The Thursday volunteers have been lending a helping hand in the gardens at Ashridge House, assisting with the maintenance of the pleasure grounds, for Ashridge Hult the new occupiers. This is a nice break but a far cry from working in the wild on the Ashridge Estate, where nature has no straight lines.
The Ashridge (Bonar Law Memorial) Trust has a duty of care to preserve Ashridge House and Gardens for the benefit of the nation. Over the past fifteen years the Italian Garden, Rose Garden, Herb Garden and Flower Garden have all been restored and, at the same time modern gardens have also been created to complement new developments. The grade II listed gardens are manicured to the highest standard and are open to the public on a regular basis throughout the summer. This work is normally undertaken by a handful of qualified gardeners, with some regular volunteers and apprentices. The restoration of the grotto is expected to be completed in the next few years.
Every age develops its fashions in garden planning and ornamentation, which reflects the social taste of the times and the ambitions of the owners.
In the late 17th Century, the wealthy began to build galleries in their country houses along which the ladies could promenade – the outdoors being considered altogether too wild and intimidating for polite society – it would have been bad form to wander in the woods at Ashridge. In time, these galleries were transplanted outdoors, and the aspect of formal gardens in the early 18th Century bore the impress of their domestic origins – yew and box hedges took the place of walls, framing vignettes of the surrounding flowerbeds that mimicked the paintings hung indoors. The long walk out of captivity had begun − although to begin with, it was simply the cell itself that was expanded, as the formal garden morphed into the landscaped garden, which in turn was a sort of scale-model of the countryside beyond, with added features and follies.
The Canal Duke was unmarried and shunned polite society having few visitors to Ashridge so had no need of a formal back garden, but with the employment of Capability Brown in 1750 he had a makeover to the front aspect, landscaped in the Picturesque style – the contours of Golden Valley are all that remain.
The formal rear gardens to the south of the Mansion extending to some ninety acres are a continuing memorial to the work and ideas of many. But pride of place ought to be given to the first designer of the pleasure gardens Humphry Repton, intended to complement the newly completed home of John William the 7th Earl of Bridgewater from 1814. The new owner who had a soldierly passion for tidiness maintained a huge force of men to care for the new gardens, to the extent of sweeping up and burning fallen leaves. When the 3rd Earl Brownlow arrived in 1867 he took on thirty six gardeners until the first world war interrupted the employment, which was never to be repeated.
The gardens were a venue for the elaborate visit of the Shah of Persia in July 1889 when top hats, morning suits and spats were the order of the day for the gentlemen, and the ladies promenading with their parasols all looking decidedly uncomfortable by today’s standards.
There were huge tubs of summer plants brought from the conservatory onto the terrace standing like sentries watching over the guests. These lent to the scene an air of dignity, matching the formality of an age in which to hurry over anything seemed to be bad form. If today we have managed to adapt to the faster, more casual pattern of living , it is reassuring that gardens such as Ashridge can still offer an ambience for mindful refreshment amid natural beauty, and a sense of order and sequence without which our perspectives might so easily become lost.