Wrest Estate Restoration
Wrest assured, the future of this Bedfordshire stately home is safe…
SELLING off the family silver is never easy, says JUDY RILEY. Well, I imagine it isn’t. My family never actually had any silver to speak of so I can’t comment with any authority but it’s horrible to have to get rid of treasured possessions, whatever their value.
But what if it’s not just your descendents who will blame you for spending the kids’ inheritance? What if thousands of visitors a year can’t believe just what a dolt you’ve been to flog off so many things that turned out to be irreplaceable?
At Wrest Park things were going swimmingly. The estate had been in the same family, the de Grey’s, for generations. There had been a house on the site since the 1300s but over the centuries the original building had been altered and improved until it was a rambling and ramshackle hotch-potch. It was also, according to Thomas, Earl de Grey, leaky, damp, the corridors were cracked and the windows wouldn’t shut. Understandable then that, in the 1820s, he decided to build a new house in the style of an 18th century French chateau.
For the next 90 years the place was lived in and loved but by the start of World War l, the de Grey’s had no heirs who wished to make it their family home. After a couple of years as a field hospital for wounded soldiers, the house was badly damaged by fire and in 1917 Wrest was sold to an industrialist who proceeded to lose all his money and let the house and gardens fall into wrack and ruin.
Everything that hadn’t already been disposed of soon was and the estate was sold again. For 60 years Wrest Park was owned by the Ministry of Works and leased to the Silsoe agricultural Research Institute.
In 2012, the house still has something of that boiled cabbage and paper clips civil service stamp on it but English Heritage is doing what it can to reintroduce some of the ‘French Chateau’ feel to rooms on the ground floor. But while the house is still in need of a fair old bit of TLC, the gardens are at last getting plenty of attention.
John Watkins, Head of Gardens and Landscape at English Heritage says: “The de Grey’s were active in the grounds here for 300 years. Unlike other families who’d want to wipe away work done in the past, they added to and embellished it. The gardens here are like a picture you constantly have to touch up and repaint. When you walk through them you are walking through 250 years of English garden history.”
Back in the 18th century, a garden wasn’t a proper garden unless there were statues and sculptures dotted throughout the landscape in ‘garden rooms’. Unfortunately in 1809 Amabel Yorke, Countess de Grey, was a bit short of cash so she sold off much of the Wrest Park collection or, in the case of the lead statues, had them melted down to raise funds.
Two hundred years on, following a major award from the Heritage Lottery Fund, precious garden statues which were once features of the 90 acre landscape have been reinstated. Some had been stored away in dusty corners; others, though not originally part of the Wrest Park collection, have been bought in because they are identical to what used to be there. They are now too fragile to be exposed to the elements but they occupy a lovely new gallery in the former ornamental dairy and are set against a magical, translucent backdrop of an 18th century watercolour of the garden.
Wrest Park is definitely a work in progress but, as Andrew Hann, Senior Historian of English Heritage, says: “Every time I come here I notice something new. The Dairy sculpture gallery is just the next stage in opening up Wrest Park for a new generation of visitors.”
Call 01525 860152 or visit: www.english-heritage.org.uk for more information.
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