GARDENING Mr Montefiore's time capsule

Like something out of a children's story, an estate owner's message in a bottle has helped uncover a garden's past. Michael Leapman reports
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IT IS easy to work out the age of a house or a person, but much harder to put a date on a garden. That is why garden history is such an inexact science. People develop grey hair and wrinkles; paint fades and brickwork crumbles - but plants and woods renew themselves year after year. Even an ancient tree offers no real clue to a garden's age, because it may well have been already established when it was incorporated into the grand plan.

Nor can the things people do to their gardens be attributed confidently to any particular period. We can recognise a Tudor gable or a Georgian fireplace, but when a long-ago gardener filled in the fish pond and replaced it with a rockery, he was probably not responding to the latest style dictate of Capability Brown or Gertrude Jekyll, but merely trying to avoid drowning the children.

That is why documentary evidence of old gardens, of the changes made to them and why, is rare and valuable. And it is one reason why Edie Cotton became so excited when, clearing an area of ground that used to be part of the garden of Stisted Hall in Essex, she came across that classic plot device used in children's adventure stories - a message in a bottle.

It was an old green glass bottle from the turn of the century, the sort used for beer or fizzy drinks. Part of it was broken away but inside there remained a damp but still legible typed message.

"I thought it was a silly love letter or something," Edie recalls. In fact it was a detailed and charming account of changes made to the ornamental pond at Stisted more than 80 years ago, written by members of the Sebag-Montefiore family who then occupied the big house.

Stisted Hall is today an old people's home. It has not been privately occupied since 1939, when it was commandeered by the Army. Most of the former grounds are now part of the Braintree Golf Club, which moved here in 1963 when its old course, nearer the town, had a bypass built across it.

In 1991 a group of eight volunteers, some of them connected with the golf club and all of them more or less fanatical gardeners, started to clear an overgrown patch of land on the edge of the course, including a large pond that was filled with silt and covered with slime. The pond had to be dredged, and the silt was piled with other rubbish on a heap a few yards away.

It was while clearing this heap that Edie came across the broken bottle, which she now assumes had been dred-ged up from the bottom of the pond. The message was neatly typed and meticulously precise. It began:

"This pond and the two upper ones were cleared out in July, August and September 1911 - the Coronation Year of King George V and Queen Mary; an exceptionally dry summer with long spells without any rain.

"The water was drained from the upper to the second pond and from that to the third lower one.

"No fish were found in the upper ponds. In the third one - which contained much floating mud - a large quantity of fish were discovered; a great many small roach, several carp and tench and some eels."

The note went on to describe how the fish were disposed of, noting that hundreds of roach were killed, "probably from the gases of the mud being disturbed". There followed an honour roll of those who had assisted in the pond-clearing - no fewer than six Sebag-Montefiores, as well as many estate workers.

The tale from the bottle then moved on to January 1912 when, with the ponds cleared, some hard landscaping was initiated:

"A design was prepared by Messrs Milner, Son and White (Expert Garden Architects of London) for erecting a wall inside the old existing wall of this pond and for making a stone walk between these two walls. To complete the design, the oak fencing which was erected round the pond to prevent the late Squire Onley from falling into the pond, and which had one gap to allow the swans to come out on to the banks, was removed."

Squire Onley would have been a member of the old Essex family, the Onley Savile-Onleys, whose ancestral home was Stisted Hall before the Sebag- Montefiores bought it. History does not recall how often he fell into the pond, or whether the cause was the demon drink or congenital imbalance. A 1908 photograph shows the oak fencing but no stumbling squire.

The note goes on to reveal that stones from the floor of the old hall - replaced by parquet that year - were used for the path round the pond, and the bridge was completed in the autumn of 1912, made from wood cut from the estate. It is signed with a fine flourish by Cecil Sebag-Montefiore, the paterfamilias.

The letter was shown to Ida Earle, one of Stisted's oldest inhabitants, born in the year the pond was redesigned. She remembers some of the people mentioned. There was Joseph Partridge the gamekeeper (a candidate for a names-that-make-you-chuckle column); Stacey the woodman, sadly killed in the Great War, leaving a widow and six children; Charles Saunders the bailiff, always called "Old Bang", for reasons Ida does not remember.

As for the Sebag-Monte-fiores, Cecil was said to have lost his fortune, tied up in Germany, when the war began, so he gave up the estate in 1916. It was then broken up and parts sold to tenant farmers and householders. The hall and grounds stayed intact, though, and among its subsequent owners were the grandparents of Richard Motion (father of the poet Andrew Motion). Richard, now 73, lives in the village and remembers visiting the hall in the Twenties and Thirties:

"I used to have my ears boxed here by the gardener," he disclosed, as we looked at the large walled kitchen garden, now abandoned. "We used to pinch the peaches and nectarines that grew on the south wall.

"There was a shingle drive from the hall to the church and a summer house near it, in view of the big house. When my grandmother used to walk to church she would sit in the summer house and rest, and then walk on. There were cattle in the fields where the golf course is now."

Edie and the other volunteers have uncovered an iron fence, completely overgrown, that had kept the cows away from the pond and the area close to the house. The pond has already been cleared and the area round it planted with spring bulbs, rhododendrons and other kinds of plant that were there when the message was placed in the bottle. All it needs is some swans.

Now the group are moving on to deal with the rest of the matted bramble and scrub. One effect of their labours is to highlight the rare trees collected in the 19th century by one of the Onley Savile- Onleys, including redwoods, a home oak, a cedar of Lebanon and an Argentinian bean tree.

In the four years since the project began the original eight volunteers have dwindled to three, Edie among them, who spend most Satur-days hacking away at the undergrowth, although they are just entering the spring hiatus when they have to stop so as not to disturb nesting birds. The other two are David Grout, whose original idea it was, and Brian Cook, who specialises in the building and engineering side of the work.

Brian plans to put a waterfall at the top of the pond, re-placing the 1912 steps, then he will put up a seat for people from the village and will rebuild the neglected rockery.

"We do it because we enjoy it," he says. "It's a long-term project: it's never going to end." But things do change. Which is why Edie, Brian and David should bottle their own version of the latest phase of a country garden's history. 8