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Words: Steffie Shields
Photography: Steffie Shields
Featured in the September 2014 issue

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Steffie Shields explores a distinctive, newly restored garden in Bedfordshire.

The name Shuttleworth stirs memories of WWI aircraft, particularly the Sopwith Camel and Pup – iconic single-seat biplanes. Those travelling along the A1 regularly might have spied signs near the Sandy roundabout for the Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden, a haunt for aeroplane enthusiasts.

Others connect the name with pride to Lincoln’s famous engineering works Clayton and Shuttleworth, founded in 1842 by two brothers-in-law who went into partnership, establishing the Stamp End Iron Works by the River Witham. They became one of the country’s leading manufacturers of agricultural implements, portable steam engines, and threshing machines, later developing aeroplane engines – building 500 Sopwith Camels between 1917 and 1919.

A little-known garden neighbouring the airfield at Old Warden, hidden from view by the aircraft hangars, has been undergoing intensive research and an exceptionally high standard of restoration enabled by Heritage Lottery Funding. Switzerland conjured up in the low-lying Bedfordshire countryside, without real mountains, seems highly unlikely. It is perhaps more accurate to describe the garden as reflecting both early and late nineteenth century taste: a confection of ingenious craftsmanship amongst mighty conifers.

Lord Robert Henley Ongley (1803–1877) spent almost a decade creating a rich Regency pleasure ground garden in the 1830s with an alpine theme; influenced by tours abroad, the Prince Regent’s extravagant Brighton Palace garden and the flourishing nurseries stocked with plant-hunters’ treasures. He consolidated family estates in Bedfordshire, selling off estates in Kent and London in order to lavish his home with framed picturesque views and various intimate settings for both sanctuary and show, enlivened by a mix of exotics and dramatic evergreens that were all the rage.

In 1872, with no heirs and his fortunes declining, he was forced to sell to the inventor and industrialist, Joseph Shuttleworth (1819–1883) whose primary residence was Hartsholme Hall in Lincoln.

Born in Dogdyke and apprenticed in Derbyshire, Shuttleworth inherited a boat business from his father. In 1841 he married Sarah Grace Clayton and went on to make a fortune through his engineering prowess and successful business ventures. Sarah died in 1849. In 1862 Joseph married Caroline Jane, daughter of Lieutenant-Colonel Richard George Ellison of Boultham Hall. They acquired nearby land including a reservoir that supplied water to Lincoln and started building Hartsholme Hall. After pulling down and completely rebuilding the house in high Victorian Gothic architecture, Shuttleworth called in leading landscape architect Edward Milner (1819–1884) who altered the reservoir into a lake and laid out the gardens in a similar fashion. Milner went on to create the Lincoln Arboretum.

Later, Shuttleworth was able to devote time to various public enterprises; for many years serving as a member of the council of the Royal Agricultural Society. Often in London, in 1870 he acquired the Old Warden estate, ideally located for entertaining guests from the capital. Once again he turned to Milner to upgrade the Swiss Garden, which by then was rather tired. Originally apprenticed to the celebrated Joseph Paxton at Chatsworth, he introduced the latest stained glass and ironwork, and designed a new approach drive and tunnel, a broad walk and terraces. James Pulham (1820–1898) was brought in to mastermind the landscaping, installing his special man-made Pulhamite rockwork around the ponds and converting the cruciform conservatory into an unusual grotto fernery. Shuttleworth also called down Mr Allis, his head gardener from Hartsholme.

Previously owned and restored by Bedfordshire County Council in the early 1980s, after years of decline and neglect, the Swiss Garden was then taken over nine years ago by the Shuttleworth Trust. The restoration project involved negotiating large machinery through the diverse site, an arduous task hindered by listed buildings and narrow gates. Besides mature trees deemed dangerous, over 150 yew trees (originally kept trimmed to a height of two metres) and self-set specimens were carefully taken out. A thirty-five metre tall, old Cedar of Lebanon by the 1830s Indian kiosk had to go. Large numbers of trees had deadwood removed, or branches overhanging the fragile glass roof of the grotto reduced.

Recently opened again to the public, this unique, picturesque garden has a legacy of magnificent trees and thirteen elaborate listed buildings, lovingly restored. Grottos, colourful summerhouses, eagles and urns feature along woodland gravel walks, an easily negotiated nine acres of man-made undulating terrain. Novel, bright blue picture frames have been placed in the gardens at key points to draw visitors’ attention to memorable ‘stage sets’ with antique garden ornaments, evocative glades and hollows, lawns and shrubberies, pools, cascades and islands.

I prefer the more natural frames. A champion cedar, Cedrus atlantica, Bedfordshire’s tallest Cedar of Lebanon, towers in the heart of the garden, framing views of the centrepiece: a thatched, two-storey, octagonal Swiss Cottage, partly built into the side of a mount – a splendid place to pause, or retreat from hot sun or raindrops.

There are two ways to enter the garden. On a baking hot day I chose the shaded woodland route, guarded by a striking, textured sculpture presumably hewn from one of the old trees. A few steps further I came across Patrick Brown the wood sculptor, at work painting peacock feather fans on a curvaceous wooden Indian seat. He explained that all his new carvings in the garden stem from his work with seven local schools. The schoolchildren have become engaged in the Swiss Garden, interpreting its story in drawings and paintings. Patrick has put some of their design ideas and responses to the unusual setting into bold reality, adding a modern and imaginative twist to the garden periphery by the tranquil lake. Let’s hope, as a result, a few of these children are sufficiently inspired to become the gardeners and landscape architects of the future.

The path meanders towards an open lawn, where bright green railings and iron gates welcome visitors to the garden proper with the first glimpse of the rustic Swiss Cottage on a hill, topped bizarrely with a grand gold finial and framed by the first of many sweeping iron arcs. These were once hung with gaily coloured lanterns, intermingled with climbing roses and trailing wisteria. The replanting of the fifty-three flower beds and shrubberies is still in its early stages, but ornate ironwork bridges, arbours and circular tree seats – also painted bright green, or sky blue – add to the neat, manicured Victorian ambiance. For those who know Blankney Hall, long since demolished, James Pulham’s artificial rockwork once displayed the country’s finest fern collection on an island in the midst of grottos, bridges and pools, still surviving though overgrown, ‘gone to sleep’.

It is appropriate that notions of war and peace are found side by side here, especially with this year’s WWI centenary commemorations. Together, the superb Shuttleworth Collection and the sensational Swiss Garden offer stimulus for the imagination, contemplation and learning.

I left uplifted, after walking the grounds and admiring the enduring vision of Victorian builders and craftsmen.

So if travelling to, or from, London, it is well worth stopping off here for a break. The Shuttleworth Collection is a perfect destination to keep fathers, older sons and grandfathers in particular amused, with iconic veteran aircraft and automobiles, and even the odd flying display.

Meanwhile, wives, mothers, grandmothers and younger children can explore the dappled gardens and picnic by the lake. With enough to keep all members of the family happy, there should be no need for arguments!

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