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.

Chenies Manor

Located in the beautiful hamlet of Chenies in the Chess Valley, Chenies Manor House was one such building project: formally home to the Russell’s, Earls of Bedford, this 15th century semi-fortified brick manor house so typifies the Chilterns.

An ode to the humble Chilterns brick.

It is the landscape that ultimately determines what is built or cultivated nearby, which industries thrive or die, or how secure a settlement is. The positioning of windmills to capture the prevailing wind and watermills to harness the power of the water are obvious examples. Not so obvious is the location of the more humble brick kiln, essential to the successful outcome of any building project. The presence of sand, clay, spring water, nearby woodland, a major road or canal all determined whether or not brick kilns were built. Even a hill made the difference with a downhill delivery of the bricks to their destination.

Chenies Manor House

Located in the beautiful hamlet of Chenies in the Chess Valley, Chenies Manor House was one such building project: formally home to the Russell’s, Earls of Bedford, this 15th century semi-fortified brick manor house so typifies the Chilterns: quietly understated, yet certain of its place in English history and tucked away down a winding country road in a place you’ve probably never heard of. It is here visitors will find several unusual architectural features including; stepped gables, a sunken Tudor garden and an unusual recreation of a turf maze popular in the medieval and Tudor period. It may have been the window taxes that have resulted in an odd south-facing south wing, which you’d have expected to look out onto the glorious garden with enormous sun-seeking windows, instead it is almost windowless.

Widespread throughout the Chilterns, brick and flint are the local vernacular building materials of choice. Whilst at Chenies, the flint is absent, the colour of the small bricks varies from lightish red, to blue and purple, to blocks of enduring deeper red, interrupted by uneven lines of grey or white mortar. Quite unlike the extravagant and fussy shapes that form the 23 striking spiral twisted trademark Tudor chimney stacks.

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In 1676, Dr Robert Plot wrote in his Natural History of Oxfordshire: ‘About Nettlebed (in the Chilterns), they make a sort of brick so very strong that whereas at most places they are unloaded by hand, I have seen these shot out of carts after a manner of stone to mend highways and yet none of these broke’. 

Further Information:
The last brick kiln in the village
An incongruous setting for the last remaining Nettlebed brick kiln.

There is one remaining 18th century brick bottle-kiln at Nettlebed.

The charming Chess valley is a wonderful place to explore the river chess, visit a pub or sample local food and drink: tastes of the Chess Valley with the last remaining watercress producer.

To enjoy another cracking example of the landscape determining the form and function of an industry, I recommend ‘Meet the Vintner with Rocks in his Pockets’.

For further information on exploring the naturally outstanding Chilterns For further information on visiting Chenies Manor