It says a lot about Wrest Park that not once during our lovely day out did either my husband or I comment on the weather. And we couldn't have asked for a better day—sunny, warm (around 22C, or around 80F is my guess) and no biting wind to knock off my sun-protective hat. It would have been a fantastic day if all we did was sit at home and stare at the weeds on my husband's day off, but instead we got in the car and headed up the M1 to Junction 12, from which we wound our way to Wrest Park.
Wrest Park is an English Heritage property, and about this time of year I'm always looking for more National Trust and English Heritage spots to visit—our membership isn't cheap, so I want to get my money's worth. But I've been to most sites in a two-hour radius. So it's a good thing English Heritage has acquired another: Wrest Park only came into their ownership in 2006, and was opened to the public shortly after.
The last few years have been spent restoring the gardens, with the help of some photographs taken around the turn of the century. The last private owner of Wrest, a member of the de Grey family, was killed in WWI, and after that the property had a series of owners that included an insurance company and an agricultural research centre (visited by King George VI in 1948—there's some interesting footage of the visit on display inside the house).
Before that, though, the estate passed through several members of the de Grey family, a few of whom paid particular attention to the gardens. But it was Thomas, Earl de Grey, who built the French-style mansion that replaced the 17th century house.
Thomas was an amateur architect (a quite accomplished amateur, if Wrest is any indication). At a time when very few homes were being built in the French style—memories of Napolean were fresh even in 1834—Thomas nevertheless was enamoured by the style and built, from the ground up, the magnificant chateau that exists now. (One other French-style pile, Waddesdon Manor, is not far from here and was built by Baron de Rothschild a few decades after Thomas built Wrest Park.) I was also excited to learn that another property that I've visited—Wimpole Hall—had a Wrest connection: it once belonged to one of Thomas's ancesters, Amabel.
That gives you an idea of how concentrated wealth was in early Britain. Only a few families owned vast amounts of land. I imagine anyone who was anyone knew everyone who was anyone. And quite a few of them shared the same gardener, it turned out.
The gardens at Wrest were first laid out by Henry, Duke of Kent, in the early 1700s, which accounts for the figure of William III that overlooks the Long Water. He also built the Pavillion and several other "outbuilding" in the popular Classical style. His grandaughter, Jemima, later colaborated with Lancelot "Capability" Brown to further enhance the gardens. It's difficult to find English estate grounds that weren't designed by Brown—he designed over 170 of them, after all. But being a capable sort, he managed to do a fine job wherever he went.
Several spots in the 92 acres of gardens captured my whimsy. I loved the Chinese "temple" and bridge that Jemima had built, inspired by the ever-popular Blue Willow china pattern. I tried to get a photo that encampassed both, but this is the best I could do. (The "temple" is to the right, behind a large bush. You can see it if you click on the photo to enlarge it.)
The pet cemetary, where 16 family dogs are buried, convinced me I'd have got on well with the family. These dogs were well loved pets, if their worn headstones are any indication.
Sixteen dogs lie buried in the Pet Cemetery.
Our two and a half hour walk around the property brought us to many other one-of-a-kind sights. The Pavilion, built in the early 1700s; Bowling Green House, with its green Wedgewood-like interior; the faux-ruin Bath House; and most of all, the statuary hidden within the wooded walks like giant Easter eggs.
And oh yeah, the weather was gorgeous.
To visit Wrest House, check the website for visiting hours and directions. Bring a picnic, good walking shoes, and a camera.
Click below for more photos, and to enlarge the photo, click on it. Unfortunately, you can't smell the flowers unless you visit Wrest.
The Drawing Room was a late addition to the house, as Thomas de Grey originally thought the family would use the sitting room and library for lounging around instead. But, as is always the case, it came in handy for balls.
A close up of the little dog in the pet cemetery, his sweet face immortalized in stone.