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'Secret' Garden reveals its hidden charms
After decades behind virtually closed doors, its treasures overgrown and largely unknown, English Heritage is reviving one of Britain's most important, yet most secret, gardens - Wrest Park in Bedfordshire.
With the first phase of a 20-year restoration project now completed - helped by a £1.14m Heritage Lottery Fund grant - this wonderful 90-acre historic landscape and French-style mansion is ready to take its rightful place among the country's great garden attractions and give both locals and tourists a superb new day-out.
From Thursday 4 August, visitors will see the first fruits of this restoration, when the Italian Garden and Rose Garden as well as miles of historic pathways and vistas will be unveiled, completely conserved and reinstated.
Within the French-inspired mansion, the conservatory and Countess's Sitting Room will be restored and open to the public while a new exhibition will tell the story of the estate, its evolution and its personalities. New facilities including a visitor centre, café and play area will ensure that visitors can - in between exploring the house and landscape - relax in comfort.
"Wrest Park tells the story of England's love affair with landscape," says Simon Thurley, chief executive of English Heritage. "It is a unique place capturing three hundred years of gardening history. So now with the successful completion of this first phase of restoration, Wrest Park can rightfully reclaim its place as one of the great gardens of England."
The Story of Wrest Park
Wrest Park belonged to the de Grey family from the Middle Ages until the early 20th century and the family commissioned many of the 18th century's most famous designers to work on the landscape. But whereas in other gardens the previous designs were lost in the pursuit of new gardening vogues, each generation at Wrest Park respected the work of their predecessors. As a result, visitors today can walk through 250 years of English garden history.
This phase of the revival project sees important areas of the magnificent landscape brought back to their early 20th century appearance before the de Grey family sold Wrest Park in 1917. The gardens declined from this time and by the latter half of the 20th century, Wrest Park housed an agricultural research institute and by the 1990s, only four gardeners maintained the grounds. This compares with a garden staff of around 50 in its pre-World War I heyday.
English Heritage gained full ownership of the estate in 2006, and in 2008 announced a 20-year master plan to restore Wrest Park as one of the pre-eminent gardens in England. In 2010 the Wrest Park revival project was awarded a major grant of £1.14m from the Heritage Lottery Fund. As part of the project, an historic gardens apprenticeship scheme is giving eight novice gardeners the opportunity to be involved in the restoration while gaining valuable skills and qualifications.
Wrest Park revived
Highlights of the restoration now completed include:
- The Rose Garden - previously covered over by lawn, photographic evidence from 1904 and archaeological surveys revealed its early 20th century design. New beds have been planted with 525 traditional-style roses, donated by David Austin Roses, to create the colourful effect of a late Victorian rose garden
- The Italian Garden - the small formal garden has been transformed to its layout in 1882. New edging has replaced broken stonework around the beds and seasonal bedding - including tulips, wallflowers, hyacinths, dahlias and pelargoniums - has replaced the former planting of low maintenance year-round foliage
- An avenue of 26 disease resistant elms have been planted to replace the lost English elms which once framed the French parterre
Other work now completed includes the revealing of overgrown vistas and the reinstatement of three miles of paths to link the upper garden area near the house with the woodland and waterways beyond, a hallmark of Wrest Park's landscape.
They include pathways, grassed over during World War II, on each side of the Long Water. Created in the 17th century, it leads to Thomas Archer's early 18th century Baroque Pavilion and is Wrest Park's most iconic - and most romantic - vista. This vital element of the restoration project means that the gardens will once again make sense as a whole, rather than being a group of individual spaces with no obvious connection.
The Pavilion is one of several buildings dotting the landscape. Others include a 19th century Orangery, late 18th century Bath House and early 18th century Bowling Green House.
Some of the buildings house new displays and the expansive Walled Garden boasts a children's play area and a new visitor centre, complete with introductory exhibition, shop and 74-seater café. Inside the mansion, inspired by 18th century buildings in Paris and amongst the earliest French-style houses in England, a new exhibition will tell the story of Wrest Park. Selected rooms can be viewed, including the restored Countess's Sitting Room, shown to reflect how it would have looked in the mid-19th century. Visitors can now enjoy the view through to the conservatory and the Italian Garden and Walled Garden beyond, just as Henrietta, Countess de Grey did when the house was newly built in the 1830s.
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