On Tuesday 21st May we were joined by Martin Towsey, Estates Gardens Manager at Woburn Abbey. Martin, who has worked at Woburn for the last nine years, gave us an overview of what comprises the Bedford Estates; he included details of the numerous restoration projects at Woburn and a description of his wide role …
Woburn Abbey, as we know, is the home of the Duke and Duchess of Bedford and the Duchess is Martin’s very “hands-on” line manager. The estate in Bedfordshire comprises 1,800 hectares of parkland and 1,800 hectares of woodland. There are currently 350 cottages for private rental (there used to be 600 cottages for estate workers). As well as the Abbey, there is the Safari Park, the Golf Course and the Inn at Woburn. The London estate, in Bloomsbury, originally housed the family stately home with adjacent hunting land – it is now the area famous for Bedford, Russell, Woburn and Tavistock Squares.
Martin’s main role is to advise the Duke and Duchess on all matters horticultural. Originally working in the Parks and Gardens Department at Nottingham and later lecturing at Nottingham Trent University, Martin has management responsibility for 13 gardeners overall, 2 of whom work in the London Squares where the horticultural challenges are very different from those faced on the rural Bedfordshire estate, Golf Course and Safari Park. In the case of the latter, the main preoccupation is deterring squirrel monkeys, rhinos and other animals from eating the plants in the 300 acre park, whilst in the London squares, deterring drug dealers and alcoholics presents a major challenge.
Woburn Abbey has a rich legacy in terms of horticultural merit. Repton designed the original garden and his “Red Book” provides information for the ongoing restoration projects at the Abbey. Hooker was a former Head Gardener who went on to plan the now world famous gardens around Kew Palace; Darwin was instrumental in the planting of the grass garden at Woburn; Paxton was born at nearby Milton Bryan and was formerly a boy gardener at Woburn before becoming Head Gardener at Chatsworth and the famous botanist Banks’ funding for his place on Captain Cook’s ship that sailed to Australia was secured by a former Duke of Bedford. Martin showed views of a number of restoration projects including the Chinese Dairy where original Chinese plants have been reintroduced, the grass garden, the maze, the parterre, the pavilion on top of the rockery, the cone house and the Humphrey Repton aviary.
However, the team at Woburn do not work solely on restoring features from the past; they develop new features as well. One major new project highlighted by Martin was the Stream Bed.
This was originally a boggy area that has now been transformed by importing different sizes of gravel, three ton boulders from the estate in Scotland and featuring a trellised bridge as the focal point. Lobster pots protect the carnivorous plants from birds that swoop down to collect insects which are trapped within them. The team also introduce one new herbaceous border each year and benchmark their work against other gardens of national importance, for example the Royal Parks, Waddesdon, Coton Manor Gardens and Highgrove. On visits to these gardens they are joined by the Duchess.
Woburn Abbey is an RHS Partner Garden and there is free entry for RHS members, plus discounts on the various classes and activities which are on offer throughout the year. Members of the Gardeners Association are looking forward to meeting Martin again on Tuesday 4th June when he will be providing a guided tour of the gardens during the morning – details of this visit can be found on our website.
Please do join us at our next meeting on Tuesday June 18th when Dr Twigs Way, professional garden historian and broadcaster will be talking to us about Gertrude Jekyll – the subject of her latest book.