On an incredibly hot morning this week, the only intrepid (stupid?!) visitors to brave the 30+ temperatures, my dad and I took a tour around Luton Hoo Walled Gardens to see the restoration work in progress. The garden and grounds of the Luton Hoo Estate were designed in the late 1760s by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown for John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, former Prime Minister and unofficial director of the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew. At the time Luton Hoo was second only to the Kew in its splendour and Lord Bute’s garden added to his reputation as a key botanist and horticulturalist of the age. By the 1980s the garden had fallen into decline (despite being restored and developed with glasshouses added in the Edwardian period). Large areas were completely overgrown to the extent that the established apple orchard at the far end of the garden had disappeared from view.
The walled garden is a 5 acre site with an additional 5 acres outside the walls known as ‘The Slips’ comprising outhouses once used as potting sheds, gardeners’ quarters, boiler houses and other working buildings. In addition to the buildings, Capability Brown and Lord Bute planted trees to act as a shelterbelt and installed pumps and a complex irrigation system to service the walled garden. There was also an orchard, peach house and cold frame area outside the garden in the area which is now the car park. In 2001, a restoration programme began which saw the garden open to the public in 2007. It is run by a team of around 50 volunteers with only one employed gardener – the Head Gardener – who works four days a week.
The volunteers are slowly restoring the gardens to a productive state – there are fruit and vegetable areas, cut flower borders, a wedding marquee from which all proceeds go back into the garden fund, rose borders and a fabulous cacti and succulent collection in one of the old glasshouses.
Specimens from the cacti and succulent collection
The intention isn’t to create a historical reconstruction of any one period from the history of the estate, but rather to create a productive space which develops the skills of individuals, involves the community and offers a beautiful garden for exercise and relaxation. In the past, the garden was a place where young boys and apprentices were taught horticultural skills and later in World War II it was used by the Women’s Land Army with Land Girls working in agricultural roles on the estate. So the current programme with local schools and classes for children in the holidays, continues the education role of the garden.
Volunteers are also involved in researching the history of the garden and have uncovering much new information, for example, the fact that it was a Capability Brown garden was only recently discovered. They are also involved in restoring elements of the garden from the old walls which are unsound in places, to the glasshouses and the agricultural machinery which has been found around the estate. Unfortunately, without significant funding the majority of the glasshouses look set to remain unsafe for the foreseeable future, at least until the 15 million required to undertake restoration work can be raised.
The planting in the walled garden has been designed with sustainability in mind – it uses mainly drought-tolerant plants and watering is kept to a minimum. Chemical pesticides and fertilisers are avoided and machinery is rarely used, except to cut grass. This means that the produce from the garden, much of which is sold to residents of the estate, is free from chemicals.
The garden is open to visitors from 10.30 – 4 on Wednesdays from the beginning of May to the end of September. I felt the £5 entry per person, which goes to support the work in the garden and includes a excellent tour with a knowledgeable volunteer, was good value and I enjoyed the whole experience. Much of the garden’s interest lies in its history and this is celebrated throughout the tour with information about the different stages of development and visual cues in the planting and displays in the outhouses.
I particularly liked the perennial/annual borders and the cutting garden with its sweet pea bed, salvia border and mixed cool border. All in all, this was a fascinating (if sweltering) visit and I’ll definitely go again, both to attend the summer children’s workshops and to visit next year to see how the restoration is progressing.
For more information about the garden, opening times, events and volunteering, go to the Luton Hoo Walled Garden website.
The Rose Border at its best this week with ‘The Generous Gardener’, ‘The Pilgrim’ and ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’