I’d been looking for somewhere to meet up with my sister & brother-in-law that was roughly equidistant (they live in the Fens, we live in Surrey) and hit upon Wrest Park in Bedfordshire. It’s a Grade 1 listed French-style C18 mansion built in the 1830s which has suffered from many decades of corporate use. During the war it was used by the military, and subsequently was an agricultural research establishment. English Heritage took it over recently and has instigated a restoration programme in the house and the grade 1 listed garden, which is still underway.
There’s not much sadder than a historic building which has seen many years of institutional neglect, and approaching the building caused me some trepidation; we drove between the lodges and down the drive down an avenue, over the A6 road which literally cuts through the park, past playing fields with stark modern office buildings ahead. The car park was outside what looked like the back of some public toilets.
English Heritage, however, have done an excellent job so far. We didn’t spend much time in the house, although the few rooms that are open are very attractive. The Earl de Grey wasn’t satisfied with the craftsman’s execution of the sculptures, he sounds like a bit of a wag: the Guide explains that he told his daughter, ‘His ideas of female beauty in point of roundness of form did not correspond with mine, and I was forced to add to all their prominent points. I did some of it myself!’
Outside the ante-library’s door and onto the terrace, there’s a beautiful view across the parterre, with croquet being played beyond, and in the distance (about half a mile) the Pavilion beyond the Long Water.
Walking down the garden it’s still possible to see the lumpy nature of the ground where the original house stood prior to its demolition.
The gardens were developed through the C18, the formal layout being kept even after Capability Brown was employed – he just naturalised the boundary canals and worked round the edges; there’s now a serpentine lake round three sides of the Great Garden, which is woodland with formal paths and spaces containing garden shelters and statues.
The buildings are what make the garden really special. The enormous Orangery is closed and scaffolded as it’s being restored, but the baroque Pavilion, from about 1710 was open and in all its glory. It’s a beautiful building with wonderful brickwork on the outside, and wonderful trompe l’oeil by Louis Hauduroy within. It was used for taking tea, but there are little spiral staircases to small bedchambers above and ‘domestic offices’ below – a large kitchen with two fireplaces, and a rather splendid two-seater privy.
The Bowling Green House was designed by the delightfully named Batty Langley in 1735. It has one large interior room, with some fine plasterwork and a rather nice chimneypiece, and a small service room off. Both sides has a loggia, one overlooking the bowling green itself, the other once overlooking the deer park, but unfortunately now giving a view of agricultural fields and modern housing.
On the far side of the garden is a reconstructed Chinese Temple of the 1750s, near to a Chinese Bridge which dates to 1876. But what we spent some time seeking, and eventually finding, was the Mithraic Altar. This is a joke, and rather a good one – the Guide describes it as a ‘three-dimensional fiction’ (we wondered about the ‘fiction’ as we sought it). Purporting to be an altar erected by a Greek army officer to Mithras, it was constructed in 1748, mainly of flint, and with some amazing feet. Things in C18 gardens were meant to produce an emotion in the viewer – a mauseoleum would cause reflection on mortality, for example – but the purpose of the Mithraic Altar is to mystify, as befits a mystery religion. It has inscriptions in old Greek and Persian characters designed to mystify the visitor and amuse the designers, Jemima, Marchioness de Grey, and Philip Yorke, her husband.
The biggest downside to the visit was the lack of a tearoom. I like to drink tea in Johnsonian quantities; having left home at 10am, by 3.30pm I was desirous of a pot of tea. Luckily, my sister was cognisant of a garden centre not far away, Frosts at Willington, where we had tea on a rather nice terrace by some water. I was rather distracted by seeing the airship sheds at Cardington on the right as we drove towards Bedford – I hadn’t realised we would be driving past them until I saw them. I’ve never seen them before, even though they’ve been there for nigh on a hundred years. They’re quite impressive, even from a distance.