Ris­ing to the chal­lenge

Bed­ford House, Woburn, Bed­ford­shire Turn­ing a field be­side the grounds of Woburn Abbey into a gar­den in­volved, among other things, re­mov­ing a long, ser­pen­tine drive­way and in­stalling a race­horse. Ge­orge Plumptre finds out how it was done

Country Life Every Week - - Property News - Photographs by Mar­i­anne Ma­jerus

From the front, Bed­ford House is a smart but unas­sum­ing red-brick house fac­ing onto a busy street in the small Bed­ford­shire town of Woburn, but, in Alice’s Ad­ven­tures in

Won­der­land style, once you’ve passed through to its other side, you dis­cover a gar­den and a scene of tran­quil syl­van beauty that is com­pletely un­ex­pected.

The area that is now a gar­den stretches from the house to the bound­ary of the ex­ten­sive park sur­round­ing Woburn Abbey, home to the Dukes of Bed­ford ever since it was given to them by Henry VIII dur­ing the Dis­so­lu­tion of the monas­ter­ies. It has re­tained its abbey suf­fix, but, through the in­ter­ven­ing cen­turies, it has grown into one of the great­est houses in Eng­land, com­bin­ing art, ar­chi­tec­ture, land­scape and gar­den­ing with di­verse fam­ily achieve­ment, on a scale that only a hand­ful of places can match.

Dur­ing the Se­cond World War, Bed­ford House be­came home to the 12th Duke of Bed­ford when he va­cated the Abbey to make way for its oc­cu­pa­tion by women of the WRNS, who were bil­leted here while they helped with the vi­tal de­cod­ing work be­ing car­ried out a few miles away at Bletch­ley Park. How­ever, the Duke was no gar­dener and, af­ter his death, Bed­ford House was con­verted into flats that were let and the ground be­tween house and park re­mained what it had been for decades: a field.

Half a cen­tury later, the 12th Duke’s grand­son, robin, mar­quess of Tav­i­s­tock, who had been man­ag­ing Woburn Abbey since his fa­ther had be­come a tax ex­ile in 1974, de­cided with his wife, Hen­ri­etta, that they would, in turn, hand over the man­age­ment of Woburn to their el­dest son and move into Bed­ford House.

Hen­ri­etta, well known for her suc­cess­ful breed­ing of race­horses, but not as a gar­dener, clearly re­mem­bers that, just be­fore they moved, her hus­band said to her: ‘What are you go­ing to do with the field? You need to make a gar­den.’

It was a kind of chal­lenge, which she felt she had the an­swer to when she replied: ‘Don’t worry—we’ll go on more Border­lines tours and in­spi­ra­tion will come.’ How­ever, it was not that sim­ple, as she re­calls: ‘I got more and more de­pressed; ev­ery­one’s gar­den was lovely and ours was still a flat field. I didn’t know where to start.’

Then, at last, came the mo­ment of in­spi­ra­tion. on a visit to a gar­den in Devon cre­ated by Jes­sica Duncan, Hen­ri­etta was shown a pho­to­graph on the wall of what the gar­den had started as—an old farm­yard— and she re­alised what was pos­si­ble. She per­suaded mrs Duncan to come and look at the site at Bed­ford House—which she and her hus­band moved into in 2002—and, not long af­ter, roped in help from a friend from New Zealand.

Later that year, robin Tav­i­s­tock be­came Duke of Bed­ford, but, trag­i­cally, only a few months later, in 2003, he died. In the in­ter­ven­ing months, he had made clear the kind of gar­den he hoped for, as his wife re­mem-

‘He wanted the at­mos­phere of a park, with peace and tran­quil­lity’

bers: ‘He wanted some­thing with the at­mos­phere of a park, that was not busy, but had peace and tran­quil­lity.’ As they set about cre­at­ing the gar­den, it be­came sub­con­sciously a me­mo­rial to him; to­day, it has all the qual­i­ties to which he as­pired.

The Bed­fords added a long, low ex­ten­sion at right an­gles to the ex­ist­ing house. Shortly af­ter­wards, the in­ten­tion to re­move the long drive that used to curve through the field forced a de­ci­sion about what to do. Re­mov­ing it in­volved bring­ing in 300 lorry loads of earth to re-land­scape the long, curv­ing scar that it had left. The trans­for­ma­tion of the field into a ‘nat­u­ral gar­den’ was be­gun, mainly with the plant­ing of large num­bers of trees.

Now, trees and shrubs pop­u­late the site, fram­ing the views, and wind­ing paths are mown through large ar­eas of meadow grass and beckon you to ex­plore. The con­nec­tion with race­horses is en­shrined in a statue of the mare Mrs Moss, which stands in pas­ture —her off­spring were the foun­da­tion of Hen­ri­etta’s Flat-rac­ing suc­cess.

To­day, a gen­er­ous ter­race binds house and sweep­ing grass to­gether and this means you can set off in any num­ber of di­rec­tions. Per­haps the most sig­nif­i­cant beck­on­ing comes from a delightful thatched summer house that’s been built against the bound­ary wall with the park of Woburn Abbey.

As you ap­proach the summer house, the skill with which new plant­ing has en­hanced the gar­den is re­vealed; a grove of mag­no­lias to one side and a long mixed bor­der stretch­ing in front of the wall on the other. It is the summer house that re­veals a se­cond

Alice’s Ad­ven­tures in Won­der­land mo­ment: a tiny door set into the back wall opens to re­veal the bor­rowed land­scape that is the se­cond half of Bed­ford House’s gar­den, a land­scape that binds the house with its sym­bolic par­ent Woburn Abbey.

The land­scaped park­land cov­er­ing some 3,000 acres sur­round­ing Woburn Abbey was one of the most ac­claimed cre­ations by Humphry Rep­ton, whose de­sign in­cluded a pat­tern of 11 lakes. One of the most dis­tant of these from the Abbey, Cowhill Belt Pond, lies to­wards the park bound­ary clos­est to Woburn town and has be­come the cen­tre­piece of the bor­rowed land­scape of Bed­ford House.

Broad grass walks lead all the way around the rec­tan­gu­lar stretch of wa­ter be­neath a va­ri­ety of mag­nif­i­cent ma­ture trees, giv­ing a se­ries of spec­tac­u­lar views both to­wards the Abbey and to Bed­ford House and the par­ish church tower.

Open­ing up the walks in­volved for­mi­da­ble clear­ing of fallen wil­lows and over­grown alders along the wa­ter’s edge, but, now, the paths that were orig­i­nally laid out in the early 19th cen­tury to be wide enough for a small car­riage drawn by a Shet­land pony have been re­stored to once again show off the land­scape.

Many alders have been re­tained that are now huge spec­i­mens and there are also ma­jes­tic horn­beams, limes and oaks to be dis­cov­ered that shade the wide paths. Other stretches are planted with a nut walk, with a col­lec­tion of hawthorns, with mon­key-

puz­zle trees and with a long grove of aza­leas and rhodo­den­drons that hark back to some orig­i­nal Vic­to­rian plant­ing.

More than the va­ri­ety of trees or the glimpsed views, it’s the undis­turbed tran­quil­lity that’s the most im­por­tant qual­ity of the lake­side walks and would never fail to re­fresh a vis­i­tor be­fore they step back through the small door­way into the main Bed­ford House gar­den.

This is a gar­den that ex­em­pli­fies the qual­i­ties of light-touch gar­den­ing: do­ing enough to cre­ate in­ter­est and dis­tinct fea­tures, with­out com­pro­mis­ing a gen­er­ous sense of space and an un­der­ly­ing sim­plic­ity. Some of the plant­ing has deftly dec­o­ra­tive touches, such as the bound­ary beech hedge the top of which has been shaped into curv­ing han­dles.

Oth­ers have more prac­ti­cal ori­gins, such as the im­pres­sive rose bor­der Hen­ri­etta planted in front of the beech hedge to add flower colour on this side of the gar­den. ‘At Chelsea Flower Show, I asked Hark­ness Roses for its view on the eas­i­est shrub rose to grow that’s healthy, doesn’t get dis­ease, re­peat flow­ers and has a scent. They im­me­di­ately sug­gested Chan­dos Beauty and here it is, thriv­ing.’

There is no doubt that the late Duke would be ex­tremely proud of the cre­ation that his wife has made with the help of Carl Mepham, who started as a young forester help­ing with clear­ing and plant­ing trees and be­came the full-time gar­dener. She rose to his orig­i­nal chal­lenge to make a gar­den and has done so in a way that has trans­formed the set­ting for Bed­ford House and achieves an un­ex­pected but ex­tremely happy bond with the land­scape of his his­toric fam­ily home.

The Bed­ford House gar­dens are not open to vis­i­tors. Con­sult www.woburn­abbey.co.uk for in­for­ma­tion about vis­it­ing Woburn Abbey Ge­orge Plumptre is Chief Ex­ec­u­tive of the NGS

The thatched summer house has a tiny se­cret door in its back wall

Pre­ced­ing pages: Ma­ture beeches (Vibur­num pli­ca­tum f. to­men­to­sum) dot the new lawn. Above: An invit­ing place to pause sur­rounded by Wis­te­ria flori­bunda and al­li­ums

A king­dom for a horse: the bronze of Mrs Moss, whose off­spring were the foun­da­tion of Hen­ri­etta Bed­ford’s Flat-rac­ing suc­cess

Even the bronze tor­toise seems to be en­joy­ing the wis­te­ria on the ter­race

Invit­ing broad grass walks are framed by mag­nif­i­cent ma­ture trees and rhodo­den­drons

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