorial to William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement, the gardens are carefully preserved with the plants that Morris included in his designs and those which he wrote about in his prose and poetry.
Morris (1834-1896) was passionate about preserving the ancient landscape, fearing that the uniqueness of the countryside was being eroded by new houses and fashionable exotic plants. Convinced of the importance of traditional crafts and intent on holding on to the past, he loved simple flowers such as scarlet poppies, wild grasses, chamomile and anemones. His love of nature - trees, flowers, birds and rivers, was a source of inspiration which guided his designs.Local plants such as violets, willow, honeysuckle, wild roses and fritillaries are woven into intricate patterns which appear on Morris's wallpapers, tapestries and textiles. Lilies and daisies appear in his designs for books, carpets and stained glass, while his patterns such as Violet and Columbine designed in 1883 remain timelessly beautiful.
The indigenous plants have a natural and quiet charm which Morris recognised.Morris had studied Gerard's sixteenth-century Herball, with its drawings of plants, and retained an image of an early garden. He admired medieval gardens with their shady arbours and practical combination of fruit trees, vegetables, herbs and flowers, and valued the art of 'making the past part of the present.' In 1879, Morris gave a lecture in which he explained his views on the creation of a garden:'Large or small, it should look both orderly and rich. It should be well fenced from the outside world. It should by no means imitate either the wilfulness or wildness of Nature, but should look like a thing never to be seen except near a house. It should in fact look like part of a house. It follows from this that no private-pleasure garden should be very big, and a public garden should be divided and made to look like so many flower-closes in a meadow, or a wood, or amidst the pavement.'Thus, Morris advocated dividing a garden into a series of 'rooms' with hedges, fences and trees. Paths and borders were to be in straight lines, and decorated with simple flowers.
At a time when Victorian gardeners were obsessed with exotic plants and garish carpet bedding, this was revolutionary. He urged gardeners to 'fill up flower-growing space with things that are free and interesting in their growth, leaving Nature to do the desired complexity'.At Kelmscott, the wattle fences used to divide the gardens and build trellises are made of local willow and hazel. Morris insisted on local traditional wood and stone for the hard landscaping to integrate the garden both with the house and its surroundings. His gardening principles were taken up by the Arts and Crafts movement and went on to influence a generation of garden designers into the early twentieth century.The earliest part of Kelmscott Manor is Elizabethan, dating from the 1590s, when it was built as a farm house by Thomas Turner. The Turners continued to live there for almost 300 years, until in 1871 William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rosetti rented it as a country retreat, as an escape from their London life. Morris had spotted the farmhouse and instantly fallen in love with it, describing it as 'a heaven on earth'.
The old farmhouse had been built in the traditional style without the use of an architect, because the builders were 'traditionally acquainted with the best means of using wood and stone'. Not at all a showy stately house, Kelmscott is a comfortable family home filled with intensely personal art and furniture and is a place of immense significance for the study and conservation of the Arts and Crafts movement.The old stone flagged path leading to the pretty trellised and stone tiled porch is bordered with a simple row of standard roses on either side. In May and June, purple irises stand against the mellow stone walls of the ancient house,while in the corner of this garden is a pretty stone tiled summerhouse, while the yew hedge beside the lawn is topped with a topiary dragon Fafnir from the Old Norse Volsunga saga which Morris published in 1870.Beyond the yew hedge is the lawn garden which includes cardoon and herbs, and a pergola of coppiced chestnut running down the centre supports a vine recalling medieval arbours. Beyond the arbour is an orchard with an ancient Mulberry tree beneath which grow Tulipa sylvestris, the Wild Tulip, and snakeshead fritillaries and beyond the orchard, the Meadow is allowed to grow with wild flowers and bulbs.
In Morris's epic poem, The Earthly Paradise, Psyche finds herself in a wonderful country where:..'all about were dotted leafy trees,The elm for shade, the linden for the bees...and in them hung Bright birds that elsewhere sing not, but here sung As sweetly as the small brown nightingales.' A visit to Kelmscott is surely a visit to the personal paradise of William Morris.