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England's Wrest Park boasts 300 years of gardening history

By WILLIAM HOWARD | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 3, 2016

My wife and I were impressed when we entered the mansion at Wrest Park in Bedfordshire on a breezy summer day.

But the real awe didn’t hit us until we reached the backyard. Here, 300 years of garden history unfolds over a massive 92-acre grounds.

The central walk led us away from worldly worries with each progressive step. Sculptures of Greek gods guided our procession toward a Baroque pavilion once used for banquets.

Then, when we reached the surrounding forest, I had the sudden urge to kick off my shoes and run wild into the shadowy green pathways while imagining Peter Pan and the Lost Boys at my side.

For more than 600 years, the Wrest estate was home to the de Greys, one of England’s leading aristocratic families. Each generation of the de Greys left its mark on the grounds.

In the early 18th century, Henry de Grey, duke of Kent, began creating the massive formal woodland garden enclosed on three sides by canals.

Jemima, marchioness Grey, continued the expansion and redesigned the garden with guidance from Lancelot “Capability” Brown in 1758, a leader of the new English landscape style, to soften the park’s rough edges while preserving the heart of the formal layout.

Between 1834 and 1839, the current house was built to designs by Thomas de Grey, second earl de Grey, an amateur architect and the first president of the Royal Institute of British Architects.

In the early 20th century, the estate was rented to an American ambassador before serving as a convalescent home and as a military hospital during World War I.

English Heritage, an organization that takes care of more than 400 historic buildings in the United Kingdom, took over Wrest Park in 2006 and devised a 20-year plan to restore the gardens to their pre-1917 state.

Twice a year, 13 gardeners and as many as 35 volunteers design garden schemes that require eight weeks of preparation. The current design includes 14,700 potted plants, along with about 6,000 planted bulbs.

We didn’t have the endurance to discover all of the mysteries in what is often called Britain’s largest “secret” garden, but the stroll made the rest of the world disappear for one afternoon.

howard.william@stripes.com

 

Wrest Park

 

DIRECTIONS

Wrest Park is in Silsoe, Bedfordshire MK45 4HR. It’s about a 1 ½-hour drive from RAF Mildenhall south via the A505.

TIMES

Open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day. Check the English Heritage website before going because the house and garden sometimes close for weddings or other private functions.

COSTS

Entry for adults is 9.80 pounds (about $12) and 5.90 pounds for children. Members of English Heritage get in for free. Group entrance for a family of two adults and up to three children is 25.50 pounds.

FOOD

A cafe located by the entrance to the garden offers a range of drinks, from lemonade to beer, and soup, sandwiches and Bedfordshire clanger (a kind of pastry).

INFORMATION

Website: www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/wrest-park

A back view of the Wrest Park country estate in Silsoe, Bedfordshire, England. The house, built in 1834-39 was designed by owner Thomas de Grey, second earl de Grey, an amateur architect and the first president of the Royal Institute of British Architects.
WILLIAM HOWARD/STARS AND STRIPES

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