Preserving Herts’ historic gardens

Ashridge House

Ashridge House - Credit: Archant

The Hertfordshire Gardens Trust works to preserve the county’s rich horticultural heritage. Philippa Pearson talks to chairman Arabella Stuart-Smith about its plan to record all its historic green spaces

Summer borders at Bennington Lordship

Summer borders at Bennington Lordship - Credit: Archant

Hertfordshire boasts a diverse and rich heritage of historic gardens and parkland. Some, like Hatfield House gardens and park, retain much of their original splendour and are well known and supported by the public, while others are a fragment of their glorious heydays or have made way for housing and transport demands.

School children enjoying gardening with the Trust's schools project

School children enjoying gardening with the Trust's schools project - Credit: Archant

The Hertfordshire Gardens Trust was founded more than 20 years ago to prevent further loss or deterioration of the county’s designed green spaces and, with the help of its members, is recording historic garden spaces and parklands, whatever their condition, across the county – with a view to conservation.

Trust members on a research project at Gobions Wood, site of 18th century garden

Trust members on a research project at Gobions Wood, site of 18th century garden - Credit: Archant

‘We started the first study along one of the main arterial roads through Hertfordshire, researching the area and finding out about its landscape history,’ says trust chairman Arabella Stuart-Smith.

Hatfield house

Hatfield house - Credit: Archant

Charting Hertfordshire’s landscape heritage from medieval times through to the 21st century, trust members and volunteers are led by landscape historian Anne Rowe, with support from Tom Williamson, professor of landscape history at the University of East Anglia to organise desk research and site surveys.

Greenhouse at Audley End kitchen garden,Essex

Greenhouse at Audley End kitchen garden,Essex - Credit: Archant

‘We give training to members who want to join the research group,’ Arabella explains. ‘The work is really interesting and rewarding.’

The ongoing survey is organised on a district basis and several books have been published forming a collection of comprehensive reports detailing the histories of many of Hertfordshire’s parks and gardens. These are held at the Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies at County Hall in Hertford and publications are for sale on the trust’s website.

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Current projects include researching the Welwyn and Hatfield area and producing a leaflet on the work of landscape gardener Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown and the gardens, parks and landscapes he worked on in the county, to mark the tercentenary of his birth in 2016. ‘We are planning to produce a trail map of Capability Brown landscape in Hertfordshire,’ Arabella says, ‘so that people can see the work of this celebrated landscaper across the county.’

Monitoring and commenting on planning applications in Hertfordshire is an important part of the trust conservation team’s work. Members get professional training and help with monitoring and commenting on planning applications.

Local authorities consult the team on the repair and restoration of historic parks and gardens and they are acknowledged by both English Heritage and the Garden History Society as their first point of contact in the county for historic designed landscapes. A list of historic gardens, useful for planning officers, covering the 10 local authority areas in Hertfordshire, is being produced. St Albans, Broxbourne and Dacorum have been completed and the Welwyn and Hatfield area is currently being compiled.

The trust also has an educational role in schools. Arabella Stuart-Smith, who became chairman last July, has an infectious enthusiasm for the legacy of the county’s gardens, and gardening in general, and set up Wheelbarrow Workshops in primary schools in 2008. Now implemented in 165 schools in the county, the workshops teach 30 children at a time about gardening via a wheelbarrow full of gardening items. ‘I’m better known as Mrs Wheelbarrow to many children!’ laughs Arabella.

As well as getting involved in research, conservation and education, members of the trust also get the chance to meet other members on garden visits, listen to informative talks and go on study days. Arabella says, ‘We visit gardens outside Hertfordshire as well as places within the county and most gardens open especially for us.’ Last year, garden visits covered Cambridgeshire, Northants, Essex and Bedfordshire and events in 2014 include a study day at Tring Park Mansion with a talk and guided tours around the historic grounds.

‘The great thing about the trust,’ explains Arabella, ‘is that members can get involved as little or as much as they want to. Everyone is welcome and being a member is very satisfying.’