A History of Preston

in Hertfordshire

The gardens at

Temple Dinsley c. 1909

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 leanings.

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 loggia.

 

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.
 

c. 1911

c. 1911

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, Jo-Anne Duncan.

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 to Jekyll’.

 

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.

A centennial celebration in the rose garden

Paved

area

Paved

area

The Herbaceous Garden

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c. 1911

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. They included:

 

 

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 photographs:

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 Spring Garden:

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:

Herbaceous

Garden

Spring

Garden

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 Temple Dinsley:

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 Herbaceous Garden?

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?

Path

(I am grateful for the guidance and advice of Diana Kingham and the comments of English Heritage.)

The Rose Garden

The Herbaceous Garden

The Diamond Garden

The Pool Garden

The Spring Garden

A smaller herbaceous garden

The Pergola Garden

A second Rose garden

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Plan of terracing outside the door from the north wing