paradise restored

A garden designed for romantic dalliance is being lovingly rebuilt. By Anna Pavord. Photographs by Phil Starling
Easton Lodge has had three very different owners in the past 100 years. Brian Creasey has spent a life in truck rental. Charlie Wearn was a kind of Lovejoy of the Sixties, hoarding away demolished bits of London - helmeted finials from the Knightsbridge Barracks, windows from the Persian Embassy - to sell on to the highest bidder. Daisy, Countess of Warwick, did what Edwardian countesses had to do: she tagged along with the Prince of Wales.

The house is marooned in the flat, arable acres of north Essex, close to Great Dunmow. Daisy inherited the place, then a substantial estate of 14,000 acres, in 1865, when she was only four. More avaricious members of the family were furious at the terms of the bequest and threw pats of butter at the portrait of Sir Henry Maynard, her benefactor, while the will was being read. After Daisy's marriage in 1881 to the fifth Earl of Warwick, Easton Lodge became a favourite weekending place for the Marlborough House set, the Prince of Wales's cronies. A photograph taken at Easton Lodge shows them sitting on the steps of the house: the men bursting out of their buttons, the women fabulous in the best hats that ever perched on a bird's-nest hairdo.

Love affairs, such as the one between the Prince of Wales and Daisy herself, were an important diversion in this fast-living set. The right setting was paramount. The Countess said that the Prince's home, Marlborough House, provided "the finest surroundings for flirtation to be found in the metropolis". By asking Harold Peto to redesign parts of her own garden, she made sure that Easton Lodge could supply the rural equivalent.

Peto, who started work there in 1903, left intact the Countess's Victorian garden, with its heart-shaped ceramic plaques dotted around fussy flowerbeds, and laid out a new Edwardian garden to the north of the house. There was a croquet lawn, of course (this was, after all, the age of the endless afternoon), a massive wooden pergola with an arched roof smothered in climbers, and a dangerously romantic Italian garden.

The focus of this was a pool, more than 100 feet long, with curved apse ends. It was the centrepiece of a sunken garden, paved throughout in stone, which was surrounded by a raised grass walk bordered with yews. Six sets of wide, shallow steps led down to the sunken area, where there were also flowerbeds bursting with Edwardian tropicana: cannas, tobacco plants and other spiky exotics.

Peto, who trained with Edwin Lutyens in the architectural practice of Ernest George, never did much architecture, at least in this country, but he was a dab hand with gardens. He could only do one sort - Italian - but the style happened to suit the time: plenty of big seats for lazing on, the sound of water to soothe brows fevered by romance, intimate, hedged walks for privacy and long, long vistas to show off his clients' acres. His gardens were about conspicuous consumption.

So was Daisy. "We would dine late and long," she wrote in a memoir, Afterthoughts, "trifle with the opera for an hour or so, or watch the ballet at the Empire, go on to as many houses as we could crowd in. As for money, our only understanding of it lay in the spending, not in the making of it."

This is where Brian Creasey comes in. He has come to understand the making of money pretty well - and has now learned how to spend it, too. He was only three years old when Daisy Warwick died in 1938, but on a misty spring morning in 1971 he brought his family to see Easton Lodge, by then a much reduced, overgrown ruin. The Warwicks had lost most of their fortune. The main house had been pulled down by Daisy's son, in the Fifties. Trees sprang from the balustrade round Peto's romantic pool. The intricate pergola had collapsed long before, under the weight of an unexpectedly heavy snowstorm.

Creasey's children so hated the place, they wouldn't even get out of the car. Impenetrable brambles choked the drive, but Creasey could just make out the pattern of a complex cobbled courtyard, with stars and concentric circles of different coloured stones around a fountain.

He decided to leave his home of 14 years in cosy Stevenage and buy Easton Lodge, with one-and-a-half acres of its original 35-acre garden. In fact, he bought one-and-a-half acres of concrete rubble, for the present Easton Lodge is just part of the west wing, which was saved when the rest of the house was demolished. The rubble came from the dairy, stables and coach houses that once stood on the site.

Why did he buy it? "I like to do a deal," he said, shooting me a glance from piercing blue eyes. He is trying to pretend it was a business proposition, but what he was buying was romance. Slowly, he got dug into the place. Now he is obsessed with it.

Gradually, he is picking up the pieces of Easton Lodge that were scattered after Daisy's death. She had by then undergone a most radical change of character. She became a socialist, standing against Anthony Eden in the Warwick and Leamington by-election. She was also an early champion of animal rights. Twenty dogs and at least as many cats roamed the garden in her last years, though the pet elephant that she kept at Easton Lodge in the Edwardian era had long since packed its trunk.

When Creasey first took on Easton Lodge, he knew nothing about the elephant. Or Daisy. Or Peto. Gradually, he built up a dossier of material: old Country Life photographs (their gardens correspondent, H Avray Tipping, wrote glowingly about the garden in 1907), estate maps, newspaper cuttings, books by and about the Countess.

After the sale of his business five years ago, Creasey persuaded Daisy's granddaughter to sell him another four-and-a-half acres of garden. This brought into his grasp what had been an area of volcanic ant hills, but is now a fine lawn, a very pretty brick-and-dressed-stone casita in a state of total ruin, raised stone flowerbeds (or, at least, the footings of them) laid out by Peto on what used to be a grand lawn in front of the house, and half a yew walk, which over a period of three years has been gradually brought under control.

The casita is now most beautifully restored, and faces the house along a wide grass walk and rose borders. Creasey has added a long, plain sheet of water in front. Is Peto passing on messages to him in the night, I wondered? Or is it that underneath the iron exterior of this man of deals and truck rentals, a garden designer has always been struggling to get out?

Having the place "done" is evidently not the point, or Creasey would long ago have got somebody in to do it for him. He gets a "buzz", he says, from unpicking the ruined puzzle. He likes bricklaying and bushwhacking and smoothing wilderness back into lawns with his little tractor. But he also likes the intellectual side of gardening. He follows up as rigorously as a bloodhound any clue that is likely to shed light on the place. He knows the garden so well from old photographs that he can instantly identify any remains he comes across. As he walks across the lawn, he still sees the long-gone pergola billowing with the Vitis coignetiae, the rambling roses and the wisteria of the old Country Life photographs.

At the yew walk, he is on the edge of Peto's sunken Italian garden, which did not come in the last parcel of land he bought. But he's started to clear it (with the permission of the owner), and the Japanese dell, dug out to Peto's designs by 67 labourers from the Salvation Army's Home for Inebriates. Only one complete set of steps remains in the Italian garden, and, with dressed Ham stone selling for pounds 160 a cubic foot, a complete restoration would seem to be out of the question.

But obsessives have different ways of adding up sums. My bet is, he'll do it one day.

But, you may ask, what about Charlie Wearn? He hasn't played much part in this story so far, but he fits in between Brian Creasey and Maynard Greville, who knocked down the greater part of the house at Easton Lodge.

Wearn personifies the ebb and flow of a garden's destiny. Like Peto himself, he was a jackdaw collector of architectural bits and bobs. He bought the place as a ruin ten years before Creasey came on the scene, and started to fit out the house with booty from his salvage business: a marble staircase from the Turf Club is one London souvenir. But business flowed in two directions, and some of the artefacts that Peto in his turn had collected for the garden in his bounty-hunting abroad disappeared to new locations. Wearn then tired of Easton Lodge, sold it to Creasey on a handshake, and in so doing ensured a new future for a garden with a golden past

The garden is open every Sat and Sun and Bank Holiday Mondays from 2- 6pm. Admission pounds 2. A grand ball will be held at Easton Lodge on Saturday, 22 June, to raise funds for further restoration (details 01371-876979)