Uncovering county’s secret garden

THE beautifully restored Wrest Park gardens in Silsoe, which have been forlorn and forgotten for years, will be unveiled to the public tomorrow.

By The Newsroom
Wednesday, 3rd August 2011, 5:12 pm

The 90-acre historic landscape and French-style mansion has undergone an astonishing transformation in the first phase of an ambitious 20 year restoration project.

English Heritage, who took over the estate in 2006, was granted a £1.14m Heritage Lottery Fund grant for the project and intend to restore the park to its former glory of the 1900s when it was still owned by the de Grey family.

Senior Properties Historian for English Heritage, Andrew Hann, said: “The de Grey family owned Wrest Park for 700 years, until Lord Lucas, who was a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps, was shot down over the trenches in 1916 and died. Since then the house has passed through various owners and the gardens were managed on a much smaller budget, with just two or three gardeners rather than 30, which led to their decline.

“This project aims to restore the gardens to how they were in the early 1900s when they were at their best.”

The gardens were first established in the 1650s and over the years the de Grey family commissioned many famous designers to work on the landscape.

Led by Mr Hann, extensive research over the past three years using photographs, diaries, letters, bills and receipts revealed which plants were grown in the gardens, how they were cared for and what the layout was.

Mr Hann, who co-wrote the Wrest Park guidebook, said that the gardens even featured in Countrylife magazine articles in 1904, which proved very useful in piecing together how they used to look.

The restoration certainly has the approval of one gentleman, a former Wrest Park resident who was born in the gardener’s cottage in 1924.

George Woolley, 86, spent his childhood at Wrest Park where his father was the head gardener in the 1920s and 1930s.

He said: “Truthfully, it was idyllic. As soon as I was old enough to walk and not do too much damage I could walk around the gardens and see all the men working. I am not a gardener myself but it is lovely to see it today. They have made a maravellous transformation. The gardens look even better than they did when we were here, but they never had the equipment then that we have now. They can go around a lot quicker with the mowers these days.”

The main parts of the garden that have been restored in this first phase of the project are the Rose Garden and the Italian Garden.

Mr Woolley said: “The Italian gardens look just as my father would have wanted them to. It’s wonderful.”

Mr Woolley, who still lives in Bedfordshire, will return to Wrest Park on Tuesday with his wife for the official opening.

He said: “I think it’s quite a gem, I don’t suppose there’s anywhere that quite compares in the county. We will visit as much as we can.”

The house has a fascinating history; after Lord Lucas passed away it was sold to John Murray, an industrialist from the North, but he experienced finanical difficulties during the 1930s Great Depression and the gardens were not maintained to their original standards.

Wrest Park was then sold to an insurance company in 1939, who also could not afford the upkeep of the grounds, and in 1946 the Silsoe Institute took over.

The house was used as a hospital for injured soldiers during World War 2 and even received a royal visit in 1948 from King George VI.

The estate was central to many people in the surrounding area over the years and part of English Heritage’s continuing project is the search for decendants of gardeners, staff and even soldiers who stayed in the hospital at Wrest Park.

The historians are keen to trace anyone that may have links to Wrest Park, and to hear any stories or memories that might have been passed down the generations.

One of the people working at Wrest Park in the present day is Christine Edwards, a garden volunteer who has been involved in the work since 2009.

Ms Edwards, 66, from Luton, said: “As volunteers we do whatever jobs are required to keep the gardens tidy and help with the revival. I’ve always been a gardener and it’s very enjoyable coming out here and being involved in the revival right from the beginning as now we can see the fruits of our labour. Today has been really good, it’s nice to see the public’s reactions which have been great. There is plenty still to do though.

“It has been a really enjoyable experience creating something that has never really been known about in Bedfordshire, so it’s nice to let everybody enjoy it.”

As well as the stunning gardens, visitors to Wrest Park can enjoy themed play areas for the children, a new visitors’ centre, family activity packs, a new cafe, exhibition and plant sales centre.

Wrest Park will be open to visitors from tomorrow, from 10am-6pm.

For more information visit www.english-heritage.org.uk/wrestpark.

by Connie Primmer

Twitter: @LutonNewsConnie