In recent weeks the volunteers have been deployed at Ashridge College to work on the hallowed turf as landscape gardeners – a delightful change of scene. The manicured gardens designed in the Picturesque style need a helping hand to prepare for the upcoming guided tours at the end of July. Summer maintenance involves weeding, watering and window dressing like the dead-heading of faded blooms – tedious work but inspiring in such a setting.
The present garden setting dates back some two hundred years to the time of the building of the new mansion in 1813. Designed by Humphry Repton a follower of Capability Brown, there were originally fifteen separate layouts in the ninety acres – a winter garden, monk’s garden, rosary and an American garden. Repton died in 1818 and much of his design was implemented by Wyatville his successor at Ashridge – his 200th anniversary is being celebrated with a new publication along with lectures at the College.
Some of the garden features like the original monk’s garden, were swept away over the years to make way for more fashionable styles, but the setting remains as the best representation of a Repton masterpiece in Hertfordshire – avoiding the Victorian’s desecration of earlier period styles. The monk’s garden now depicts in flora the coat of arms of the family through the ages, and the rose garden is planted up with old fashioned roses in the family colours.
Every age develops its special fashions in garden planning and ornamentation, which reflect the social tastes of the times and ambitions of the owners. The 7th Earl of Bridgewater (1803-1823), who had a soldierly passion for tidiness, maintained a huge force of men to care for his gardens, and the 3rd Earl Brownlow (1867-1921) employed thirty six gardeners before the 1st World War. Today with the aid of modern machinery and some volunteering help, the College manages with numbers in single figures. The huge tubs of plants brought from the conservatory onto the terraces for the summer season stood like sentries watching the family entertaining their guests or just having tea or playing croquet. These lent an air of dignity, matching the formality of an age in which to hurry over anything seemed to be rather bad form. Today we have managed to adapt to the faster, more brittle pattern of living so it is reassuring that gardens such as this can offer an ambience of spiritual refreshment with their sense of order and sequence. The gardens are certainly less formal than in Victorian or Edwardian times – the stone statues and classical vases acquired during the 19th century were sold off to pay for the death duties of 1921, but they are now due to be replaced as part of a restoration plan requiring funding to the tune of £750,000. There is much work on the horizon and volunteer involvement is a distinct possibility.