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
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