Since my last post life has been a whirlwind because a week ago I left my home in Devon for pastures new in Hertfordshire. I started my new job as part of the Professional Gardeners’ Guild Traineeship at Ashridge on Monday; my first week has just flown by!
I don’t know where to begin with Ashridge because it’s a place steeped in history. The house itself is over seven hundred years old, and has been inhabited by monks, churchmen, Earls, Dukes, politicians, royalty, soldiers, millionaires and students – now it’s used as a business school, people from all over the world come to study here.
Firstly Edmund of Cornwall, the nephew of King Henry III, founded a monastery in 1283 and turned it into a monastic site. At the time of the Dissolution the community departed and the building was left to fate where it then became a royal home to the children of Henry VIII. Ownership was passed down to Edward VI then Princess Elizabeth, and from there it became the home of the Earls and Dukes of Bridgewater and their relatives from 1604 to 1921.
During the Second World War it was commandeered as a branch of Charing Cross hospital, with over a thousand patients – the woodland also proved useful and provided deep cover for several army camps and the Home Guard. Finally it became a college that developed into a prestigious, international business school – it is classed as one of the world’s leading schools in tailored executive education.
I’ve had a brief tour of the house and it is incredible – the sheer grandeur of the place is breathtaking, the only thing I can liken it to is a castle or palace! I love the library, it was restored in the 1980s but the room was kept as much as possible to the original design – whenever I go in there it feels like I’ve stepped back in time.
The chapel is another favourite area of mine, it literally is a masterpiece. I don’t follow any religion (the quote “I believe in God but I spell it Nature” sums up my religious beliefs!) but I can still appreciate the sacredness and holy feel it has.
The Gothic wood carvings, silk velvet kneelers and cushions, and stained glass windows dating back to the 16th century make it a truly special place. It’s not surprising that Ashridge is a popular wedding venue, prices start at twenty thousand pounds and go upwards. . . not somewhere to choose if you’re on a budget!
The Ashridge Estate sits on the edge of the Chilterns scarp within a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty – it stretches over five thousand acres and belongs and is maintained by the National Trust. The archaeology of it shows continuous occupation of the estate from pre Roman times, evidence of the early history of the place is apparent everywhere.
I love the ornamental carriage driveways which were developed along the eastern edge of the valley in the early 19th century – long vistas draw the eye straight towards the central point of focus, Ashridge House itself. I spent one evening cycling along the carriage ways, it’s a great way of seeing the estate in a short amount of time.
The gardens of Ashridge is where I will spend the next year working, they were designed by the famous landscape gardener Humphry Repton (1752 – 1818). The Regency period of the early 19th century was a time of transition and change in garden design because a movement was developed away from the great landscape gardens of the 18th century towards the smaller scale, more intimate gardens that epitomised the Victorian period.
The emphasis was based on linking the house to the garden with small shrubberies, flower borders, conservatories, trellises and a return to small formal gardens – Repton became one of the prime movers of the new style of garden design. The gardens are split into different sections, my boss gave me a tour of the whole grounds on my first day which took over two hours – I didn’t realise how vast the gardens were!
The Orangery is a building designed by Sir Jeffry Wyatville in 1817 as an extension to the house, at the front of which are beautiful herbaceous flower borders.
The Italian Garden was actually designed by Lady Marian Alford in 1871 who was undertaking the refurbishment of some of the rooms in the house at the time – it was fashionable during that period to add Italianate gardens to the grounds of many houses.
The one at Ashridge has a main feature of a central raised pond with a water fountain. It is completed with urns on pedestals, surrounding them are box parterres in semi-circle patterns, which are planted with annual bedding and herbaceous perennials.
The Main Lawn is a substantial area of lawn which is a striking feature, when I first saw it I thought walking on it wasn’t allowed because it was so perfectly mowed and manicured! The garden divides roughly into two, with the main lawn and associated shrubberies forming the eastern side and the numerous small gardens forming the western side.
A line of ancient yew trees dating from the 17th century runs between the lawn and Italian Garden. Also on the lawn is a majestic oak tree which was planted by Queen Victoria (then Princess) to commemorate her visit to Ashridge in 1823.
The Terrace is immediately south of the house, and was created in the late 19th century – the main lawn had previous run up to the steps of the house. The planting is made up of clipped yews, below which is a parterre of clipped box – the beds between the box are planted with annual bedding to provide seasonal colour.
The Monks’ Garden was an attempt by Humphry Repton to link the monastic past of the site with his plans for the garden. He proposed an enclosed garden with two rows of narrow flower beds, each with a false headstone to represent the graves of the monks of earlier times.
It was redeveloped in the mid-19th century into the armorial garden that is present today. Under the direction of Lady Marian Alford the coats of arms of the four families that had been associated with Ashridge (Egerton, Brownlow, Compton and Cust) were planted in box and yew.
The Rosary is laid out as eight rose beds in the form of the petals of a flower with a central fountain, surrounded by a yew hedge. There were still roses out when I looked last week, stunning pink, red, and yellow varieties. Give me roses over diamonds any day!
The Lazell Garden is an enclosed garden found near the Monks’ Garden, created in 1972 by Malcolm Lingard within what used to be the gardeners’ frame yard. It’s planted with a range of winter and spring-flowering heathers; the rock garden side of it was constructed of Westmorland limestone and is planted with a combination of alpines and Japanese maple trees.
The Fernery is a lean-to glasshouse which was designed by Sir Matthew Digby Wyatt in 1864 for the growing of ferns, which were very popular in the Victorian era. Immediately in front of it is what’s called The Fernery Garden, which is planted twice yearly with spring and summer bedding.
The Dry Garden is situated at the rear of the Monks’ Barn, a mixture of drought-tolerant plants such as eucalyptus, euphorbias and different varieties of grasses were used to create this garden.
The Liquidambar Walk is near the Fernery, this distinctive avenue of trees was planted in 1937 to commemorate the coronation of King George VI. These trees are renowned for their autumn colour, I can’t wait to see them in a month or so’s time!
The Souterrein and Grotto exist as features, the souterrein is a tunnel consisting of iron armatures hung with flints – Humphry Repton planned that the tunnel would link the grotto with the Countess of Bridgewater’s Flower Garden.
The Grotto is constructed in the form of an amphitheatre of Hertfordshire pudding stone – to one side is a flint-domed tomb in which one of Earl Brownlow’s horses, Duke, who died in 1857, was buried.
The Mount is above the souterrein and is believed to be composed of rubble from the old house that had been demolished before the construction of Wyatt’s house.
The Flower Garden recreates the style of planting of the early 19th century. Within it is a border stone representing the old county boundary between Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire. It is overlooked by a copy of a statue of Bacchus (the Roman god of wine) that was added in 2008 – the original statue was removed in 1928.
The Moat and Skating Pond are both distinctive features in the gardens, the pond was built during the 1870s, the base originally being concrete. The moat adjoining the pond originally held water, the inflows to the pond from the Italian garden and the moat can still be seen today.
The Herb Garden is a formal garden with topiary yew, flanked by two beech houses. It was created in the late 19th century as a herb and lavender garden, and was redesigned in 2003. The layout of the beds is based on the design for the rose garden, with twelve petal shaped beds and an armillary sphere as the focal point.
The Arboretum was planted during the second half of the 19th century and contains many specimen trees including sweet chestnuts, Cedars of Lebanon and purple beech along with avenues of horse chestnut, beech, holm oak and Lawsons’s cypress.
The avenue of Wellingtonias (Sequoidendron giganteum) was planted in 1858 on the axis with the house – a mound which is believed to date from Tudor times is the avenue’s focal point.
The Bible Circle is a circle of incense cedars (Calocedrus decurrens) planted around a memorial to Gertrude, Countess of Pembroke, who was the eldest sister of the wife of the 3rd Earl Brownlow.
Repton’s Arbour was constructed in 1998, consisting of yew from the garden and larch from the estate. The arbour is representative of the rustic nature of garden buildings which were popular in the early 19th century.
There is so much to take in about Ashridge, I begin my second week tomorrow but I already feel like I’ve learnt loads. What makes this experience even better is the fact I have a flat on site, next to the arboretum. I have the grounds of Ashridge as my back garden, how awesome is that?!
The garden team is very small, with only nine people. I’ve gone from working at Eden with a horticultural team of over thirty people, which was a botanical garden open to the public all year round, to Ashridge with a team in single figures and the only people we have wandering round the garden are business school students and clients!
The two places couldn’t be more different but that’s what I love about it – the contrast is so great that I’m learning all over again, which is the whole point of this traineeship. I’m really looking forward to what the next few months have in store, and to see the gardens and estate come alive with autumn colours.
This is one of many posts to come about Ashridge, I will have more to update you with soon – until then I hope you enjoy the photos! 🙂
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