Wrest Park, an estate of 1,666 acres, sits in a bowl with the Greensand Ridge rising up around it. It is a wet site which enabled canal and encircling waters and ponds to be created. There was a dwelling on the site dating from the 1270s, however the family reached its greatest prominence when Edward IV made Edmund Grey his Lord Treasurer in 1463 and then first Earl of Kent in 1465. More than 200 years later the formal gardens were laid out and Wrest became a centre of social importance. The Greys were signatories to the letter requesting that William and Mary came over to England from Holland. The Dutch influence could be seen at Wrest in the form of canals, fountains, mill ponds, summer house, bowling green and avenues of sweet chestnuts in Anthony, the 11th Earl’s, garden. His son Henry became the 1st Duke of Kent and spent a fortune touring Europe but also spent a great deal of money on the gardens. He employed leading architects and garden designers to create formal woodland, avenues and statuary which reflected the political allegiances of the Greys. Statues of Atlas, Venus, Flora, Diana, The Four Seasons amongst many others mirrored the statues to be found at Hampton Court. At Wrest there was a statue of Neptune being held aloft by Wyverns which represented William 111 being supported by the Greys. The Thomas Archer pavilion, at the end of the canal, was built around 1709 and the Tompion sundial had pride of place.
At this time Cain Hill House, currently under separate ownership, standing on the top of a hill was a prominent feature of the estate and formed connecting vistas with an avenue leading up to it. Over the next two centuries more statues, memorials, obelisks, houses for hermits and a pet cemetery filled the woodland areas. A stove house designed by Batty Langley and a bowling green and bowling green house were built and the straight paths were transformed into curved serpentine walks. On the death of the 1st Duke the estate was inherited by his granddaughter Jemima, Marchioness Grey. Jemima had a keen interest in gardens and commissioned Capability Brown to soften the landscape whilst preserving the formal layout. Brown changed the straight lines, created encircling canals, incorporating the diagonal mill pond so that the whole looked like a natural river. Jemima introduced roses, mock orange, honeysuckle and added a Chinese Temple and bridge, the Mithraic altar and a bath house and plunge pool. When Jemima died in 1797 her daughter Amabel inherited the estate but did not have sufficient money to maintain the house or gardens. The estate then passed to her nephew Thomas Philip Robinson who took the title 2nd Earl de Grey in 1833. He was an amateur architect much taken with the French influences. He demolished the old house and a new house was built in a French style some 200 metres to the north . This created additional garden space and a new upper garden was laid out between the new house and the earlier gardens. The woodlands, canals and vistas were left untouched but a new 6 acre kitchen garden was created along with French parterres and Italianate gardens. A French dairy and new conservatory were built. In 1904 the gardens were depicted in Country Life Magazine showing the American Garden, the woodland walks and the bowling green at its best. The estate was sold in 1917 after which it fell into decline. English Heritage took over the house and gardens in 2006 and, with money from Heritage Lottery Fund and the Wolfson Foundation, began a project to restore the gardens to their pre-1917 state.
The estate at Wrest Park represents the changes in garden design over many centuries. It reflects the fashions of the day, the social aspirations of its owners, their links with royalty and their varying financial circumstances as well as the impact of social and political changes in this country and the rest of Europe. The garden and parkland has been restored to a period that contains most of everything that existed and we are very fortunate in having it “on our doorstep”. We are intending to visit as a group next year – a visit which we hope will be enhanced by Twig’s expertise and leadership on that day.
Some photos, courtesy Twigs …
Please join us for our annual Christmas Party on Tuesday 15th December, members and guests will be very welcome.