While studying for a gardening qualification, I was amazed to discover that there
was an extant example of garden design doyen, Gertrude Jekyll’s work at Temple Dinsley.
In Gardens of a Golden Afternoon - the story of a partnership: Edwin Lutyens and
Gertrude Jekyll (1982), Jane Brown wrote, ‘Jekyll’s inspiration...carried on to another
good brick garden, with elaborate terraces at Temple Dinsley near Hitchin’.
Brown added that as at that year, there were twenty-four ‘saveable’ Jekyll gardens
and that one of the ‘hallowed two dozen’ was Temple Dinsley ‘for its rose garden
and elegant brickwork’.
The book carried the photograph shown right (the Belvedere?, see later). One might
be forgiven when looking at this image of a rundown garden house (with no rose garden
in sight) and the use of the word ‘saveable’, that in 1982 the rose garden at Temple
Dinsley was in a poor state and desperately in need of sympathetic restoration.
Further investigations and analysis have questioned the extent of Jekyll’s involvement
with Temple Dinsley, as we shall see.
Collaborations by Sir Edwin Luyens and Gertrude Jekyll
The exceptional architectural design work of Lutyens has been featured elsewhere
on this web site (Link: Lutyens) so we will concentrate here on a brief resume of
Miss Jekyll’s background.
Jekyll was born from a ‘comfortable background’ at London in 1843. Her paternal grandfather
was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Her mother was a pupil of Mendelssohn.
In view of this pedigree it is unsurprising that she enrolled at the South Kensington
School of Art to study painting where she was influenced by William Morris, studied
colour theory and embraced the Arts and Crafts Movement.
However, the poor eyesight of myopia forced Jekyll to exchange her palette of paints
for one of perennials. She shaped a legendary garden at Munstead Wood in Surrey,
fell under the spell of gardening guru, William Robinson (there was to be a spectacular
and public ‘falling out’ between the two) and contributed to The Garden magazine.
Her interest was in the country way of life which she observed near her home - in
particular, the unsophisticated cottage gardens (see painting right) - and she took
many of her gardening ideas from these rural plots, blending them with her artistic
In 1889, Jekyll (right), now forty-five years old,commissioned the young architect,
Edwin Lutyens (20), to build her home at Munstead Wood. This spawned a collaboration
that was to prosper for twenty years. Their mutual love of using traditional material
produced the breathtaking combination of Lutyens’ planning garden layouts as a formal-classic,
geometrical extension of the house, giving the impression of outdoor ‘rooms’ and
Jekyll’s planting schemes which used herbaceous material and non-exotic trees and
shrubs. So the rigid skeletal structure - the stonework and paving - provided by
the architect was softened and complemented by the balance and plantings, the scale
and colour of the artist. A “Lutyens’ house with a Jekyll garden” was the epitome
of good taste.
Many of Jekyll’s plans exist in collections. Her crabby handwriting may be difficult
to decipher and the plant names she uses may have changed, but from these designs
it is possible to recreate her gardens today. Below is part of her design for a rose
garden at Sandbourne, Worcestershire (note the use of stachys, or lamb’s ear as an
edging plant and the background of yew).
Below is an example of the Jekyll/Lutyens alliance - Hestercombe in Somerset. Note
the way in which the roses are laid-out, the type of paving employed and the pergola.
There are echoes of this style at Temple Dinsley.
The route whereby Lutyens was introduced to the Fenwicks at Temple Dinsley is easy
to plot. Herbert Fenwick’s relation, Mark Fenwick, purchased Abbotswood at Stow on
the Wold, Worcestershire in 1901 and employed Lutyens to extend and re-model the
house (his first advice was, ‘Blow it up and start again’). Jekyll was not involved
in this commission as Fenwick was himself a ‘keen gardener.
Lutyens’ and Jekyll’s work at Temple Dinsley
The plans above are a rough diagram of the lay out of several ‘compartments and a
depiction of approximately how the rose garden was set out - brown areas are flower
beds; yellow, paving.
A doorway at the centre of the west wing of Temple Dinsley opened out into the formal
paved rose garden. The roses were supplied by Harkness of Hitchin. In the centre
was a stone-paved path. The earliest photographs show that there were no borders
beside the path. But by 1914 a narrow border of yew had been planted. Today, there
is a border of roses. Beside the path (and near the house) were panels of lawn. The
path leads to a square parterre which is laid out with a geometric pattern of rose
beds. The beds are surrounded by further stone paving. In the centre of the parterre
was a statute of Father Time, an old leaden figure, silvery-white and armed with
a scythe and hour glass (now replaced by a sundial).
On the south side of the garden there was a brick retaining wall which separated
the rose garden from a pool. (Today the pool is a swimming pool)
On the north side is a brick wall into which was set a covered loggia which overlooked
the centre of the rose beds, and separated two garden houses. The loggia was supported
on the south side by white pillars and at either end there were garden houses - square,
brick garden pavilions with pyramidal roofs. Both had a door opening out into the
The west side of the rose garden was bounded by a low, brick retaining wall with
a flight of stone steps at the centre leading up to an open lawn which was enclosed
by brick walls. In 1911, this was the herbaceous garden which had broad herbaceous
borders that ran west from the steps to the west wall along the north and south walls.
The garden wall enclosing the former herbaceous garden dates from the 1700s. The
rose garden is acclaimed for its elegant brickwork.
Views of the rose garden on 22 April 2010
In 1914, Annie Swynnerton painted this picture of Herbert and Violet Fenwick’s children,
David (left) and Jonathan in the rose garden. It gives a wonderful impression of
the colourful exuberance in the garden.
On the anniversary one hundred years later, in 2014, the picture was re-created by
Herbert and Violet’s grandson, Benedict Fenwick and the head of Princess Helena College,
Note from the photograph immediately above that the path from the house is now flanked
by a low yew hedge.
The rose garden had a makeover in 1993 with roses specially budded by Harness. The
retaining walls and York stone steps were repaired but in 1996 the terrace was still
reported as being ‘wobbly’. The then head, John Jarvis said, ‘A couple of grounds-men
can just maintain it. We can’t justify spending £10,000 on garden restoration. The
priority has to be the school....It would cost tens of thousands to restore it back
The rose garden is marketed as part of the appeal of Princess Helen College. Its
web site mentions, ‘The formal rose garden, where the influence of Gertrude Jekyll
is plainly evident, is a stunning location for girls and staff to relax and for parents
to enjoy at key school events’.
There is, however, a jarring note, however. A chapter in Hertfordshire Garden History
Vol 2 (2012) by Kate Harwood states, ‘ Temple Dinsley was until recently considered
to have Jekyll plantings but doubts have recently been expressed as to whether she
did have any involvement’. English Heritage has not altered its view that the rose
garden was planted out by Jekyll.
While Lutyens work on the house is well-chronicled, the only reference in all my
‘Jekyll’ books to Temple Dinsley is by Jane Brown (as noted above). Possibly when
the rose garden is viewed, the reason will become clear. While having its own charm,
it doesn’t compare in scale with other Jekyll gardens.
The gardens at Temple Dinsley were divided into a series of interconnected compartments
- eighteen according to a Headmaster of Princess Helena College (which included
parkland presumably). They were associated with the west and north wing of the mansion.
As shown in the earlier plan, the Rose Garden led directly into the Herbaceous Garden.
A map dated 1898 shows no planting in this area, but between 1898 and 1909 (ie pre-Lutyens),
a herbaceous garden was created here as the next photograph shows (note the path
leading from the steps to the door, the contours of which were still visible in 1999):
This garden was then adapted in around 1909. A comparison of the photograph immediately
above and the earlier view of the Rose Garden (noting in particular the trees in
the background) reveals the two photographs show the same vista and were taken within
a few years of each other. The herbaceous borders leading to the steps in the foreground
have been replaced by the Rose Garden and the path has been replaced by paving. Walls
have also been added and the path leading to the gate has been grassed over.
From around 1909, here were planted broad herbaceous borders: two running west from
the steps to the west wall and two along the north and south walls. The latter two
borders flanked a central path which aligned on the door in the west front. The garden
wall enclosing the former herbaceous garden is of the eighteenth century origin,
and enclosed the former walled kitchen garden.
Today, nothing survives of the Herbaceous Garden. Only two views remain of how it
appeared after 1909 - 1910: the photograph and the painting that follow:
The Diamond Garden
The Diamond Garden may be entered from the courtyard through a gate and also from
the Rose Garden. There is a stone path which connects these two entrances and from
this a flight of stone steps rises to a raised lawn which is flanked by rose borders.
The Pool Garden
A sunken lily pool at Temple Dinsley is clearly shown on an 1881 map and on pre-Lutyens
After 1909, as laid out by Lutyens, this was transformed into an informal ornamental
reflecting pool which was enclosed by stone steps, set in grass:
Today, the pool is a swimming pool:
The Spring Garden
At the west end of the Pool Garden there was a flight of steps that let into the
The Small Herbaceous Garden
The Spring Garden led west into the Small Herbaceous Garden. A path running east/west
was flanked by herbaceous borders. A path linked the Small Herbaceous Garden with
the Herbaceous Garden. At the western end of the Small Herbaceous Garden there is
a high brick wall which is opposite Preston Green.
The Small Herbaceous Garden no longer exists and there are no photographs of the
garden. Today, the area is a lawn. It is the space indicated by the box outlined
in orange below:
The north wing of Temple Dinsley
A door in the centre of the north wing opens onto a terrace. Stone steps lead down
to another terrace. Here there is an arch into which a small circular pool is recessed.
Beyond the pool is a lawn flanked by herbaceous borders. A flight of steps leads
down from the lawn to the Pergola Garden.
The Pergola Garden
This consisted of a sunken lawn (now, tennis courts) surrounded by raised brick terraces
on the north, east and south sides and a grass bank on the west. In 1909, Luyens
designed two long pergolas for this garden. One, on the west side (the first few
feet are shown immediately above), was destroyed in the late 1960s when water flooded
from the village. Most of the columns of the pergola on the east side (which is shown
below first in around 1989 and then 2010) were destroyed by gales in 1987 and 1990
but have been rebuilt by the College using the original bricks.
At the end of the pergola, steps lead up to the Belvedere which was designed by Lutyens.
This may well be the small building photographed at the start of this article. This
overlooked the parklands to the east with a vista towards Letchworth.
Steps from middle of the sunken garden led to The Orchard. This area has now lost
most of its fruit trees and is laid to rough grass.
A second Rose Garden
There was a second Rose Garden. There was a path from the Spring garden which crossed
the Herbaceous Garden and to steps which led down to a stone paved area which had
two circular beds of mature bush magnolias. From here, the path descended more steps
into the second Rose Garden. This was planted with a pattern of rose beds. Its northern
entrance led into woodland and its western entrance led to an informal top lawn.
It also had an eastern entrance which led to a lawn with several mature trees which
overlooked the Pergola Garden. This description of the Rose Garden matches the area
circled on the map below:
Today, this second Rose Garden is laid to lawn and is enclosed by clipped yew hedges.
The following photographs were taken around the time of the Lutyens extensions to
The photographs clearly show a rose garden which is criss-crossed by a path. But
it has been argued that as the style of the gate and fence are not typical of Lutyens
and as there are no yews in evidence, that this is not the post-Lutyens rose garden.
It has also been suggested that the gate, fence and steps are shown in drawings
dated 1890 - although the garden is not shown on the 1898 map. Might this garden
be a pre-Lutyens rose garden that he adapted from an existing plot - as he did the
What exactly was Gertrude Jekyll’s involvement in the creation of the gardens?
The planting scheme of roses in the Rose Garden (as shown earlier) is not typical
of Jekyll’s schemes. Here there are standard roses, under-planted by low-growing
rose bushes. As the example of her planting shown earlier illustrates, Jekyll usually
softened the appearance of her rose beds using stachys, bergenia, alchemilla or lavender.
There is no known copy of Jekyll’s plans for Temple Dinsley. There is no record she
ever visited the gardens. The overall design of the rose garden is austere without
the effect that Jekyll would likely have achieved. There is no year-round interest
provided by a garden that was in a prime position when viewed from the mansion. The
layout of the rose garden is more typical of nursery planting - the sort of effect
Harkness would have produced had they designed and laid out the beds.
One conclusion is that Jekyll’s influence is apparent in most of the garden but further
research is necessary to establish the exact nature of her involvement in the design
and planting. She probably didn’t plant the Rose Garden.
The 1996 magazine article cited above comments, ‘With the help of Jekyll, Lutyens
redesigned the existing Victorian garden’. The extent of this help is unknown and
one wonders whether Jane Brown, after her later and more detailed study of the gardens
of Temple Dinsley, would have made the same comments today as she did in Reflections
on a Golden Afternoon?
(I am grateful for the guidance and advice of Diana Kingham and the comments of English