Glorious fake opens to public: Oliver Gillie visits the haunting ruin of Nymans, a house built on a family's dreams

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The Independent Online
ANNE, Countess of Rosse, called it her 'potting shed' but now Nymans, the ruined manor at Handcross, West Sussex, can be seen as a vision of Manderley, the house immortalised by Daphne du Maurier in Rebecca. Nymans, built by the Messel family to resemble a West Country manor house, lasted for only 20 years before being destroyed by fire in 1947.

Like Manderley, whose story is told as a flashback after it was devastated by fire, Nymans is a haunting ruin echoing the dreams and achievements of a family. After the fire, the Messels moved near by, but continued to use the ruin so they could be close to their extraordinary garden renowned for its beauty and rare plants.

Later, the remains, which are open to the public for the first time today and tomorrow, were occupied by Maud Messel, who built it, and by her daughter, Lady Rosse, celebrated hostess and mother of Lord Snowdon.

Cathal Moore, a National Trust buildings adviser, said: 'The house was built in the 1920s at the end of the great country house era when the upper classes were looking back in nostalgia . . . Maud Messel collected old oak furniture and tapestries which gave the house an authentic medieval feel.'

The apparent antiquity of Nymans deceived Lord Snowdon until he was well into his teens.

'It was not until I was 16 that I realised the house was a complete fake. Recently, I found a whole pile of negatives showing houses in the West Country which gave my mother her ideas,' he said.

The rooms, which will be opened permanently to the public in two years if a tax deal is reached with the Treasury, contain family photographs along with oak coffers and cupboards from the period of Charles I and II.

Domestic touches include a tray equipped with gin and tonic and a photograph of Snowdon in denim jacket and motorcycle boots inscribed: 'To darling Mum from Tony'.

(Photograph omitted)