In an English country garden

Venue: Wrest Park and Audley End House and Garden
Date: 16 Jun 2012

Nominated least green-fingered of the Group Leisure team, Melissa Cadby joined English Heritage on a Reader Club trip to Wrest Park and Audley End House and Garden, with the aim of sourcing some outdoor inspiration.

Following a June week cursed by gale-force winds, torrential rain and thunderstorms, and with much of the same weather predicted for the weekend, I had packed my brolly and waterproofs in anticipation of Group Leisure’s English Heritage Reader Club trip.

However as I meandered down the beautiful long driveway which leads to Bedfordshire’s Wrest Park – the first stop on our two-part itinerary – I was more than a little relieved to discover a dry day with blue skies; a real blessing for our garden-themed programme.

Ushered into the French-style mansion by the friendly travel trade team, a group of organisers and I settled down in one of the ornate rooms with coffee and cookies, for an introduction to our day ahead.

Corinne Price, upper gardens and apprentice manager at Wrest Park, provided an interesting ‘potted history’ to the house, gardens and restoration project, which English Heritage took on in 2006 for its 2011 re-launch. Just at the start of its 20-year, multi-million pound revitalisation plan, developments to date showcase new visitor facilities, a new interpretation in the mansion, and the restoration of the rose garden and the Italian garden.

“We have actually got a meeting coming up at Wrest Park. I wanted to come today to see what it was like so that I could welcome the members and know what to expect. I was very impressed with what I saw, as though I live nearby, I’ve never had the opportunity to go into the house and grounds.” Enid Pamment, Shefford Leisure Group

One of the few landscapes where 300 years of garden history can be experienced at one site, we were spilt into two smaller parties to embark on a guided garden tour for groups led by knowledgeable volunteer Ann. Teeming with interesting titbits for history, heritage and gardening aficionados, we explored the walled garden, rose garden, Italian garden, the French parterre and more.

Those with a keen eye for architecture were not disappointed either on this tour as we roamed the Orangery, Bowling Green House and the striking Pavilion – a pleasure house designed to entertain hunting parties. A jewel in the crown of Wrest Park, the early 18th century Pavilion boasts a handsome domed ceiling, so don’t forget to look up.

After a sumptuous two-course lunch, the group enjoyed an hour spent at leisure. I took a look around Thomas, Earl de Grey’s Parisian-style townhouse, with highlights including the Countess’s Sitting Room, from where Henrietta de Grey once gazed out over the scenery, no doubt keeping a beady eye on the progress of the gardeners.

Outside, the new visitor facilities comprise a cafe from where groups typically dine, a children’s play area, and a retail shop that offered the most delicious preserve samples, which I know tempted several of the party to part with their change.

Groups of up to 20 can pre-book the one-and-a-half hour garden tours with volunteer guides, which are well worth arranging prior to some allocated free time to further investigate the grounds. If your schedule cannot spare the 90 minutes, new audio tours are a good alternative outdoors. Indoors, those with an interest in decoration could consider a pre-booked show-round of the upstairs rooms which are dressed with rare Chinese and French wallpaper.

It may also be worth noting that the 90 acres of Wrest Park estate is negotiated by hop-on hop-off golf buggies for those less mobile, and mobility scooters can be hired if booked in advance.

“I didn’t know what to expect at either of the places but I was very impressed by them. Both will suit our group excellently.” Brenda Plowman, Out and About

Audley End House and Gardens

Accompanied by our cheerful Souls driver, next we boarded our coach for the 35 miles journey to Audley End House and Gardens in Essex.

Based in Saffron Walden, the early 17th century Jacobean mansion boasts links to royalty, and on approaching the vast house and its extensive ‘Capability’ Brown grounds, it certainly appeared fit for a king. With no itinerary to follow except the challenge of seeing all of the attractions within a limited timeframe, our posse of organisers divided up into smaller groups and headed off in different directions.

Retaining so much of its original character, Audley End House features many richly-decorated Robert Adam-designed rooms waiting to be discovered. With sights such as floor-to-ceiling books, intricate tapestries, and paintings adorning the walls; it’s a good job that there are guides positioned in each area to engage visitors with historic tales and answer any questions. From the interior alone, the impressive Great Hall and the Chapel’s stained-glass windows were my personal favourites.

Moving outside, the Service Wing is a must-see. Presenting working life on the estate in 1881, it felt very much like a small-scale living history museum, where I had the opportunity to snoop around the laundry, dairy, kitchen, game larder, coal shed and scullery.

Though still full from lunch, I managed to scoff down a refuelling cup of coffee and slice of chocolate cake in the Tearoom, purely to provide an all-round review of course, and I’m pleased to say that it was very nice. An alternative dining option for group visits is the Cart Yard cafe, located next to the playground.

“I’ve found it a very useful day. Representing a history group and going to places of great interest, particularly Wrest Park which is new, has given me a lot of ideas. Audley House I did know before, but even still it was good to see it again. I will definitely bring a group as it combines our interests in history and beautiful buildings.” Anna Hallett, Lichfield History Group

My next stop was outside at the Parterre. Bursting full of colour, the formal gardens, overlooked by the main house and Temple of Concord monument, are planted partly with roses and herbaceous flowers, and partly with annuals.

Last but by no means least on my agenda was Audley’s organic kitchen garden and Stable Yard. The walled garden traditionally grew fruit and vegetables to feed the family and now cultivates produce in partnership with Garden Organic. The early 17th-century stable block is now home to a multimedia exhibition, where you can chart the development of the estate.

Unfortunately on our visit I missed the opportunity to meet the horses, but I’m told that they, along with their groom, make regular live demonstrations. To learn more about this and other daily events, pop along to the visitor information centre early doors to check the scheduled programme.

As our reader day drew to a close, timing couldn’t have been more perfect as we embarked the coach just as the heavens opened and the rain came down.

These garden gems can be enjoyed separately as part of an itinerary based in either county, or even together as we experienced on the day, as the locality makes it totally feasible to work the two properties into a complementary day trip. Though the weather would never be guaranteed, a successful group trip which offers something for everyone would be, and with any luck, mother nature will be smiling down on your group adventure.

Useful contacts:

Wrest Park:

Audley End House and Gardens:

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