Growing Stones

Just like an antique rug, with unravelled threads, blemishes, bald patches and stains, once you begin to look, you see these Ashridge threads in fact link across the Chilterns, even the nation, presenting a tantalising picture of this wonderful place and its story. 

Ashridge gardens are a magical place of mythical puddingstone’s, Totternhoe stone, Humphry Repton and an acorn from a queen. 

Each time I visit Ashridge, I am inspired by the stories I uncover: religious relics, sunken lanes, a landscape of contrasts, abandoned masonry, animal trails, a vineyard, the wild and the managed. All within a glorious 5,000 acres of Chilterns woodland. 

Ashridge weather vane
Fan vaulting and tracery on the ceiling of the tower, with a dial that displays the position of the weathervane on the roof.

Just like an antique rug, with unravelled threads, blemishes, bald patches and stains, once you begin to look, you see these Ashridge threads in fact link across the Chilterns, even the nation, presenting a tantalising picture of this wonderful place and its story. 

Garden Design

Ashridge Gardens extend an impressive 190 acres across a reasonably flat site in an otherwise undulating and hilly landscape. Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown designed the northern and eastern part of the gardens and famous Golden Valley. It is the gardens south of the house, originally designed by Humphry Repton (1752 -1818), in the early 19th century, that we were here to explore. In good company, Repton, William Kent and ‘Capability’ Brown share the honour of being the three most famous 18th century landscape designers and gardeners.

From 1808 to 1813 the architect James Wyatt crafted, from local Totternhoe ‘soft’ stone and lashings of flint, an Ashridge House to claim the high-point above the undulating Golden Valley and surrounding forest.

Peaceful and colourful ashridge house gardens
The peaceful gardens

The grounds to the rear of the house are dominated by the extensive lawn leading onto avenues of trees inviting you to explore further, with the promise of tantalising views of the surrounding area.

Maple tree in Ashridge House
The maple signals the change of season

On a closer look, the garden is made up of a number of smaller gardens and discrete areas, which have been the focus for Mick Thompson and his team. Working on the restoration of the Rosary, an Armorial Garden, the Italian Garden and the Flower Garden that have retained strong links with their designer and visionary, Repton.

Reptons' drawing of his rosary garden
Humphry Repton’s 1813 Rosary Drawing
Puddingstone’s

The county line between Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire runs right through the garden, and is now marked by a puddingstone no less. Once disputed, with Buckinghamshire laying claim to more than their due, this conglomerate rock (that could be the icon of Hertfordshire), has symbolically won the day!

Ashridge house southern garden
A cluster of puddingstone’s marks the Souterrein

You can see the puddingstone’s tumbled about the entrance to the grotto and souterrein tunnel that have been constructed using this very hard conglomerate. The estate has the largest collection of puddingstone’s, possibility the largest supply in the world! How and when they are formed is a mystery, but Hertfordshire folk have never been in doubt  ̶  it grows, and then gives birth to new stones. This is because stones appear out of the ground, which has given rise to the names “Growing Stone” and “Breeding Stone”.

A fitting addition to this garden. 
The restored rose garden
The view of the house from the restored rose garden

The Italian Garden and the arbour for the Rose Garden (now framed with laburnum trees), have been restored to their original design.

What made it for me was the magnificent oak, dominating the lawn, its massive trunk and spreading limbs are just perfect. I stood and stared. Perhaps I was drawn to it because I was reminded of an oak tree in my garden when I was a child. This oak however, was planted in 1823 by Princess Victoria to commemorate her visit to Ashridge. How will it be commemorated in 2023? I took an acorn home for my son. 

Oak tree planted by princess Victoria in 1823
At a mere 195 years old, the magnificent Princess Victoria oak steals the show

Ashridge is a compelling story, made up of the majestic and the mundane.  I just know I am going to go on following those loose threads and blemishes to see what they reveal. 

My visit was on a Repton Garden Tour, an event in the excellent Heritage Open Days programme organised by Jenny Sherwood of the Berkhamsted Local Historical & Museum Society and led by the charming and knowledgeabe Mick Thompson, head gardener at Ashridge House. Thank you both. 

I must confess that after this delightful garden tour, I still can’t remember many plant, shrub nor tree names! Apart from the oak, that really caught my eye. But that says more about me than it does Mick. 

Further information

Information on tours of the house and gardens can be found here. Holy relics were once big business, read about the Ashridge relics here.

Further information on the designs and Repton’s work can be found here: 

Book a table for lunch at the popular Alford Arms in nearby Frithsden. The first gin distillery in Hertfordshire, named after the iconic stone, can be found at Wilstone Reservoir, just five minutes from Tring.

Take a walk around the medieval stone quarry at Totternhoe, seven miles from Ashridge.

And if that’s not enough, further Chilterns inspiration and itineraries can be found here.

Do Trees Fall Uphill?

In places the original iron fence has been replaced by wood, then barbed wire simply rolled over the gaps that will keep everything out. Or in. The contrast between the carefully managed fields and the disarray and upheaval behind me couldn’t be greater. The former almost lifeless, the latter bursting with life.

I love the wide open winter vistas that reveal unexpected views and spaces, the shadows long, and a raw winter wind causes the bare tree tops to clatter and scratch against one another, loud on the otherwise still hillside.

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The younger trees sway about like drunk patrons, crashing into one another

What looked like the aftermath of a great disturbance with piles of flint, up-ended trees, mounds of excavated chalk and the biggest wall of roots I’d ever seen awaited us as we headed off-piste to follow the animal trails that branch off the well-trodden Ashridge Forest Sunday paths. The Ashridge estate is huge, with over 5,000 acres of woodlands and the many visitors tending to huddle near the toilets, cafe and carpark, the chances are always good you’ll have the other 4,999 acres pretty much to yourself.

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Heading downhill through the trees, it’s only as the track became even narrower and I have to watch where I am walking, that I notice the toppled trees interspersed with tightly-packed new growth, enjoying a few years of space before they are muscled out. These upended beeches, all pointing uphill, whilst the oaks, needing space have jumped the fence and taken root in the field alongside.

The oaks needs space to stretch out and breath
The oaks need space to stretch and breath

This scene of furious activity by nature’s hand, not human, looks surreal; big pieces of scattered flint, stones, numerous piles of chalk excavated by badgers as they enlarge their extensive hillside homes, even trees turning to dust. The leaf litter is still thick, and covers ankle-twisting holes and rocks, and still the barely visible track leads on along the edge of the tree line, very straight, there is no mistaking the intention of this boundary. In places the original iron fence has been replaced by wood, then barbed wire simply rolled over the gaps that will keep everything out. Or in. The contrast between the carefully managed fields and the disarray and upheaval behind me couldn’t be greater. The former almost lifeless, the latter bursting with life.

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A mound of excavated chalk, stones and flint mark the entrance to a den

Wide open winter vistas revealing the unexpected view back down the valley rising up to Wiggington and Wendover. This seasonal sight will close up, like a theatre curtain draws over the view as the trees spring back into life. A crow hangs lazily on the wind.

The dog is spooked by something, so scrambles onto a log, growling and begins to bark. Having dull senses, I cannot hear nor smell as he can, when suddenly, the hillside comes alive as a small herd of deer crash through the trees, in flight from an excited barking dog, The deer however, have the upper hand, they know all the tracks and escape routes and they sweep past us, twice. I bet they know this is a Sunday morning, their least favourite day of the week!

Next up on the weirdness scale, a wall of roots and stones, at least 10 foot in circumference, that shields a well-trampled clearing, a good spot for the deer? What forces were at work to upend such a large tree, revealing this stoney underworld apron?

The aerated soil is crunchy underfoot, a mix of pebbles, beechnuts, and twigs. We pass a large saw pit, criss-crossed with bike tracks as we follow a well-used single track uphill. The vegetation on this sunny slope quickly changes from the stark to timid signs of the first primroses and what will be another grand display of bluebells in April or May, as their tiny leaves break through the leaf cover.

Do trees only fall uphill? From my unscientific study, I’d say yes they do. However, I was delighted to see that here and there, rebel trees had thrown themselves onto the fence downhill, in some places crushing it flat beneath their weight. Result!

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The one that got away!

Voices carry on the wind and I know it’s time to head home.

Further Information:

For further Chilterns inspiration and ideas and to visit the Ashridge Estate