Restoring rhododendron heaven
PUBLISHED: 12:28 01 July 2014
A plan to restore the 19th-century Rhododendron Walk at Berkhamsted’s Ashridge House will recreate one of the greatest plantings of the species in the UK. Philippa Pearson reports
In 1808, the 7th Earl of Bridgewater and architect James Wyatt began work constructing Ashridge House in Berkhamsted while celebrated landscape gardener Humphry Repton (left) was commissioned to design the 190-acre grounds. Repton’s Red Book For Ashridge was presented in 1813 and shows designs for 15 different areas. The gardens, with some adaptions, were completed in 1823, with further additions made from 1849 to the 1880s. Many of Repton’s ideas and aspects of the gardens’ layouts still survive today, making the gardens an historically-significant place to visit for any horticulturalist.
The gardens at Ashridge are being restored on an individual basis and over the past 15 years the Italian Garden, Rose Garden, Herb Garden and Flower Garden have all been overhauled, while new plantings and modern design elements sit alongside the historic gardens where new developments have been built. The Ashridge (Bonar Law Memorial) Trust has set up a campaign to preserve the house and gardens for the benefit of the nation. Its landscape conservation plan has identified several more areas which require restoration and protection and a five-year programme of work has begun and a campaign launched to raise £750,000.
One major area of focus is the 400-metre long Wellingtonia Avenue planted in 1858, only five years after this giant sequoia, a native of California and one of the most massive trees in the world, was introduced to the UK.
Later plantings of horse chestnut were incorporated into the avenue and a flint-lined moat to separate Repton’s gardens with the newly-developed area was added. During the early 1880s, the area was further developed with the 3rd Earl Brownlow introduced massed plantings of rhododendrons and azaleas in beds either side of the moat and along the Wellingtonia Avenue. The Rhodendron Walk was pruned in the 1950s and again 12 years ago, while the horse chestnuts were removed from between the wellingtonias to add more space and light. Many of the original hybrid rhododendrons have died out and the remainder are being swamped by rhododendron ponticum species which is increasingly taking over.
‘In the early days,’ says Ashridge head gardener Mick Thompson, ‘nurseries would use rhododendron ponticum as rootstock and graft hybrid species on this. But this rootstock is quite vigorous, which they didn’t know at the time, and is threatening to overrun the other rhododendron plantings.’
A plan is in place to remove the rhododendron ponticum species and replace it with varieties originally planted in the 1880, although research to find what these species were has not been easy. ‘We only have a box of inherited Victorian lead plant labels, although a list of hybrids originally planted was put together a few years ago,’ explains Thompson.
‘But after lots of research, we found that many of the hybrids are no longer in cultivation.’ Thompson and his gardening team have turned to Ken Cox of Glendoick Nurseries, specialists in rhododendrons, in Perth, Scotland and together they are working on planting ideas and trying to identify remaining plants. ‘We’re also looking at introducing some other varieties that would extend the current flowering period from April to June over a longer time,’ Thompson says. ‘Ken Cox feels the restored Rhodo-dendron Walk at Ashridge could eventually be one of the greatest plantings of this type in the UK.’
Visit Ashridge House gardens.
The gardens are open every Saturday and Sunday until September. Guided tours are available on Tuesdays and Thursdays from late July to early September for an additional charge, call to book.
Ashridge, Berkhamsted, HP4 1NS.