FolkestoneJack's Tracks


Posted in England by folkestonejack on July 4, 2015

The promise of good weather today lured me to Wrest Park in Bedfordshire, one of the newest additions to English Heritage’s remarkable collection of properties.

The house

The mansion house

The Wrest Park estate was the home of the Grey family from the 13th century until it was sold in 1917. It was the second Earl de Gray, Thomas Philip Robinson, who designed the building we see today – a rare example of a mansion house built in the 18th century French style. It has seen many changes since the family moved out, including conversion to a military hospital and re-use as office space.

However, the house is something of a red herring as the real focus of this English Heritage site is on the splendid grounds that surround it and the opportunity to walk through four centuries of garden history.

The Italian Garden

The Italian Garden

The origins of today’s landscape gardens can be traced back to the mid 17th century when Amabel Benn, the wife of Henry Grey, created the first formal gardens and dug the canal known as the Long Water. Each generation since has cared for and developed the gardens with an unusual degree of respective for the additions of their predecessors. The resulting gardens have effectively chronicled the developments in garden design up to the mid 19th century.

Sadly, the twentieth century saw house and garden stripped of many original features. The problems set in after the purchase of the estate by a brewing and mining magnate in 1917. A slow decline in the grounds began under his watch but the real damage began when he failed to offload the property in the early 1930s. Unable to recover his funds immediately, he began selling off the assets of the estate. In this period many of the garden ornaments were sold, trees were felled for timber and the furniture from the house was put up for auction.

In the latter half of the century the estate was taken over by an agricultural research institute and their work involved the ploughing much of the park beyond the immediate garden.

All of this has meant that English Heritage had its work cut out since taking over the property in 2006. They are now partway through a 20 year programme to restore the grounds to their appearance before the estate was sold in 1917, backed up by a meticulous research report tracing the park’s development through surviving images/plans/descriptions and thorough archaeological investigation (for example, by identifying and documenting post-war changes to the garden that can be reversed). The efforts that go into getting a historic site right all too often go unseen but I guess that is the sign of a job well done.

The park re-opened to the public in August 2011 and has since been declared one of the finest yet least-known gardens in England.

Bowling Green House

Bowling Green House

It was lovely to wander the grounds in lovely summer conditions (not the record-breaking temperatures of mid week, but a mere 26 degrees). It proved to be a photographer’s dream and the perfect antidote to a week behind a desk. I think my favourite spot was Bowling Green House where the doors are perfectly aligned, giving the illusion that the doorway into the building leads to another green space.

I am sure to be back to take a heap more photographs, probably when the autumn colours can be seen to best effect. Beyond that, I will certainly be keen to return to see how the site develops in the years to come with further restoration.


I travelled to Wrest Park on public transport, taking the 9.15am bus (Stagecoach 81) from Luton to Silsoe Church which takes about 25 minutes. The return fare was £8.

The bus currently runs hourly Mondays to Saturdays and every two hours on Sundays. It was interesting to see that afternoon buses were running 5-20 minutes behind on the day I visited, but I don’t know if this late running is a regular occurrence. It is an easy walk from the bus stop, through the front gates of the estate and up the drive, which takes no more than 5-10 minutes.

Events (weddings) taking place on the site may limit access to the buildings and grounds so it is worth phoning ahead of any visit (as I discovered, the website isn’t always kept up to date with this information). I suspect that this may be a particular problem if you intend visiting on a summer saturday like me.

I started my visit at 10am, when the gates opened, so it was slightly bizarre to be told to make sure to get into the house before it closed at 11am! The small exhibition remains open when the state rooms close and includes the Countess’s sitting room, as it might have looked in the 1840s, which helps to show how the conservatory was an integral part of this space.

The illustrations of the state rooms in their heyday show just how much has been lost. For example, the drawing room was originally decorated with stunning tapestries of a floral theme that were specially commissioned from Beauvais for the room. These were sold off in 1917, along with most of the contents of the house. Visitors today will have to work hard to visualise the effect with twentieth century wallpaper in their place.

On the subject of wallpaper, the guidebook makes much of the rare wallpaper of the upper floor but there doesn’t appear to be any way to see this at present (visits are restricted to the ground floor).

The gardens are a delight from start to finish, whether you wander at random or follow the map religiously. I found the guide book gave a really good approach to appreciating the gardens and the buildings in the grounds (including a beautiful early 18th century pavilion with marvellous trompe l’oeil decoration).


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