Another lockdown escape last week took me to Audley End, near Saffron Walden in Essex. Although the mansion itself is still closed because of Covid restrictions the extensive grounds which were completely redesigned by Capability Brown in the mid 18thc, were open. So too was the walled kitchen garden restored by English Heritage about 20 years ago. This includes two large greenhouse ranges: a vinery dating originally from the 1820s , and a rebuilt Orchard House dating from the early 1850s.
When Anna Pavord, the garden writer visited about ten years ago she wrote that “Nothing makes me feel happier than walking into a kitchen garden, especially a walled one. The real world disappears. Here instead is an ordered, productive microcosm. No climbing garden plant is more beautiful to me than a well- trained espalier pear; no herbaceous border sings more harmoniously than an old-fashioned vegetable border, snug inside its box hedges.”
Even on a chilly April afternoon all that’s still true at Audley End today.
Rather than trying to squash an account of the whole of the Audley End grounds into a single post I’m going to concentrate today on the walled garden, and in particular the glasshouses there. The photos are mine unless otherwise acknowledged. The quotations come from one of the books and articles referenced at the end of the post.
Audley End Gardeners Chronicle in September 1884 carried an unusual account of Audley End. Normally, as regular readers will have seen in other posts, an article about a garden would appear in the main section of the magazine, with long detailed accounts of the layout and planting, and often accompanying photographs. This time the approach was different. Audley End provided the subject for the first editorial column, but it was shorter, with only a small part devoted to the various sections of the garden and no illustrations . That’s surprising because the text is glowing about the young head gardener James Vert, and his name crops up regularly in the magazine thereafter.
Incidentally you’ll be able to meet Mr Vert on selected weekends during 1 May to 25 September when English Heritage will be bringing the story of the house and grounds alive and allowing you to meet the servants including James Vert tending to his Lordship’s garden.
As you’ll see from the clipping when Audley End was built in the early 17thc it was one of the largest houses in the country and a palace in all but name. About a century later it was realised the house was actually too big and later earls of Suffolk had the outer courtyard demolished.
In 1751 the Countess of Portsmouth inherited a share of the estate, bought the rest and then demolished one side of the remaining courtyard because it was in such bad repair. She also began to carry out garden improvements, particularly planting trees, and moved the kitchen garden away from the house to its current site on the other side of the River Cam.
Its new location next to the stables provided a ready supply of fertiliser, but also meant that while close it was not obviously visible from the house. The site was walled and covered about 3 acres [1.2 ha] and a plan from 1758 [now with most of the other family papers in Essex RO, shows it divided into six rectangular sections.]
In 1762 the estate passed to the Countess’s nephew , Sir John Griffin who soon commissioned Robert Adam to design a series of garden buildings, including some bridges across the Cam and a Temple of Victory on a hilltop across the river from the mansion. He also asked Capability Brown to redesign the rest of the grounds. As an English Heritage webpage shows it was not a happy arrangement and the two men fell out quite spectacularly leaving Sir John to organise the completion of the works himself.
In 1769 Griffin also extended the kitchen garden and began constructing a range of greenhouses for crops such as peaches, oranges, pineapples and grapes. The most impressive of these was a classically inspired design by John Hobcroft which went up between 1774 and 1776. In 3 sections, with a central taller “greenhouse” flanked by hothouses on either side it was in some ways quite old-fashioned and more akin to a 17thc orangery in appearance since it had a solid rear wall and a slate roof rather than one of glass.
In 1802 the central section was remodelled and the rear wall converted to a “hot wall”, which heated the building via a system of flues within the the brickwork, and with stoves on the outer side of the wall. This modernisation clearly was not effective enough and the whole ensemble was demolished in the 1820s and replaced by a large Vinery. Over 50m long it was divided into 5 separate sections each with a different set of growing conditions. At the ends were houses for peaches, then others for grapes while in the centre was a taller section for flowering plants.
Given its construction date it doesn’t have the range of sophisticated heating and ventilation technology that became standard in later houses. Instead the windows were large scale adaptations of domestic sash windows, probably made by the estate staff. Their design led Anna Pavord to comment “If you pull one of the sash cords inside the greenhouse, a great panel in the roof slides open. If you pull on one of the heavy weights dangling against the whitewashed back wall, the roof panel slides shut. It’s simple and satisfying. But you do need muscle.”
Behind the rear wall of the vinery were a range of outhouses known as “backsheds’ which in addition to the heating furnace housed all the paraphernalia of gardening including the tools, as well as a potting shed and mushroom house. They also housed the gardeners bothy where the younger gardeners lived.
In about 1852 another large glasshouse – the Orchard House – was added based on designs by Thomas Rivers, a nurseryman famed for his work on fruit, whose grounds were at Sawbridgeworth about 25 miles away. Rivers had published his Miniature Fruit Garden, or, The Culture of Pyramidal Fruit Trees in 1840 based on his own experiments with continental techniques, and suggesting growing fruit trees pots under glass, rather than in the open.
He had followed that up in 1850 with The Orchard House, or, The Cultivation of Fruit Trees in Pots under Glass. These must have been seen by Lord Brabrooke who had inherited the estate and commissioned an orchard house himself.
It was “to serve not only to grow fruit in but as a promenade house in the spring and autumn months.” Rivers wrote that the head gardener, Mr. Young, initially “thought the idea childish… playing at fruit tree culture… unfit for a respectable garden, &c., and fit only for very poor parsons and still poorer doctors and lawyers.” But once Brabrooke had decided “Mr. Young immediately threw his whole heart and mind into the matter. The house was built in the course of the autumn by Mr. Dixon, the builder attached to the estate; some extra-sized trees of four or five years’ growth were purchased, and in the summer of 1856 a nice crop of fruit was gathered. Every season since the success has been perfect, and at this moment no sight can be more gratifying, for not a diseased leaf exists in the house, and Mr. Young derives real pleasure from the successful results of his intelligence and perseverance.
Lord Brabourne also told Rivers of “the great pleasure he had derived from it in his old age and declining health, for he seldom passed a day without a promenade in his orchard-house. I can fully understand this, for during the stormy weather we have had lately I have found my daily walk in a house 100 feet long, the thermometer at 60°, always most agreeable.”
The Audley End Orchard House was the subject of an article in Gardeners Chronicle in 1859, signed OH ][Orchard House?] which I suspect was by Rivers himself. He described the building as “a picture of fertility and beauty” which was ” to speak poetically, overflowing with fruit.” Inside “standing on the central border—for none of the pots are plunged—is a row of very fine trees, from six to eight years old… in the most luxuriant growth, and although many trees are growing in 10-inch and 12-inch pots only, scarcely any of them are rooted through. This is owing to their having been abundantly top-dressed with manure, and manure water occasionally used, so that they have had abundance of food at home. Top-dressing twice or thrice in summer is one of the great essentials to success in the pot culture of fruit trees.”
Rivers’ ideas were not universally accepted. “Some quasi-gardeners are however inclined not to use it, only because it has been written in a book, and such persons call themselves practical, making it a point to follow the too often foolish impulses of their own noddles to the great injury of their employers. I knew one gardener of this sort who would not give his Peach-trees any water ’till they asked for it’, i. e., till their leaves withered. He used to grow a rare crop of red spiders, but could not manage to get any Peaches!”
Of course there was also plenty of fruit grown outside both against walls and freestanding, and there are plenty of references in Gardeners Chronicle to the successes achieved by Young and later head gardeners.
There can be no doubt that in its heyday at the end of the 19thc the glasshouses and indeed the rest of the kitchen garden at Audley End must have been a magnificent sight, but with the turn of the century it went into a state of limbo. The house was sometimes let while later Lord Braybrookes made few changes, so that when the estate was bought by the Ministry of Works in 1948 the surviving glasshouse ranges were amongst the best survivals of early 19thc kitchen garden buildings in the country. However post-war austerity meant little was done by way of repairs and slowly the buildings fell into decay. The kitchen garden itself only survived by being used as a commercial market garden.
Amongst other things this meant the kitchen garden, nowadays such a central part of Audley’s End appeal, didn’t figure in the guide books before this century. Things took a turn for the better when in the early 1990s Mike Sutherill, an English Heritage inspector researched the garden’s history and persuaded his bosses that the Vinery, then near collapse, was worthy of full restoration.
By serendipitous good luck about the same time this work was getting under way the diary of William Cresswell came to light. Cresswell had been a gardener at Audley End for about 6 months in 1874 and had kept a journal of his time there.
The diary became a crucial piece of evidence for the restoration., and later the centrepiece of a book – Diary of a Victorian Gardener – published by English Heritage in 2006 about Cresswell’s life, work in other gardens, and of course his connection to Audley End. [I’m planning a post about him in a few weeks time.]
When the market gardener who leased the ground retired at the end of the 1990s English Heritage went into partnership with the Henry Doubleday Research Association [now Garden Organic] to restore the historic core of the site and re-establish a working organic kitchen garden. With a 3 year time scale for the work EH would manage and finance the project to the tune of about half a million £ while HDRA offered horticultural knowhow and a team of four gardeners under the enthusiastic leadership of Mike Thurlow who continued as head gardener until July 2012. I remember going on a tour with him soon after the garden re-opened and hearing him explain the ideas and methodology behind the restoration work.
Using Archaeology and documentary evidence the garden was again laid out in rectangular beds or ‘quarters’. These were separated by hoggin paths and edged by box [which has now all been removed] and/or espalier-trained fruit trees with the necessary training and support framework recreated from designs in Victorian catalogues. The fruit, vegetables and herbs were all 19thc varieties and mostly laid out in blocks and lines, labelled with its variety, and the date on which that variety was first recorded.
A cutting garden was also established to produce flowers for the house. In effect the walled garden became what Anna Pavord described as “a roll-call of horticultural history.” It was also a roll-call of horticultural techniques because wherever possible mid-19thc methods used were employed so that “anyone from that time coming back now would recognize what we are doing.” Thurlow’s aim was not to create a pastiche but “the real thing.”
The buildings posed particular problems for restoration. As the black and white photos above showed the superstructure of the vinery was in a very poor state, while the orchard house had gone completely. Luckily its brick base was still in place and the original plans and other documentary evidence still existed, so it could be completely rebuilt. A lot of repairs were needed to the walls, so matching handmade bricks and lime mortar were used and particular care taken not to obliterate the evidence of years of nailing and training fruit trees against them. It also turned out that the hot wall at the back of the central section of the vinery was probably hardly ever used, as there were no soot deposits in the flues.
Given the ruination of the glasshouse section it’s surprising that the backsheds were in a relatively good state of preservation, although the pit that housed the boiler for heating the hothouses had been filled in and concreted over. These have been restored and under normal circumstances visitors can see the potting and tool sheds, the mushroom house and the bothy.
There have been lots of changes since the early days of the re-creation and I’m not sure of the current state of co-operation between English Heritage and HDRA these days as its not really mentioned on the websites of either organisation. However we’ll have a chance to find out in July when I’m hoping the new head gardener will be giving a talk in the GT’s Unforgettable Garden series.
Whatever the position the whole scheme has been highly successful, and even in a cold miserable April a delight to visit.
For more information good places to start in addition to the references in the text are the English Heritage website pages for Audley End, the 2001 Conservation Report on the restoration project, and the following contemporary articles The Orchard House at Audley End, 1859 and Orchard Houses, 1863 and a 2004 article in The Times, Mr Cresswell’s garden of earthy delights.