Just under a century ago two wealthy Anglo-American brothers, fanatical about horse racing bought a stud farm near Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. They also wanted to enjoy the life of the huntin’ shootin’ and fishin’ set in the English countryside, and so looked for a suitable country house within relatively easy travel of Newmarket racecourse. In 1926 they ended up buying Anglesey Abbey a few miles north east of Cambridge for use during the summer months. They also agreed that whoever married first should sell his share in the estate to the other.
The brothers, Huttleston and Henry Broughton began an immediate and very sympathetic restoration of the house, and later extending it further. By 1966 when Huttleston died Anglesey Abbey also had a garden that was inspirational. Graham Thomas, then the Garden Adviser to the National Trust which had just been bequeathed the estate wrote: “In these islands I have not seen any garden which resembles this huge layout. Its conception owes much to the gentle magnificence of the English landscape school of the 18thc but with its numerous formal vistas, often terminated or enhanced by valuable and ancient statuary, vases, urns and the like, it strikes an earlier note. At the same time the more intimate gardens around the house are modern in treatment [Gardeners Chronicle 23rd August 1967]. John Sales, Thomas’s successor at the Trust says it is the only post-modern garden he knows.”
Read on to find out why…
There had been a monastery on the site since the reign of Henry I, and the oldest surviving part of the present house dates back to 1235, although most of it was demolished and rebuilt around 1600. After that the estate had a pretty chequered history ending up in the 19thc in the hands of a snowdrop-loving vicar who gothicized the house.
The Broughton family money came from oil – they sold out to Rockefeller’s Standard oil in 1874 – and eventually the brothers’ father, Urban Broughton became a Tory MP back in Britain. In 1929 when Runnymede where King John had agreed the Magna Carta was under threat of development he bought it and he was given a peerage for his generosity for this and other causes. Unfortunately he died before it could be officially conferred and instead it passed to Huttleston, who became Lord Fairhaven and it was he who presented Runnymede to the National Trust in 1931 in his father’s memory.
The abbey sits in over 100 acres, on the flat and windswept fenland and they decided to plant thick shelter belts along the approach roads but otherwise little was done to the grounds in the early years.
It was not until 1930 that things started to move. The elder brother, Huttleston, suggested they “raise an obelisk or place an urn” to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the abbey’s foundations that year, and so from there the garden began to develop. But it was no ordinary urn: it was 7ft tall and stood on a 4ft plinth. Its placement at the end of an old avenue of elms known as the Daffodil Walk, and the way it stood out from the surrounding planting, impressed Lanning Roper the American designer when he was later called in to advise on the garden. He said “it set a very high standard for the future..and in my opinion is one of the loveliest objects in the garden…”
After that things began to develop rapidly, using a small team of labourers who also worked on the estate farm. The grass was left long and paths scythed through it – a system not really changed until a tractor-towed mower was bought. Huttleston was a perfectionist and, says Sales, he insisted on an “almost obsessive attitude to order..in the garden.” So the team of just 5 gardeners would sweep up the fallen leaves across the whole site with besom brooms since the mechanized sweepers were simply “not good enough.”
Next to be started was an arboretum and woodland garden in the 19thc parkland near the house. Lord Fairhaven became passionate about trees and preferred to allow them to grow naturally, not trimming lower branches as is often the custom. Nor was he fussy if they were exotic or rare. They just had to be beautiful and appropriate to the setting. As Arthur Hellyer said when writing about Anglesey for Country Life in March 1954 “the trees themselves might not excite the expert plantsman but they are well-grown and well-preserved.”
In 1932 Henry married and, as agreed Huttleston bought his share, and two years later he bought Lode Mill together with a derelict cement factory and other outbuildings and cottages which were next door.
The mill was restored but the rest demolished. There were more industrial relics on the site too – although not quite so hideous as the old factory.
The Quarry Pool was formerly a coprolite pit, and there was a railway that took the coprolite to the mill which had been converted from corn to grind to powder for fertilizer. That was used to remove the debris before being taken up itself.
After that came the Coronation Avenue in 1937, with its two auxiliary avenues – the Cross Avenue and Warriors Walk. It was here that Huttleston Broughton’s love of sculpture came into full prominence.
Two lead sphinx, probably by John Cheere, guard the beginning of the Coronation Avenue, while six Coadestone caryatids [originally from Buckingham House] stand at its junction with the Cross Avenue. Two ships figureheads from HMS Warrior the first ironclad and HMS Hector stood at either end of the Warriors Walk [now removed because they had decayed]. Further down the avenue he placed two slender obelisks which had come from Copped Hall in Essex to help lead the eye towards the full half-mile or so extent of the avenue.
Fairhaven was ignoring contemporary taste because as Arthur Hellyer pointed out avenues were not much in fashion in 20thc Britain. However as he said at Anglesey they had become “the most characteristic feature.” Whether they were in ‘forest trees’ such as chestnut, plane or yew or in ornamental such as ornamental cherries and crab apples.
At the same time Fairhaven created a series of seasonal formal flower gardens. They were designed to be seen just for a short period. The Hyacinth garden contained 4000 bulbs usually in blues and whites which were replaced every 3 years. It was ornamented by bronze urns based on designs from Versailles and a statue of Father Time, originally from Stowe. The Dahlia garden with mainly bright red and yellow varieties has stone griffins and a statue of a juvenile Apollo.
1938 saw the creation of a rose garden with 1000 roses spread across 40 beds. It required the replacement of the poor soil with decent loam. Each bed contained just a single variety, both old favourites but also new cultivars including “Super Star” [who said Lord Fairhaven had taste?]
Even today a couple of beds are re-dug every year, the soil replaced and new varieties planted. Again sculpture plays an important part. Here it is 4 marble vases by Scheemakers or his associates which are thought to have come from the great sale of Wanstead, and classical lead and bronze statues. Replica vases were installed in 2006 and the originals are in the V&A.
Obviously work came to a halt during the war but immediately afterwards Fairhaven began laying out further areas notably the Emperors Walk of larch and spruce which was lined with marble busts of 12 Roman emperors [formerly at Headley Court], and where it crossed Warriors Walk he installed a small ‘temple’ building rescued from a salvage merchant. It houses a huge porphyry tazza.
The trees on the walk were decimated during a storm in 1979 and the rest taken down to allow replanting with yew and spruce.
About half way down the Emperors Walk, and opposite but set back from the temple is a semi-circular copper beech enclosure which holds 4 lead female statues originally from the Temple of Concord and Victory at Stowe. Arthur Hellyer says “one comes upon it suddenly, with that added excitement which the unexpected must always give.” He obviously had a high opinion of Fairhaven’s skill because he adds “It was a masterstroke to place this feature in such a manner, for a lesser artist… might have been tempted to find a more obvious but less effective setting for objects of such uncommon beauty.”
A curvilinear Herbaceous Garden replaced a small kitchen garden in the 1950s. Surrounded by beech hedges it contained clumps of single varieties grouped for shape and form rather than colour, “as solid a display” said Hellyer “as any devised by Victorian practitioners of the art of bedding out.”
It was says Hellyer “conceived on a scale commensurate with its setting…and has a fine air of spaciousness and repose.” Nor was there “any concession to the fiction that there is something natural about a herbaceous border and that therefore it must be given too formal a setting.” In the centre is Tiw, one of the Saxon deities originally from Stowe.
The Queen’s coronation in 1953 was a good excuse for the next grand gesture. Fairhaven managed to acquire a group of 18thc classical columns from the London home of Lord Chesterfield which had been demolished in 1937. They were installed in a circle divided by golden yew, around a marble copy of Bernini’s statue of David with his sling, and surrounded by a sculpted hedge in green yew. The entrance is guarded by a pair of lead lions by Jan Van Nost the elder. The same year also saw Fairhaven plant a pinetum.
His last project was the Pilgrim’s Lawn, with island beds of shrubs and trees with strong autumn colouring, all surrounded a 19thc statue of a pilgrim. The garden was finished shortly after his death in 1966.
Its important to realise that Fairhaven did not work alone. For example he is known to have consulted Lanning Roper who was to go on and write a very laudatory book about Anglesey in 1964 which includes 80 photos of the garden and its sculptures including some of the very early days. But equally importantly he employed a small team of dedicated professional gardeners.
Anglesey Abbey was left to the National Trust with the stipulation that, if possible it was to be maintained as it was when he died. That’s difficult in the case of a garden but despite maturity and disasters which inevitably dictate change, the genius of the place has certainly been maintained. That’s helped by the fact the garden has been managed by just 3 people since the war, and who knew the gardens intimately.
The first problem came in the years immediately after Fairhaven’s death with the arrival of Dutch Elm disease. By the early 1970s over 4000 elms had to be removed from the estate, including those in the great elm avenue known as the Daffodil Walk. Others came as the result of storms which necessitated the replanting of the Emperors’ Walk, and allowed the discussion of alternatives and variations on how best to maintain the spirit without being merely like for like replacements.
Growing visitor numbers in the late 1990s meant that the NT had to install new car parking and visitor facilities. One of the shelter belts lay between the proposed car park and the house and it was decided to radically rethink this area but in the spirit of Fairhaven.
Plans were drawn up by John Sales in conjunction with the Richard Ayres the head gardener, for a winter garden. This was, as I showed last week, before the concept had really caught on and there was resistance within the Trust to finding enough money to finance it properly. Luckily the property was able to fund raise locally to make up the difference and carry out the work.
The new garden gives the illusion of space and size although it actually only occupies 2.5 acres in quite a long narrow expanse of ground. The site is about 450m long and is wrapped around a long sinuous path planted with an amazing range of 150 or so different sorts of plants for winter interest.
It tried to echo, says Sales, an 18thc serpentine walk such as those devised by Stephen Switzer or Batty Langley. Eventually it leads to a woodland path cut through another shelter belt as late as 2004. The area another advantage. It was full of aconites and snowdrops presumably originally collected by the galanthophile vicar, John Hailstone, in the 19thc and dumped there during Fairhaven’s clearance of the existing gardens. They had thrived, hybridizing and spread rapidly.
The success of the project is down once again to Huddleston Broughton’s perfectionism.
The garden team set themselves high standards here as elsewhere so that even the stand of white-stemmed silver birch has its bark pressure-washed to bring out the brilliant brightness of pure white. His legacy is one of the great 20thc gardens, ambitious in scope and on a Kentian scale, but as John Sales reminds us, in a reassertion of the importance of knowledgable professional gardeners, “great gardens depend on process as well as product.” At Anglesey both factors have come into play with great success.
Sorry this has been such a long piece but I hope you think it was worth it. There are many more watercolours of the gardens, presumably commissioned by Fairhaven, at the National Trust Collections database.