Everyone’s heard of Westonbirt Arboretum, one of the most extensive and beautiful collections of trees in the country. But how about the other gardens at Westonbirt? Perhaps not. Yet like the arboretum they were created by the same visionary, Robert Stayner Holford, are just across the road and are open to the public, although they now form the grounds of Westonbirt School.
I had the chance to see them when I went down to Gloucestershire for a day conference – Protecting Historic Parks and Gardens: ‘It’s a Piece of Cake’ – organized by the Historic Landscapes Project which is part of The Gardens Trust. It was held in the school and because the Historic Landscapes Project is such an impressive resource [despite being run on a shoestring] I’d have signed up for the day even without the cake!
The programme was lively and informative [with the cake an added bonus] and included a tour of the grounds led by Margie Hoffnung, The Gardens Trust’s Conservation Officer, who had also been the leading volunteer in the gardens at Westonbirt. What an eye-opener that proved to be. Westonbirt was, and largely still is, a Victorian masterpiece and it’s no wonder that the gardens as well as the house are Grade 1 listed.
I’m very grateful to Margie for letting me have access to her notes and for checking through the post – any errors are mine and not hers.
Robert Stayner Holford was lucky enough to be born be comfortably off and then to inherit even more, which made him one of the richest men in England. His wealth meant he could indulge his obsession with gardens, and particularly trees, to his heart’s content. Indeed so obsessed was he that he laid out the garden and garden buildings almost 20 years before he built the mansion that now houses the school.
The Holford family had inherited the Westonbirt estate through marriage in the mid 18thc. It centred on an old manor house just to the east of the church, with a garden that ran to the north – exactly the opposite to the current alignment. But of course if you were very wealthy in the early 19thc and you inherited an estate with an old house, however charming, it was the done thing to rebuild so that’s exactly what George Holford, Robert’s father did.
George demolished the manor house in 1810, and laid the first stone of a new villa on the same site of what is now the school.
Robert’s interest in Westonbirt started just after he left Oxford, and long before he actually inherited. In 1829 at the age of just 21, he began planting the arboretum and his father seems to have allowed him, or perhaps worked with him, to begin developing the grounds of the house too. This must have marked him out even then as an exceptional young man in every sense. He was probably his own garden designer although William Sawrey Gilpin and later Broderick Thomas were brought in as advisors.
After Robert inherited in 1838, the rate of change increased. In the grand 18thc landscape tradition he diverted the main road further away from the house, created two new drives within the park with elegant two entrance lodges which were completed 1853. These were aligned to the main entrance of the arboretum so the two were inextricably linked. He also demolished the entire village of Westonbirt, relocating the villagers out of sight,about 300m to the south west. Only St Catherine’s church was left standing.
What is particularly fascinating is that Robert kept a notebook of what he was doing on the estate. He made lists of the trees he bought, whom he got them from, when and where they were planted, how high they were when they were put in, and kept notes with further measurements as the years progressed. As Margie said “Clearly a tree nerd even from an early age!” His notebook also tells us about his various works laying out the garden and arboretum as well as his building projects at Westonbirt.
In addition to Robert’s own notebook there is another amazing survival. The notebook of his gardener Jonah Neale who began working at Westonbirt in 1831. This also includes a lot of very detailed information about the planting.
It is also possible to gain a picture of Holford’s plans from an article that appeared in the magazine The Garden in February 1886. This gives a detailed account of a visit to the estate by William Goldring, one the magazine’s regular contributors. The quotations I am using come from that article unless otherwise attributed. Goldring obviously went round the garden with Holford and the article provides an insight into the aims, objectives and the principles behind his plantings: “ to create variety without confusion,[and] informality and picturesqueness without losing sight of that polish in the vicinity of the mansion which must always be regarded as in accordance with correct taste..” This relates directly back to the work of William Sawrey Gilpin who set out his ideas Practical Hints upon Landscape Gardening (1832; second edition 1835). Even the arboretum was laid out according to these picturesque principles and in an aesthetic rather than scientific way. You can read Gilpin’s book in full at:
In 1854, Holford married Mary-Anne Lindsay. She was only 25 while he was 46. She came from a well known artistic family. Her brother Sir Coutts Lindsay and his wife Blanche (who was born a Rothschild) founded the Grosvenor Gallery in London in 1877. It displayed works by artists from outside what was then the British mainstream such as the Pre-Raphaelites and Whistler. Art was Robert Stayner Holford’s other obsession and over his lifetime he built up an outstanding collection of old masters and other works of art which were housed at Westonbirt and at his grand London property, Dorchester House, on Park Lane. This had been built for him by Lewis Vulliamy but was demolished in 1929 to make way for the hotel which took its name.
In 1863 Vulliamy received another commission from Holford: to replace the “plain old Jacobean” house his father had built. Work started the following year on an opulent English Renaissance-style mansion, probably modelled on Wollaton Hall near Nottingham. No expense was spared and at c £200,000 it was one of the most expensive houses constructed during the 19thc. Constructed of “clean-cut stone of a creamy hue which harmonizes beautifully with its surroundings” it was fitted with the latest technology such as gas lighting, central heating, fireproof construction and iron roofs.
Of course work also continued in the garden. There was a lot to do. Holford consulted Broderick Thomas because as The Garden reported “Mr Holford had not been helped much by Nature, for there was originally no great diversity of surface, no streamlets or lakes, no outcropping of rocks.” So James Pulham was called in to construct the lake and rockery and in 1873/4 ” all these elements of a beautiful home landscape” were created at Westonbirt.
Country Life in 1907 noted that ‘We may now notice that the lake is entirely artificial, though Nature herself could scarce excel the charm…The rock crops out from the ground in the most natural way, perfectly stratified, and, where the village stood, a most charming part of the garden has been created. The lake is not large, but it is so shaped that it is never all seen at once. Its tasteful margins are most charming, the weather-stained rocks are overrun with an infinite variety of alpine plants and shrubs. . .’ Sadly the lake is now virtually dried up but it is hoped that it can be repaired and restored soon.
It was considered “conspicuous from a gardening point of view…and takes rank with such places as Trentham and Chatsworth” because “each branch of gardening is carried out in high class style” and “it is clothed with plantations and groups embracing an infinite variety of exotic as well as native trees.” Goldring waxed lyrical for more than 2 pages of the magazine and I suspect this was not just typical Victorian hyperbole but genuine admiration for what Holford had achieved. The article is well worth reading in full and you can find it at:
Robert died a few years later in 1892 and the estate passed to his only son George, who had been a bit of a rake [non-garden variety] but then settled down into a life as a courtier, serving as equerry first to th Duke of Clarence, then the Prince of Wales and finally to Queen Alexandra. He was knighted in 1910 and in 1912 married Susannah West Menzies, whom he had loved for over 20 years, after her husband died.
Sir George took after his father in loving trees and he continued to develop the arboretum. He also replaced the older glasshouses with a complex of new ones including some for orchids which, if anything, he loved even more than trees.
From 1899 until his death in 1926 Sir George employed H. G. Alexander, who sat on the RHS orchid committee alongside him, as his specialist grower. It was a profitable part￼partnership for both sides, and led to many orchid hybrids having Westonbirt associations, notably Cymbidium alexanderi ‘Westonbirt’, which by 1993 had produced 381 first-generation hybrids, each of which had been used many times for second- and third-￼generation hybrids.
Country Life wrote extensive articles about Westonbirt Gardens and Arboretum in 1905 and again in 1907 which noted that “Captain Holford has carried on the work in the same spirit and with the same tradition (as his father) and Westonbirt is now more luxuriant and more beautiful than the late Mr Holford ever knew it.”
Marrying late meant that there no children and upon Sir George’s death in 1926, Westonbirt passed to his nephew, the fourth Earl of Morley, who sold off most of the estate, although retaining the arboretum. The orchid collection was bequeathed to H.G.Alexander, whilst the vast collection of furniture, tapestries, porcelain and paintings built up by his father were auctioned in a series of huge sales in 1927 and 1928. When the pictures were sold, the first day of sales realised £364,094 which was at that time a world record for a single day’s sale of pictures by auction.
The house itself was withdrawn from the auction when it failed to pass £20,000 but negotiations took place with Rev P.E.Warrington who had founded the school at Stowe 5 years earlier. These were successful and as a result Westonbirt became a girls school. The parkland ended up divided between different owners although it still survives largely visually intact.
The Arboretum remained in the family till the 1956 when it passed to the Forestry Commission in lieu of death duties. They have not only maintained it well, but are laying down an exciting development plan for its future. You can find out more about that at: http://www.fowa.org.uk/westonbirt_project
Overall the landscape created by Robert Stayner Holford survives in its entirety, although much of the planting is suffering from benign neglect and the tree collection reached maturity some years ago.
Two fragments of the extensive glasshouse range that once housed an important orchid collection remain. The Palm House is now the school’s music room and the corridor-like Camellia House was recently restored with assistance from the Holfords of Westonbirt Trust.
The Trust was established in 2006 by Lady Bland, an old girl of the school, and strongly supported by the school’s Governors, as well as the Director and Trustees of Westonbirt Arboretum with the prime aim of conserving the Holford heritage and this remarkable showcase of Victorian gardening. They pay for a part time Head Gardener who organises a band of volunteers to care primarily for the more ornamental areas such as the Italian Garden and the pergola area. Over the past few years they have cleared jungles of brambles from around the lake, and plans are afoot to tackle the grotto.
The garden buildings of the sumptuous Italian Garden are the next features to demand restoration; partly because of Holford and Vulliamy’s passion for innovative untested building techniques. The restoration of some of these is the subject of a Heritage Lottery Fund bid from the Westonbirt Partnership which comprises the Forestry Commission, the Friends of Westonbirt Arboretum, Westonbirt School (which owns large parts of the parkland) and the Holfords of Westonbirt Trust (which leases the gardens).Keep your fingers crossed that they will succeed, and hopefully in a few years the garden will be looking even more splendid than it does at present.
The gardens are open on a regular basis and more information about how to visit can found at:
There is a detailed account of the garden on our database at:
You can find more about the Holford Trust at: http://www.holfordtrust.com
and more about the Historic Landscape Project by starting at: http://www.gardenstrusts.org.uk/hlp.html