20-year plan to restore Wrest Park's gardens

Ambitious project to reverse years of neglect of Grade-1 listed estate at Silsoe

Ambitious and expensive plans were unveiled by English Heritage yesterday to restore Wrest Park in Silsoe to its original splendour.

The landscaped gardens are regarded as among Britain's finest but its treasures have been obliterated, overgrown and ignored for decades.

English Heritage has already spent 2 million on conservation work since it gained ownership of the estate two years ago.

Now it has announced a 20-year plan to re-establish Wrest Park as one of the pre-eminent gardens in England.

Both the mansion and gardens are Grade-1 listed. Simon Thurley, chief executive of English Heritage, said: "Wrest Park, and its outstanding collection of historic garden buildings, is one of the finest surviving 18th century landscapes in Britain.

"It is also one of our best kept historic secrets. Few know of its magnificence as for many years it was part of an agricultural research institute.

"Wrest Park is now being restored, reversing years of neglect and placing this once famous and beautiful landscape back into the limelight."

Wrest Park belonged to the de Grey family from the Middle Ages until the early 20th century.

The family commissioned many of the 18th century's most famous designers, including Lancelot 'Capability' Brown, William Kent, Batty Langley and Thomas Archer.

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 predecessors.

As a result, visitors today to Wrest Park can see the complete evolution over both the 18th and 19th centuries of one of this country's greatest contributions to Western civilisation – the English garden.

The garden's first major phase dates from the start of the 18th century when Henry Grey, the first Duke of Kent, laid out the formal woodland garden, peopling wooded circles, squares and ovals with sculpture.

The Duke was also responsible for commissioning Thomas Archer's Baroque pavilion which terminates the Long Canal.

As the fashion for Romantic gardening grew, the Duke's granddaughter Jemima, Marchioness Grey, employed 'Capability' Brown to soften the edges of the gardens.

However, Brown was so impressed with the gardens that he declared that any dramatic alterations would only unravel its mysteries.

Finally Jemima's grandson, Thomas Philip, Earl de Grey and the first President of the Royal Institute of British Architecture, built Wrest Park House between 1834 and 1839 and laid out new formal French and Italian gardens.

Conservation work completed so far, made possible by the Wolfson Foundation, includes the restoration of the mansion's formal entrance area, the iron garden railings and many of the garden statues.

Over the next two decades, English Heritage will:

Restore and open to the public the Countess' Sitting Room and the Conservatory. The latter was built by Thomas, Earl de Grey, to allow his watchful wife to "see the whole length and inspect every dung barrow" in the kitchen-garden.

Repair 'Capability' Brown's lakes. Changes in the 1960s and '70s mean that the current water level at Wrest Park is too high, effectively drowning many of the hedges and trees.

Restore the fountains to working order and reinstate the round pond at the Atlas statue.

Refurnish some of the most significant garden 'rooms' by reinstating the Duchess' Column and the Duke's Obelisk. These essential monuments were integral to the total garden design, knitting together the spaces within the woodland garden. However by 1934, the monuments had been sold and moved to Trent Park, Middlesex.

Create a sculpture display in the former dairy to highlight some of the estate's more vulnerable sculpture, including a 17th century Neptune and a pair of 18th century commedia dell'arte figures.

Replant the Italian Garden to include such seasonal flowers such as in spring, wallflowers, tulips, hyacinths, and geraniums.

Restore the 1856 'Petit Trianon' Swiss cottage and its special intimate setting, built by the Earl de Grey for his children.

Increase visitor access within the mansion to include the suite of rooms on the first floor containing beautiful and rare 19th century French and Chinese wallpaper.

Develop new visitor facilities within the Walled Gardens and enhance the historic paths, walkways, and avenues around the estate.

Images of Wrest Park are available on www.picselect.com in an English Heritage folder called Wrest Park.