We were pleased to welcome Corinne Price, Manager of The Swiss Garden, to our April 19th meeting. The garden has undergone a recent major restoration – the third in the history of this fascinating local garden. Corinne started her talk by outlining the history of the house and garden.
We learnt that the estate was originally
owned by the Ongley family and that Sir Samuel Ongley, the first Baron, was a Director of the East India Company. However, it was Robert Henley Ongley, the third Baron who landscaped the gardens, remodelled the village of Old Warden and refitted the Church of St Leonards in the 1820s and early 1830s. When the Ongley line died out in the 1870s the estate was bought by the Shuttleworth family who demolished the original house and built the mansion that we see today.
The garden consists of 9 acres of undulating landscape with ponds and lakes and serpentine paths. There are now 13 listed buildings including the grotto and fernery and the Swiss Cottage. There is no actual evidence that Robert Henley Ongley visited Switzerland, but it was a popular destination following the end of the Napoleonic Wars so he may well have done. However, the garden with its gentle rolling landscape, evergreen trees and lakes does provide a miniature version of Switzerland. It follows a fashion for the rustic and is influenced by the Picturesque style. The influence of John Nash, Humphrey Repton and George Papworth can be seen in it’s construction, planting and buildings. Ongley had the wealth to manipulate the natural landscape, plant woodland as backdrops, build rustic stylised buildings, give attention to detail in terms of creating views; he was also, apparently, a kind landlord and employer.
The Regency garden created by the Ongleys was then embellished by the Shuttleworths who kept almost all the original features. The underpass linking the house and garden was transformed with pulhamite, a manufactured rock which was very popular at this time. This was also used for the grotto and fernery which transformed the original Ongley conservatory. It was used for the pond cascade which replaced the stepping stones and the Shuttleworths opened up views which showcased the features in the Ongley’s original garden. In 1940 Richard Shuttleworth died and his mother, Dorothea, founded the Shuttleworth Trust as a permanent memorial to him. Following Lady Dorothea’s death in 1968 the garden fell into years of neglect when many artefacts were damaged. Lady Whitbread, from the nearby Southill estate, founded the Friends of Swiss Garden in the 1970s, she also contacted Bedfordshire County Council who took out a lease on the garden, started to restore it and opened it up to the public.
A Heritage Lottery grant of £2.8 Million, match funded to £3.6 Million has enabled a recent major renovation project – the garden was re-opened to the public in July 2014. The landscape and buildings have been further restored, the garden is now more accessible and views have been enhanced through tree felling of those which were diseased. There is an emphasis on conservation, education, partnership with other organisations and the community and generally raising the profile of the garden through a programme of events and activities. Plans are afoot to link the house and garden to tell the story of the whole estate. This is a very exciting project and we are very fortunate that this historic garden is on our doorstep and accessible to all of us. This was a fascinating glimpse into the world of the Ongleys and the Shuttleworths and whetted our appetites to revisit the garden.
photo’s taken Sunday 24th April 2016, NGS Open Day:
On Tuesday 17th May Ursula Buchan will be joining us to talk about the History of English Gardens. Please do join us as a new member or a guest – you will be very welcome.