The Ashridge Estate, near Berkhamsted, is well-known for its five thousand acres of common, ancient woodland and chalk downland, owned by the National Trust and available to the public for wonderful walks all year round. Less well-known, perhaps, is that Ashridge House, adjacent to the NT land and home to an internationally renowned Business School, throws its doors open for tours of both house and garden at certain times throughout the season. As the summer opening gets under way, Jill Glenn meets Mick Thompson, Gardens Manager and Archivist.
Mick, 57, a Geordie by birth and upbringing, still has his Newcastle accent, though he’s lived ‘south of the Tyne’ (his words) since 1977. He’s been at Ashridge House – considered one of the most beautiful and historically significant parks and gardens in England – for 20 years, clearly loves the place about which his knowledge is prodigious, and expects to stay until he retires. “There’s so much still to do,” he says, although the list of things that he and his staff (a team of nine and a half people, including Mick himself) have already accomplished is pretty impressive. They have, for example, spent twelve years restoring the Italian Garden pictured above, and the project is ongoing, with the box hedges currently being replaced.
Renovation work, of course, has to take place alongside routine tasks familiar to the domestic gardener, but magnified here on a huge scale. Each year, it takes the team a fortnight to plant out 36,000 bedding plants, all grown on site from seed or plugs. And don’t mention the weeding...
In total, they have some 190 varied acres to manage. The grounds are composed of a number of smaller garden areas – one might almost call them garden rooms, as is the modern vogue – as well as a large lawn that leads down to beautiful avenues of trees, including “some of the earliest sequoias planted in this country.” This is apparently a classic claim, often made by gardening historians from all areas, although in this case it may well be true. The sequoias were not planted until 1858, having been introduced to this country in 1853, but the masterplan for the garden was originally drawn up by Humphry Repton in the early 19th century, just as the present mansion was being constructed.
Although the current house – built from soft white Totternhoe stone quarried a mere 15 miles away – is only around 200 years old, the site has been inhabited for over 700 years. Originally a monastic foundation (the College of Bonhommes), after the Dissolution the buildings became a royal dwelling, home to the children of Henry VIII. It was here that Elizabeth I lived for some years as a girl, and here that she was arrested on the orders of her half-sister Queen Mary and taken to the Tower. She never returned, but Ashridge remained a Royal Household until her death, when it was bought by her Lord Chancellor, Thomas Egerton, whose son became the 1st Earl of Bridgewater.
His descendants, the Earls and Dukes of Bridgewater, owned the Ashridge estate for nearly 250 years, before it passed, via an entailed will, to the Brownlow family.
The Bridgewaters included the ‘Canal Duke’, Francis, whose pioneering vision for an inland navigation system laid the foundations for the waterways infrastructure. It was after his death – and with his money – that the ‘new house’ was built by architect James Wyatt for Francis’s cousin and heir, the 7th Earl. From the outset the intention was to impress, and it still does so today. Its elaborate Gothic revival style is evident to great effect in the Main Hall, with its intricate stone carvings and effigies of significant figures from its monastic past, and its central atrium, complete with minstrels gallery, rising to a hammerbeam roof.
Touring Ashridge House is an interesting and engaging experience, not least because it’s not set up as a conventional ‘stately home’. This is very much a working building, as it has been since the death of the 3rd Earl Brownlow in 1921 when the parkland was sold to the National Trust, the contents largely disposed of in a series of sales, and the house bought as a gift for the Conservative Party. It was used as a training centre for party workers, was commandeered in World War II as a branch of Charing Cross Hospital and even became a finishing school for young ladies, called ‘The House of Citizenship’. Its political affiliation relinquished, it became a management college in 1959 and is now known as Ashridge Business School.
While some rooms are not always available, because meetings or courses are taking place behind the imposing doors, the visitor can still get a great sense of the place and the lifestyle enjoyed by its inhabitants in years gone by. The Lady Marian Alford Room, with its wonderful over-the-top rococo plasterwork, is named for the mother of the 2nd Earl Brownlow who inherited in 1851 as a child of 11. “She ruled the roost,” says Mick. Lady Alford, who had the gardens extended and the principal rooms of the house repurposed, sounds a formidable woman.
Nearby is the Old Library. “Marian left this largely alone, so it’s close to how it would have looked originally. It’s Wyatt’s style that you’re seeing here.”
The Library has Macassar ebony bookcases inlaid with brass, a rather handsome fireplace, and a view out onto the loggia where there is a particularly glorious and surprising powder blue fan-vaulted ceiling.
As well as the perhaps half a dozen or so rooms, all pleasing in their different ways, the visitor also has the chance to see the chapel. This is both elegant and dramatic, and the light through the windows, simply diamonded in shades of green, casts a wonderful atmosphere. These windows replaced the 16th century stained glass auctioned off in the 1920s and now on display in the V&A… but while it’s a shame not to have the originals in situ, the chapel is intensely lovely – and well-thought of – as it stands. In fact, eminent architectural critic and historian Nikolaus Pevsner observed that the antechapel at Ashridge is ‘the best example of Wyatt's truly romantic handling of the Gothic style’.
From the chapel it’s but a short step to the garden, and the vista that we’ve glimpsed from different windows now opens up before us.
Repton, the first man to call himself a ‘landscape gardener’, was reportedly pleased with what he had achieved in this, his last great commission, and well he should have been. His designs for Ashridge, presented in one of his famous ‘Red Books’ (so named after its red Morocco leather binding) in which he included drawings, text and his own watercolours to help clients imagine the glories that awaited them, show 15 different garden areas, including a rosary, a flower garden, a grotto and a Monks’ garden as a link to the site’s monastic past. It’s fanciful to imagine that the former members of the College of Bonhommes would feel at home here, and, in fact, the layout has changed from that originally conceived by Repton, but the Monks’ Garden has a noticeably different atmosphere to the rest of the Ashridge gardens. Its enclosed nature makes it feel peaceful and secluded: a little formal green oasis.
The ‘Red Books’ are works of art in their own right; the one for Ashridge has been in the United States since 1973… but the evidence of Repton’s all-encompassing vision remains. It is, apparently, the finest surviving example of his work, although – I’m unsurprised to learn – the hand of Marian Alford was at work here too. In the 1850s she had the Italian garden created, and added features such as a fernery, a rhododendron walk, an arboretum and a skating pond. All still remain, although the pond is no longer used for its original purpose and is now a mown maze in a labyrinth pattern with wild surroundings.
August visitors will see flourishing herbaceous borders (“around 26 or 27 of them,” says Mick, shaking his head in despair… “such a lot of maintenance.”), the summer bedding at its peak, and the second flush of blooms in the rosary, which is hidden behind a yew hedge. Step inside, and you are confronted by a circular design, split into eight segments with a central fountain.
Ashridge is sometimes called Repton’s ‘Garden of Gardens’, registered as Grade II* by English Heritage. It’s a tribute to Mick’s care of it that it is one of only six historic gardens in the country used by the Professional Gardeners' Guild for the training of its students (the others include Osborne House, Waddesdon and Chatsworth). Each year Ashridge has a welcome new trainee from the Guild. A second young gardener is supported with a grant from the Finnis Scott Foundation, one of the UK's leading grant-giving charitable trusts supporting horticulture and plant sciences. “It’s so important to have young people coming in to the profession,” says Mick. “They are the future caretakers of our garden heritage…”