After decades behind virtually closed doors, Wrest Park has now become English Heritage’s latest star garden attraction.
Jack Watkins explores…
Bedfordshire, according to my dilapidated copy of The Rough Guide to England, is ‘not a county you’d cross England to visit’. That’s a fair enough comment if you are a seeker of the sublime, but it’s also typical of the shortcomings of this otherwise estimable series of guidebooks – the tendency to write off the locally valid and historic. It’s not my favourite county, that’s true, but Bedfordshire does have its charms, and it’s certainly worth making the trek out to see Wrest Park, on the outskirts of the attractive village of Silsoe.
From the terrace of the house you look across ninety acres of gardens which encapsulate the changing fashions in landscape design over three hundred years. Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, Batty Langley, Thomas Archer and Sir William Chambers are among the big names from the past who had a hand in shaping the view. It makes for an enticing spectacle, and it prompts a closer survey which reveals hidden follies and secret pathways, plus Chinese temples and bridges, pavilions, neo-classical statuary, and graceful backdrops of evergreen and deciduous trees.
Turn round to face the mansion and you’re looking at something more like an 18th century French chateau than an English country pile. In fact, the building itself is relatively recent, dating from the 1830s, but Wrest Park estate was in the hands of the de Grey family for over six hundred years.
The de Greys had made Wrest their home from at least as early as the twelfth century, but their family fortunes really peaked under that most charismatic, but often overlooked, monarch Edward IV, who appointed Edmund Grey as Lord Treasurer, and in 1463 made him the Earl of Kent. A century later, the 6th Earl, Henry Grey, presided over the trial and execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. The 12th Earl, another Henry, also rose high in the service of the crown. However, although he was Lord Chamberlain under Queen Anne, in 1710 he traded in his office for the title of Duke of Kent – and set about conferring on the Wrest Park estate the real stamp of grandeur.
For the landed classes of the 17th and 18th centuries, gardens were an expression of status and learning. A Grand Tour of the continent would invariably feature excursions to some of the great Renaissance gardens of Italy – notably the architecturally-structured Boboli Gardens of the Medici family in Florence, and the terraced gardens of the Villa d’Este outside Rome – and travellers came home informed by Italian design concepts, such as geometrical layouts, clipped lawns and hedges, and statuary which made direct references to classical antiquity.
Yet at Wrest, you can also see that inspiration was sourced from other countries, including France and Holland. The Long Water, the huge, canal-like feature down the centre of the park echoes Andre Le Notre’s creations for Louis XIV at Versailles, the Tuileries, and Sceaux, although it is thought to have been possibly modelled on canals designed for Charles II at Hampton Court and St James’s Park.
Henry, Duke of Kent, brought in Thomas Archer to add what is perhaps the gardens’s most striking built design feature: a curvaceous pavilion, complete with a pedimented portico, dome and cupola. Formally positioned at the end of the Long Water, it is both as a point of focus in the landscape, and as a viewing point for the gardens. Archer was a well-travelled gentleman architect of the top rank. Of English Baroque architects, only Wren in his later years, Hawksmoor and Vanbrugh surpassed him, and his most famous creation is St John’s Smith Square, Westminster. His pavilion at Wrest was used to entertain hunting parties and to serve as a venue for occasional suppers. Its interior retains a lively décor.
In its heyday, on a warm summer day, a visit to Wrest Park must have seemed like a stroll through paradise. A family friend, Catherine Talbot, noted the effects in her diary in June 1745: ‘The Garden appear’d in full beauty; the whispering of the Trees, the warbling of the Birds, the surrounding Verdure, the fragrance of Seringos and Bean Blossoms, the Gay Bloom of Roses and Honeysuckles… the Smooth Canals sometimes bending like Artless rivulets and sometimes appearing Silver Lakes with stately swans sailing up and down in them.’
Batty Langley was employed to add serpentine paths, and Capability Brown came in with his ideas for creating a more natural look by planting clumps of trees to break up the more straight and sober avenues.
Later members of the family, to their credit, respected Wrest’s essential mix of formality and mystery, and further additions and alterations were sympathetic. The Italian gardens, for instance, were laid out as late as the 1830s, by Thomas, 2nd Earl de Grey, who also demolished the old house and replaced it with the present French chateau-style mansion.
Some rooms of the house are open to visitors, although you will notice their essentially unfurnished state. Wrest Park was finally sold by the de Greys in 1917, and by 1946 was in the hands of the Ministry of Works and the National Institute of Agricultural Engineering (later the Silsoe Research Institute), which did much pioneering research into farming techniques and mechanisation. A photograph shows the hallowed turf alongside the Long Water being ploughed up by a tractor for a potato-growing experiment in 1959. When Silsoe closed in 2006, English Heritage stepped in with an ambitious twenty-year Heritage Lottery-funded plan to restore the gardens to their appearance before the de Greys sold up in 1917.
The work is ongoing, but already bearing fruit. The wide gravel walks are back beside the Long Water, clipped laurel hedges running at their edges. The French parterre is being restored, the Italian Gardens replanted, and the shrubs in the Rose Garden bloom in symmetrical arrangements around a Carrara marble fountain. The old Dairy displays sculpture that is now too fragile to be left outside. The de Greys, everlasting gardening enthusiasts – whose mausoleum, one of the largest in the country and also in the hands of English Heritage, can be visited just two miles away at Flitton – are surely gazing down with a benevolent glow.
See www.english-heritage.org.uk/wrest-park for more