Saving Ashridge - how the fate of the National Trust estate could have been very different
PUBLISHED: 11:06 23 April 2020 | UPDATED: 11:12 23 April 2020
Credit: Claire Zaffin / Alamy Stock Photo
Walk the woods, hills and valleys of the Ashridge estate and the feeling is one of timelessness. It could all have been very different when it was put up for sale in the 1920s.
When the 3rd Earl Brownlow died a widower and childless in March 1921, he left 58,000 acres spread across the country, including the Ashridge estate, which stradles the Herts-Beds border to the west of Harpenden. No doubt the residents of Little Gaddesden and the other Chilterns villages within the estate expected the property to pass to an heir. Instead, the earl’s will directed that the house and land, which had been owned by the same family since 1604, should be sold. The possible breakup of one of the country’s finest estates caused considerable disquiet and uncertainty, not least in the estate’s villages, where many of the tenants either worked for or supplied goods and services to Ashridge.
At a time of little planning control, countryside around the edges of towns and cities and in rural areas was being sold for housing, facilitated by the rise in private car ownership and the spread of services like electricity. Ashridge lies close to railway stations for easy commuting to London and was clearly threatened.
The estate included extensive common land, including high chalk downland along the Chilterns scarp, over which generations of local people had exercised rights to graze their animals and collect fuel. By the 1920s that use was in decline. The estate woods contained many acres of valuable timber. Locals had enjoyed the paths and amenities of the estate on foot, but had few legal rights to go on to the land. The potential loss of access to this countryside and beauty was anticipated with considerable concern.
In May 1923 the contents of the grand house went up for sale, but it was another two years before the sale of the house itself and the estate was announced. Almost immediately there was an offer from a syndicate for the whole property – ominous news. At the same time an anonymous donor offered £20,000 (equivalent to over £1m today) to enable the National Trust to buy some of the land.
Back in 1925, it’s probable that few people knew much about the National Trust. Founded in 1895, even at its 50th anniversary in 1945 it had fewer than 10,000 members. In 2020, its 125th anniversary year, the trust is a very different organisation, with nearly six million members and 617,750 acres in its protective ownership. During this birthday year the trust has revisited the achievements of its founders and their ambitions for the fledgling organisation.
The three founders had known each other since the 1870s. They were united by a determination to save countryside and green spaces from destruction and disfigurement, and to protect public access to those places.
A trio of campaigners
Octavia Hill (1838-1912) devoted much of her life to improving living conditions and educational opportunities for poorer people in London. She saw open spaces in and around London threatened by development and campaigned to protect these ‘outdoor sitting rooms for the poor’.
Robert Hunter (1844-1913), a lawyer who became Solicitor to the Post Office, worked to stop the loss of footpaths and commons in conjunction with the Commons Preservation Society (now the Open Spaces Society), the country’s oldest amenity body founded in 1865. Hill and Hunter first met during an unsuccessful campaign to protect an open space near Regent’s Park in 1875. Hill said at that time that a continuous ‘green belt’ of parkland was needed around London, the first known use of that term.
Hardwicke Rawnsley (1851-1920) was a clergyman in the Lake District who sought to protect the beautiful landscapes there and founded the Lake District Defence Society.
By the early 1890s the trio realised that land ownership was the best guarantee of protection and a new body was needed to hold land in trust for the benefit of the nation. On January 12, 1895 the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty came into being, with Hunter (knighted in 1894) and Rawnsley (now a canon) as the first chairman and secretary.
Not seeking the limelight, Octavia Hill’s strength lay in recruiting donors and volunteers from her numerous friends and acquaintances, many of them women. Three years later Rawnsley was offered the bishopric of Madagascar, but was persuaded by Hill to stay in England, for the sake of the trust (and possibly to the delight of Rawnsley’s wife).
The trust’s early acquisitions were modest – the gift of five acres of clifftop in Wales, two acres at Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire bought for £10, and the UK’s first nature reserve, and Alfriston Clergy house in Sussex, another £10 purchase to rescue the building from dereliction.
In 1907 the trust’s fortunes were boosted when Robert Hunter drafted the National Trust Act, giving parliamentary authority to the new body and power to declare its land inalienable, which could not be disposed of without parliamentary approval. In the same year the body bought Barrington Court in Somerset, its first country house. This proved to be such a severe financial drain that three decades passed before the trust was persuaded to embark on further country house acquisitions.
It’s first public appeal, for Brandlehow Park in the Lake District in 1902, secured countryside accessible by train from Lancashire’s industrial towns. The trust declared that the property ‘will not be preserved for the solitary walker alone, but for the whole travelling public’. A Sheffield factory worker sent a small donation to the appeal, along with a note saying, ‘All my life I have longed to see the Lakes. I shall never see them now, but I should like to help keep them for others’.
Today, the National Trust’s places remain ‘for everyone, forever’ and it has a renewed focus on protecting and enhancing countryside and green spaces close to where people live.
As the 20th century progressed, the trust’s acquisitions were often near to where the founders lived and had influence – Hill by now had a house in Kent and Hunter had settled in Surrey. In the Lake District Rawnsley was a friend of Beatrix Potter who bought land there, often with Rawnsley’s advice. When she died in 1943 she left 4,000 acres to the trust.
By the outbreak of war in 1914 the trust was still relatively small, owning 6,000 acres in just over 60 properties. By then both Hill and Hunter had died, but Rawnsley continued as the trust’s secretary until his death in 1920.
Even without the three founders at its helm, when the prospect of buying parts of the Ashridge estate emerged in 1925, the trust’s track record of protecting treasured landscapes and open spaces was known about in the highest political circles. The prime minister himself gave his enthusiastic support to the appeal which eventually enabled the trust to buy 1,400 acres plus a further area the following year.
The proposed sale of the Ashridge estate near Berkhamsted in 1925 caused substantial fears locally that in new ownership this extensive area of countryside could be lost forever. There were expectations that it would be stripped of its valuable timber, sold off for housing development and closed to public access. The sale was announced on October 5 and four days later a letter appeared in The Times drawing attention to the potential threat to the estate. Almost immediately there was an offer from a syndicate, but at the same time an anonymous donor pledged £20,000 (equivalent to over £1m today) to help the National Trust buy parts of the estate.
Many of the contents of Ashridge House had already been sold by auction in May 1923. Later, panels of 16th century German glass in the Ashridge chapel windows were removed and also sold at auction. The anonymous buyer immediately gave them to the Victoria and Albert Museum, where they are still on display. The chapel organ dating from about 1818 remained in place and is now a valued item of great historic interest. The glass and the organ were installed by Sir Jeffry Wyatville, the architect responsible for completing the rebuilding of Ashridge House in the early 19th century.
The sale of the estate was precipitated when its owner, the 3rd Earl Brownlow, died a widower and childless in 1921. His will directed that Ashridge should be sold.
Bridget Talbot, a cousin of the Earl’s late wife, lived in Little Gaddesden, one of the estate villages. Like many others she deplored the potential destruction of the estate. Fortunately her family had contacts at the highest levels of government and she resolved to visit the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, in Downing Street as soon as possible. He agreed to see her straight away and later discussed the proposed sale with his cabinet. On October 20 another letter appeared in The Times, signed by Stanley Baldwin and other prominent figures. It appealed urgently for funds to help secure Ashridge. The newspaper continued to support the appeal and by mid-November £40,000 had been raised, enough for the National Trust to buy 1,400 acres of the estate immediately.
The house and remaining land not already secured by the trust was sold in 1927, then offered for sale again in small and large lots. In 1928 it was announced that the house and 80 acres, including the gardens laid out by Humphrey Repton, had been bought and given to the Conservative Party to establish a training college. Later, the land owned by the college was extended to 235 acres. It was to be known as Bonar Law College in memory of Andrew Bonar Law (1858-1923), the first British prime minister born outside the British Isles; he spent his early days in Canada and moved to Scotland aged 12. He was also the shortest-serving prime minister of the 20th century, with only 211 days in office. He resigned due to ill health in 1923 and died several months later.
At the time of Lord Brownlow’s death the mansion had only two bathrooms and no electricity. The architect Clough Williams-Ellis was engaged by the new college to update and improve the building. He is perhaps better-known for the Italianate village he built at Portmeirion in Wales, later used in the cult 1960s TV serial The Prisoner. Until the outbreak of war in 1939 Ashridge House was used as intended by the Conservative Party.
During the war a hospital was established in the house and in 29 concrete huts in the grounds. After the conflict some of the huts were used as a teacher training college, and later became part of the Public Records Office until it moved to Kew. The huts were demolished in 1982 and the land returned to parkland. The house resumed its educational function after the war, but with a wider brief no longer directly linked to the Conservative Party. In the early days of this new college, when finances were tight, part of the house was let to a finishing school called The House of Citizenship for Girls.
National Trust land
The initial National Trust purchase included five commons in the estate: Berkhamsted, Northchurch, Aldbury, Pitstone and Ivinghoe, including the prominent hill and landmark, Ivinghoe Beacon. A year later the trust acquired another 165 acres including Frithsden Beeches, an area of ancient beech pollards. Under Brownlow, public access to these areas was allowed, so when they were protected it must have been a great relief to those who had enjoyed the freedom to walk here.
Fundraising to help the trust buy further areas of the original estate continued, so that in 1930 it acquired the Golden Valley, landscaped by Capability Brown in the 1760s. Hudnall Common was gifted to the trust in 1937. The National Trust has continued its policy of acquiring land which lay within the original estate whenever possible. Further additions included Pitstone Hill near Aldbury in 1999, an area of woodland and chalk grassland, with extensive views from the Chilterns scarp across the flat clay vale beyond.
The Ashridge woods in the 1920s contained a great deal of valuable timber (as they still do), especially beech. This was the first established timber site to be bought by the National Trust, which was founded in 1895. In the 1939-45 war the woods were used extensively for military training.
Not all of the estate could be protected and by 1929 houses were being built in various parts. Further houses were built after the end of the war.
Visiting Ashridge & Covid-19
There are numerous areas of interest for visitors to the 5,000 acres of the Ashridge estate now in National Trust ownership. Importantly however, due to the coronavirus pandemic, Ashridge Estate is currently closed to visitors.
We all need something to look forward to, so when restrictions are lifted, a plan might include the following: Ivinghoe Beacon topped by a hillfort and the remains of another on Pitstone Hill, just two of many ancient monuments on the estate. The Bridgewater Monument, one of the estate’s best-known features, put up in 1832 to commemorate the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, a former owner of Ashridge known as ‘The Canal Duke’. He established the first canal in Britain to transport coal from his mines in the Manchester area. There are fine views from the top of the tower accessed by 172 steps in a spiral staircase.
One for next year – the estate is famous for its bluebells which reach their peak in late April and early May. One of the best places to see them is Dockey Wood alongside Beacon Road linking Ringshall and Ivinghoe Beacon. The wood is popular with visitors when the bluebells are in flower and there is an entry charge at peak times (free for National Trust members).
The visitor centre next to the Bridgewater Monument has a café, shop, exhibition space and toilets. There is another car park close to Ivinghoe Beacon and many smaller parking places around the estate.
Single-seater scooters and two-seater golf buggies are available for those with restricted mobility to borrow from April until mid-October. They can be collected from the visitor centre adjacent to the monument and used on nearby tracks. There is no charge, but the trust relies on donations to keep this service running. Advance booking is advised.
Ivinghoe Beacon, Dockey Wood and the area around the monument can get busy, but within the estate there are miles of quiet paths and tracks exploring peaceful open grassland, as well as extensive woodland with towering beech trees and ancient pollards, and anthill-studded chalk downland from where there are often magnificent views. Much of the estate is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and there is plenty of wildlife to look out for.
Go online to nationaltrust.org.uk or download the National Trust app to find out more about the founders of the trust, its role today as Europe’s largest conservation charity and details of its properties to visit, including Ashridge and Shaw’s Corner at Ayot St Lawrence near Welwyn. Writer Liz Hamilton is appointed to the National Trust Council by CPRE.