The gardens at West Horsley Place

By Nicky Webber

There are five acres of walled gardens at West Horsley Place.

The walls, built by the Nicholas family in the early 1700s, are Grade 2 listed, and are shown on 1735 estate plan which also shows the 600 metres of box hedging which we see today.

Sir Edward Nicholas, who lived at West Horsley Place 1704 -1726, was ahead of his time. In the Surrey History Centre there are a vast number of his scientific notes and his ledgers have many entries relating to lime, bricks etc.

It is believed that the 1735 layout roughly follows that of earlier times. From Henry VIII’s ledgers, we know there was a privy garden, a knot garden and strawberry plants!  It was encircled with wooden pales and there was a mount garden in order to look over the whole garden.

The four large box balls in the centre of the garden surround a sundial which, until recently, was shown on ordnance survey maps. It was here, it is said, that Henry Courtenay (Henry VIII’s cousin) was arrested by Cromwell “for singing treasonous songs”.  Courtenay was sent to the Tower and beheaded; his wife and son later released.

There were formerly deep herbaceous borders along both sides of this wide alley.

Back in the 1930s the village of West Horsley was known for its topiary shaped into sheep, peacocks, spirals and other shapes.  It is said that the West Horsley Place gardeners shared their skills with the locals.

The late 1800s onwards

The main garden was very much a fruit and vegetable as well as being a flower garden.

When Henry Currie moved to WHP in 1888. Emily Currie wrote a diary of her time there in great detail.  She describes the main garden, as follows:  “First a formal garden with beds of flowers – geraniums, calceolarias, verbenas, mignonette etc.  Then a low iron fence and the kitchen garden.  Down the middle ran a grass path with wide borders on each side, full of old fashioned flowers.  It was a wonderful garden for fruit and vegetables…….My father was very proud of his grapes.  They were certainly most successful – Muscat, sweet water and black Hamburgh

The OS map of 1871 shows the axial design of the garden. The lawn at the far end (the Croquet Lawn) was then divided into two compartments of vegetable beds. More recently it has been a tennis lawn and a photo from 1939 Country Life calls it the Magnolia Lawn. There is also a Catalpa or Indian Bean Tree and two ornamental silver pears.

The inside walls of the main garden were lined with pear trees.

Where the main garden meets the Crinkle-Crankle there was an iron curvilinear vinery housing Black Hamburg (as at Hampton Court), Sweetwater and Muscat vines. This was definitely in place in 1849 and was a very desirable structure to have in the garden!

The central allee and the sundial 1939
Garden 2
Serpentine borders 1939
The meadow at the back of the serpentine 1939
Meadow behind serpentine

The Crinkle-crankle garden

It is claimed that the serpentine wall (a crinkle crankle wall) is the oldest in the country. A photo exists showing a little white door in the middle which opened out to the meadow beyond.  The concaves created heat pockets for fruit trees: peaches, apricots and nectarines were grown here.  There was a structure in the far left corner as you are facing the wall, possibly for grapes.


The Champagne Lawn/West Lawn

By the double gates leading to the orchard, there was a glasshouse with myrtles, orange trees and geraniums.  There is now a highly-scented white wisteria which has burrowed its way through the yew tree. It flowers at the beginning of the opera season.

The Rose Garden

This was planted in the 1930s when the Duchess’s parents bought the house.  The dovecote in the centre is typical of this era.  It was planted with white and red roses in a ‘blood and bandages’ type theme from the First World War.  These two red quarters have since been re-planted with Olivia Austin pink roses as the red ones were struggling.  The large white rampant rose overhanging the entrance into the Mole Garden is ‘Kiffsgate’.



The damson and apple tree date from the 1900s though the walnut and pear trees are older.

The mulberry by the double gates from the garden to the orchard was planted in Tudor times. In order to cultivate silk worms James I introduced mulberry to his kingdom. Alas he brought the black mulberry and the silk worm thrives on the white mulberry.