See gardens restored to former glory

BEDFORDSHIRE really does have a hidden gem in its midst in Wrest Park – an early 19th century French-style mansion nestled off the A6 between Luton and Bedford.

Before I moved to the area I’d never even heard of the house, which has only been open to the public for the past few years. Its relatively recent appearance on the visitor attraction scene means it might be overlooked in favour of some of its more established neighbours (Waddesdon Manor, Luton Hoo, Hatfield House, to name but a few).

But it really is worth a visit if, like me, you’re passionate about stately homes, or even if you’re just looking for a family day out with a mix of history and fun.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The estate was propelled into the national limelight last summer with the unveiling of its extensive refurbishment, made possible with the help of a £1.4 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

When we visited it was a crisp, clear and cold day, and although I’m sure the gardens will look fantastic in full bloom in the spring and summer, I’d heartily recommend a winter visit.

We pretty much had the gardens to ourselves, and they are fascinating.

My favourite part has to have been the stunning pavilion designed by English Baroque architect Thomas Archer (who also designed much of Chatsworth House, in Derbyshire, where the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice was filmed), and completed in 1711. It lies at the end of the ‘Long Water’, which itself leads on from the long gravel walk that divides the garden in two,

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Wrest Park was home to the de Grey family from the 13th Century until 1917, after which the estate passed through a succession of owners until being taken over by English Heritage in 2006.

The de Greys commissioned many of the 18th century’s most famous designers, including Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (who worked there between 1758 and 1760), William Kent, Batty Langley and Thomas Archer to work on the gardens.

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 – meaning visitors today enjoy a tour of gardening styles down the centuries, witnessing the evolution of landscape gardening.

Other features of the grounds include the orangery, marble fountains, bath house (with its floor inlaid with a pattern of deer bones), and a pet cemetery (where the names of deceased animals include Kelpie, Dottie and Pet).

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The 20-year restoration plan has already seen the Italian and rose gardens and miles of pathways through the estate re-opened to the public, along with the new additions of a cafe, visitor centre and play area. Work on the French parterre area of the garden is currently underway and is due to be completed this April.

Inside, the house (designed by amateur architect Thomas, the 2nd Earl de Grey, to replace the original house) is tribute to the grand stately homes of Paris, with a large conservatory from which work on the garden could be observed, and the opulent Countess’ Sitting Room, designed by Thomas for his wife Henrietta.

Fans of subtle decor may need to take along the smelling salts!

Related topics: