A History of Preston in Hertfordshire
The Gardens of Temple Dinsley
The first view we have of a garden at Temple Dinsley is from around 1700, which is reproduced below. The house has a plain courtyard of lawn and a central path with an enclosing wall and gates. Beyond this is another grassed area which is fenced on three sides by a palisade with outbuildings, such as stables, a pigsty and a hay-store, to the east. In the south-east corner, beside a pond, is a mill. Dr J A Elders FSA has suggested that its door has a ‘Medieval hood mould which looks 13th- century.’ Outside the fence are trees, woodland and houses of the hamlet of Preston.
There is a glimpse of a neatly laid-out formal garden on the west side of the newly-erected mansion in the watercolour painting shown above:
Next, there are front and rear views of the Temple Dinsley with its surroundings in 1832:
The next exhibit is extracted from Drury’s Topographical Map of Hertfordshire of 1766:
Here (ringed) are three substantial buildings - Temple Dinsley A (pre-1714), Temple Dinsley B (post 1714, which was demolished in around 1797 ) and the clock tower C. Also, the two tree-lined drives leading to the mansion can be seen, together with the drive that led to Preston Farm and which ran parallel to the Hitchin Road. Temple Farm and its outbuildings are south-east of Temple Dinsley. While this map has been acclaimed for its accuracy, the depiction of Temple Dinsley appears to be incorrect. The shorter west side of the mansion has always been portrayed as being towards the hamlet of Preston, as it is today. On Drury’s map, the longer south (and rear) side of Temple Dinsley is facing Preston. I therefore feel justified in slightly adjusting the profile, but not position, of these buildings to better reflect their shape (see right above). However, I have not changed the position of the gardens which may also need to be redrawn. A comparison with a water colour painting dated 1787 - 1797* shows how the three buildings were positioned when viewed from the north-west:
School Lane
St Albans Highway
Hitchin Road
The Chequers
Evidence supporting these statements is presented at this link: TD
The map portrays three separated gardens, one of which is possibly accessed by steps. There are rectangular beds of various sizes. The gardens are between the mansion and the road which leads to Preston Green.
When compared with the simplistic surroundings of Temple Dinsley circa 1700, the late eighteenth century cultivated garden suggests that there were dedicated gardeners caring for the plots. In fact, a gardener is mentioned when Martha Ithell made her will in 1767 - James Ware, who was aged about twenty-five. He had known the owner, Thomas Harwood, for three years and Martha for a year and a half. Ware testified that he had seen Martha make her will and that the signature was in her handwriting - which indicates his literacy and a working relationship between the two.
View of water- colour
Here there are formal beds, edged perhaps with box and with no evidence of colourful flowers, These are divided by what may be gravel paths. There is a high wall against which espaliered fruit trees have been trained.
The images show low containing walls - so low that passers-by on the road could view the clock - which was the case according to reports from the late nineteenth century. When compared with the late eighteenth century watercolour shown above, the garden appears more established. The impression given by these paintings is that Temple Dinsley was surrounded by neatly-trimmed grass, enclosed by walls with occasional islands of specimen trees and planting at the rear. The house nestled in the setting of a backdrop of parkland. When the mansion was offered for leasing in 1832, the advertisement included the description, ‘the mansion (is) in an elevated and airy situation, delightfully sheltered by timber’ and had ‘large walled gardens’. A later similar advertisement in 1853 was couched in these terms, ‘(having) lawn, pleasure grounds, shrubberries, walled kitchen garden, orchard and nine acres of park-like meadow’. In the 1860s, this remarkable photograph was taken of the rear, north-west side of Temple Dinsley and its surroundings. The tall fir trees and configuration of walls and paths tally with maps and other images of the time:
View of the photograph above
John Weeks’ tenancy at Temple Dinsley from September 1869
Weeks’ servants and workmen were to be permitted to use the well at Temple Farm. Weeks also had the right to shoot game, hares, partridges, rabbits and vermin. He was to keep the house ‘in a good tenable state of repair, the gates and fences in good repair and preserve the stock of silver and gold fish in the pond’. The garden and pleasure grounds were to be kept in good order and well stocked with flowers, fruit and vegetables. He was not to plough any grass or meadowland (or he would incur a fine of £100) nor cut down any trees (a fine of £20 a tree). But Weeks was not prohibited from converting pasture, meadow or grassland into lawns and pleasure garden. He was also permitted to make building ‘erections, fixtures and improvements’, although these would become the property of the landlord. So, his was a ‘repairing lease’, and during the four years to 1873 Weeks added an extension to the west side of Temple Dinsley. However, there is no view of some of his other additions mentioned in the Sales Particulars. When Temple Dinsley was offered for sale, Weeks was still a sitting tenant.
The images below illustrate the garden changes implemented by Weeks between 1869 and 1873 - and also how sparse the planting was around the mansion in 1869:
On 2 July 1870 the local press reported a “Garden Party at Temple Dinsley”. “A brilliant and highly- successful garden party took place on Thursday on the lawn and in the beautiful grounds of Temple Dinsley which had been put at the disposal of a committee of gentlemen by Mr John Weeks, the present occupier. That gentleman and Mrs Weeks, assisted by other friends, had made elaborate preparations for the entertainment of the party which numbered about 150. The afternoon was spent in croquet, archery, skittles, quoits and other amusements with occasional dances on the velvet lawn. Later on, a ball took place in a magnificent tent which Mr Weeks had caused to be erected for the occasion in front of the house and which was replete with every accommodation. Here, tea and supper were served, the supply of provisions being extremely bountiful and all excellent. The tent and grounds beside, being tastefully decorated with flowers and shrubs, were lighted up at night with many hundreds of variegated lamps and Chinese lanterns imparting a fairy-like aspect to the animated scene. After supper, the health of Mr and Mrs Weeks was enthusiastically drunk on the proposition of Mr Whitbread Roberts and everyone appeared delighted with the party, the pleasures of which were prolonged without flagging until long after the day had dawned yesterday morning.”
The glass-houses had been removed (probably to The Cottage - see later); there was an uninterrupted straight path from the west side of the mansion to a gate beside School Lane - which was crossed at right angles by another path which led to a new garden room (ringed). Sketches by E H New, dated between 1894 and 1898, portray aspects of this new scheme:
The Temple Dinsley gardens were then substantially developed by John Weeks (Link: Weeks) Being a Fellow of the Royal Horticultural Society, he was a qualified gardener and also designed glass houses. He leased the property from William Henry Darton for twenty-one years from 29 September 1869 for an annual rent of £200. Twenty-five acres were rented which included the mansion, outbuildings, garden park and grounds - but not Temple Farm and its fields or The Long Walk and the shrubberry beside the Hitchin Road which led to The Cottage. These remained in William Darton’s portfolio. The detailed has points of interest. Walls are shown as continuous lines, while paths and two drives are shown as broken lines. Villagers working at the house had two paths to use from School Lane. A well-house beside Temple Farm is indicated and there are a cluster of outbuildings to the north- west of the mansion. The few areas where trees are growing are depicted and bodies of water such as ponds and the rectangular ornamental fish pond are also shown. Apart from two small areas to the north of the house, there does not appear to be much garden planting. A comparison with the map of 1873 shown below illustrates the changes which were made during the following four years.
Map of the area around Temple Dinsley leased by John Weeks
Fir trees
Fish pond
The front of Temple Dinsley before 1869
Temple Dinsley between 1869 and 1873
Sales Particulars featuring the gardens when Temple Dinsley was offered for sale in 1873
“On the front lawn is a pond containing gold and silver fish (which had been created before Weeks began his tenancy). The kitchen garden contains three newly-erected double glass-houses, two measuring 40’ x 12’ 6” each and the other 4’ x 18’, fitted with hot water piping upon the most modern principles. (clearly a Weeks’ speciality). Grapes and cucumbers were grown in these. A vinery 94’ long in three divisions, boiler house with two boilers and furnace, fuel house, mushroom house and potting shed.”
Weeks had added the glass-houses to the garden and probably a vinery:
A later map dated 1880 illustrated the mansion and its gardens:
Eighteen years later, still more significant changes had been made to the Temple Dinsley garden, as revealed by a comparison between the map above and the next map dated 1898:
Shown above is the farthest part of the path that led from the west side of the mansion. It was paved, with narrow grass verges and exuberant herbaceous flower beds on each side. The path that crossed the main path can be seen at the foot of the steps. This garden was modified a few years later and two garden rooms were created - the Rose Garden and the Herbaceous Garden. The steps were modified a few years later. Clearly this is no longer a kitchen garden. This was located near The Cottage.
Above is the stepped entrance to the “new garden” ringed on the map. Note that it is fully planted with mature trees and a considerable anount of ground cover. This design was to be altered a few years later.
It seems that the garden was modified between 1896 and 1908 because two photographs from this time show it to be far less crowded by foliage - such as the airy, second rose garden (see below). As James Barrington-White was the owner during this time, it was probably he who ordered the changes.
The main entrance to Temple Dinsley shown above is a wide expanse lined with narrow flowerbeds encasing grass lawns
The ornamental pond pre-1908
Mr and Mrs Fenwick purchased Temple Dinsley in 1908 and shortly afterwards embarked on an ambitious makeover of the house and garden which was designed by Sir Edwin Luytens. The gardens were divided into a series of interconnected compartments - eighteen according to a later Headmaster of Princess Helena College. The additions were associated with the west and north wing of the mansion and included:
The Rose Garden (this is discussed in detail at this link: TD Rose Garden) The Herbaceous Garden The Diamond Garden The Pool Garden The Spring Garden A Smaller Herbaceous Garden The Pergola Garden The Second Trellised Rose Garden - entered via the Magnolia Steps
Temple Dinsley gardens refurbishment by Sir Edwin Luytens after 1908.
The Herbaceous Garden
As the two images above (from 1908 and 1914) portray, the Herbaceous Garden (beyond Father Time and the steps) consisted of four strips of flower beds which encased two lawns. The garden wall enclosing this herbaceous garden is of eighteenth century origin, and enclosed the former walled kitchen garden. Note from the first photograph that the Red Lion was visible from the Rose Garden and the west wing. Today, nothing survives of the Herbaceous Garden (shown as a red box) as the aerial photograph below reveals:
The Spring Garden, Pool, Diamond Garden and Small Herbaceous Garden
This view does not show the Diamond Garden created by Lutyens which was between the pool and the courtyard. Therefore, it photographed before 1908.
The Spring Garden was appropriately photographed with daffodils in bud. Beyond, the pool can be seen (which is more formal and a reflecting pool when compared with the more ‘natural’ pond which was previously created) and the Diamond Garden. 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 Diamond Garden is shown in the background in this photograph (c1910) of the informal ornamental reflecting pool which was enclosed by stone steps, set in grass. Today, this is a swimming pool:
The view from the north side of Temple Dinsley - the Pergola Garden
The north side circa 1907 - before the Lutyens modifications
Circa 1910
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 consisted of a sunken lawn (later, tennis courts) surrounded by raised brick terraces on the north, east and south sides and a grass bank on the west. In 1909, Lutyens 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 were rebuilt by the College using the original bricks.
Steps from the 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.
At the end of the pergola, steps lead up to the Belvedere which was designed by Lutyens. It is the small building with the pyramid roof shown in the 2015 photograph. It overlooks parklands to the east and has a vista towards Letchworth. It was used initially as an apple store.
The Second Trellised Rose Garden
As mentioned earlier, this had been modified, probably by James Barrington-White. It is likely that the next image is of the steps into this re-vamped Trellised Rose Garden.
It seems that Lutyens modified the steps from the path into the garden, creating what was called the ‘Magnolia Steps’ (shown below). Country Life magazine of April 1911 indicates that this garden was also modified when it stated, ‘(we walked) past a rose garden now in the making’.
Changes to the gardens from 1920
The map above from 1922 indicates that few major changes had been recently made to Temple Dinsley Gardens. One important missing feature is Temple Farm, which was demolished by Douglas Vickers. In December 1927, when Vickers sold the mansion, at least part of the gardens were in good shape according to this news comment:
The gardens during the tenure of Princess Helena College 1935 - 2011
A comparison of the 1922 map and another dated 1946 reveals little obvious change to the gardens. Then, in June 1952, the gardens received a Grade II listing which provides significant details, a precis of which follows:
Re: west wing of house - a wall extending to the west links to two garden houses linked by a Tuscan loggia. Jekyll rose garden on the west front…flights of steps extend westwards defining terraced gardens and an upper pool to the south-west of the west wing. Flight of steps and landings descend northwards into a hedged garden at north- west…(to the west are) pergolas of oak beams and square brick piers. East pergola continues across east side of sunk garden…North terrace extends to the east and has a gazebo - a square single storey building with a pyramid roof.
The story of the gardens from the early 1950s is one of gradual scaling back as economic realities forced reviews of the importance of the upkeep and maintenance of the gardens in relation to the running costs of the college. The Herbaceous Garden was grassed over, as was the Second Rose Garden. The Smaller Herbaceous Garden became a vegetable garden and was then given over to grass. The Pool was converted into a swimming pool. There were proposals for a garden restoration in 1991, but these were never implemented, but English Heritage did fund a scheme. The following year, a restoration of the Rose Garden began, but it never enjoyed the same glory as when it was first laid out - and today it is a basic, sparse setting (see below).
In 2011, the gardens are mostly grassed over, or given over to rough grass, as this elevated view reveals:
One can only wonder at the present condition (in 2023) of the ‘gardens’ when presumably there has been little maintenance for a year and Nature has taken over her plot. For example, Temple Dinsley Lodges have been unoccupied during this time and they have become quickly overgrown:
The reality of maintaining Princess Helena College’s gardens discussed in 1996
In November 1996, Village Affairs interviewed John Jarvis, the headmaster of Princess Helena College. The piece was headed, ‘Garden’s Glorious Past’. John was pictured near the Rose Garden. The article reported, ‘Repairs have been done to the retaining walls and Yorkstone steps. But the terracing is wobbly’. This set the tone for the report. “Talking about the problems of looking after a garden classed as outstanding, head John Jarvis said, ‘A couple of groundsmen can just maintain it. We cannot justify spending £10,000 or more on garden restoration. The priority has to be the school. We need more computers. The historic building is beautiful and you can’t really have a better place to live, work and study but at the end of the day I have to ensure I am keeping the school in the forefront, rather than maintaining the glories of the garden’. It would cost tens of thousands of pounds to restore it back to Jekyll.” “In the original conception the garden had eighteen distinct parts; most of them are still discernible. They divide into two principal areas. First, the series of gardens stretching away from the west front, including the Rose Garden and the swimming pool, which was originally a shallow lily pond. Second, the series of gardens which includes the sunken lawn (the tennis courts) surrounded by elaborate raised walks, pergolas, terracing etc. In the late 1960s, water flooded down from the village, knocked down the pergola on the west side of the sunken lawn and only the steps now remain. Most of the columns of the rose pergola were destroyed in the gales of 1987 and 1990 but have been rebuilt from their original bricks by the college. The Hertfordshire Garden Trust has a fifteen-year plan to to supervise the restoration of the gardens. The Rose Garden was their first project.” (Note: The Hertfordshire Garden Trust produced a report in 1993. One of its conclusions was that, ‘Enough of the built structure remains to make a significant restoration possible and feasible. But without adequate funding and direction the garden’s restoration is uncertain and the degree of difficulty will increase with the passage of time. ‘The college maintains the park and grounds on a limited budget and labour force; coupled with altered requirements and health and safety legislation, this has inevitably led to significant changes in its character. The school obviously has other priorities for its limited funding…the Outline Restoration Proposals made for English Heritage in 1991 have not been implemented.’ One senses sadness and perhaps a degree of frustration.)