Home Newsletter Locations Diary
Topic Alpha County Sections By

Travellers Resource

Wrest Park

Silsoe, Bedfordshire

Location Guide

Wrest House, Wrest Park Nigel Cox 

Wrest Park is a large house but the gardens are also of special interest, said to have one of the most magnificent gardens, they are in a formal style, inspired by the gardens at Versailles in France.  They show a history of gardens over 500 years, rather than the natural landscaping, that Capability Brown and others promoted in the 18th century. Being different they are one of the least well known.

The gardens are celebrated for their rare survival of a formal early 18th century layout of wooded walks and canals, centred on the architectural highlight of the pavilion designed by Thomas Archer in 1709-11. Subsequent generations added garden buildings such as the Bath House and the Chinese Pavilion.

The old manor house was demolished when the present house was completed in 1839. This was designed by Thomas, Earl de Grey, an enthusiast for 18th century French architecture. It is set further north than the site of the old house, and new formal gardens were laid out between the mansion and the woodland garden. The Orangery, Italian Garden and Parterre with magnificent lead statues date from the 1830's.

A house was constructed here in the 13th century, extended a number of times before being demolished and rebuilt in the 1830's. From 1651 land records suggest the development of gardens, or designed landscape. The formal landscape being laid out at the end of the 1600's. Canals and avenues added in the early 1700's. An obelisk was added at the west edge of old park around 1735. The gardens got extensive work done on them over a long time with many architects of note designing different features. In 1834, Thomas De Grey embarked on rebuilding the house in Louis XV style, near the axis of the double avenue, some 300 yards to the north of the old house. He laid out a new formal French Garden with statues and parterres, with a formal Italian Garden to the west. The site of the old house was grassed over.

This continued until the death in action of the eighth Baron Lucas in 1917, when the estate passed to his sister, who put it up for sale. The contents of the House and some of the garden monuments were sold. Considerable felling was carried out, including specimen plantings and many of the mature trees in the park. The statuary was sold separately, the location of some items is known, (notably the Duke’s Monument and the Duchess Column,  and Park Obelisk are at Trent Park).

The drive and horse chestnut Trees Nigel Cox

In 1939 Sun Insurance purchased the House and about 260 acres for use as their wartime headquarters, and in 1946 the estate was sold to the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works, it was then used by a variety of government agencies. It was inherited by English Heritage in 1986. The parkland beyond the garden core was not acquired by the Government, and has subsequently been absorbed into the modern agricultural landscape that encircles the historic garden. This is mostly owned and farmed by one private owner.

The house was used by the National Institute of Agricultural Engineering (later the Silsoe Research Institute and since 1994 part of the Biotechnology and Biological Research Council - BBSRC). The Institute steadily expanded it in the post-war decades, with the addition of numerous laboratories, offices and other buildings to the east and northeast of the House. The walled garden was also developed with new glasshouses, plant growing areas, offices and car parking. In 2006 English Heritage acquired the House, eastern service buildings, gardens and Old Park. The BBSRC retains ownership and control of the laboratory and office buildings to the east and northeast.

In 1981 the A6 was diverted through the parkland to bypass the village of Silsoe, thereby cutting off some of the western parkland and the Silsoe lodges from the rest. The road was set in a cutting to minimise its visual and noise effect on the house and its setting.

The St George's Day event here, is said to be the largest in the country.

Wrest house in 1709. This was replaced in the 1830's
but the formal elements of the garden remain from this time


Restoration and planting was ad hoc until 1983 when a study of its historic context was undertaken and by 1993 a plan was in place to conserve it as it was in the 18th century. Many of the garden buildings and items of statuary have been conserved and repaired since 1947.

The house suffered from institutional use with partitioning added in some of the rooms, and other elements added. However on the first floor black wallpaper from China and France survives, as does numerous elements of the original rococo plasterwork, notably in the entrance hall, and other important elements of decoration in the state rooms of the garden front

After the transfer of ownership of Wrest Park House and Gardens to English Heritage in 2006, the first phase of a garden features conservation and restoration project started, costing £800,000. This included:-

  • Repair and redecoration of the ironwork at the Silsoe Gates and North Front Entrance, where the major element was the reinstatement of two 19th century cast iron standard lamps on their stone pedestals, back to the original complement of six lamps.

  • The re-presentation and correction of the level of the carriage drive, combined with the removal of car parking, enhancing the approach to the mansion.  Granite setts, thought to date back to the original time of the mansion, were discovered when the tarmac in front of the mansion was peeled away. These have now been cleaned and a small number have been replaced.

  • Missing elements to the terrace and parterre railings have been restored and redecorated to the historically accurate colour scheme, a rich green highlighted with gilding, as recorded in late 19th and early 20th century photographs. A group of six marble urns and a pair of marble sculptures will be replaced on the Parterre railings after the completion of the conservation work.

  • The mansion's south balcony railings and the Dairy ironwork have been conserved and redecorated, and together with the work on the terrace and parterre railings, constitute a cohesive design.

  • Conservation work has taken place on a large group of marble statues and a marble fountain in the Woodland Garden and Park.

  • Cleaning, conservation, resetting and repair of existing headstones in the Dog’s Cemetery has occurred.

The  next phase of the conservation work, in the gardens at Wrest, will focus on flood control. Over recent years, the park and its water features have become largely divorced from the original hydraulic design through the introduction of modern short term solutions, and the risk of flooding has become a concern. The hydrology project will include clearing the drainage ditches in the woodland panels, lowering Old Park Weir and dredging Old Park Water. Significantly, the removal of any serious risk of flooding or water-logging will save the existing plant life. It will also enable the re-planting to begin that will help to restore the magnificent historic views of the gardens, including those of Old Park Water.

The Long Canal and statue of King William III looking towards Wrest House
Nigel Cox  

Description of the Gardens

The 40 hectares Formal and Great Gardens are to the south of Wrest Park House. They are laid out predominantly on a north-south axis from the house, with further axial components running east-west, incorporating vistas beyond the gardens. Although the gardens appear to form a unified design due to these strong axial lines, much of the garden design to the north of the Horseshoe Lawns dates from the 1830's onwards, whilst those areas to the south of the Horseshoe Lawns formed the original formal woodland gardens and canals pre-dating the rebuilding of the House.

A raised terrace gives views from the garden, front of the House, across Earl de Grey’s French Gardens, with their low planted parterres and display of statuary. The formal parterres are divided from the lawns to the south by decorative railings, original to the design.

To the immediate west of the house lies the Italian Garden, also formal and set within stone kerbed beds. The planting here is not original to the design and has been chosen for easy maintenance. The Italian Garden forms a direct axial link between the interior of the house, the Conservatory, and through a gateway allowing views into the walled garden.

The walled garden retains several important architectural features, notably the ornamented gateways for different users, and the cottage for the Head Gardener, facing the approach from the Silsoe Lodges.

To the south of the French Garden parterres, beyond the decorative railings, lie the South Lawns, bisected by a wide gravel walk and leading to the focal point of the fountain (not functioning) and statuary. A cross path leads west to the Orangery, and continues a short distance to the east. This would have continued to the Atlas Pond but both pond and path are now obscured, although the Atlas Statue remains.

To the east of the French Garden lies the area of lawn which contains the Petit Trianon, whilst to the east of the South Lawns lies the Old Orchard. These areas are less formal than the main south axis. Also outside this main north-south formal axis is the Bath House Grounds, situated to the west of the Orangery.

This pattern of formal axis with independent features located on the periphery is typical of many of the post-1730's features at Wrest, including the Chinese Temple, Mithraic Altar and Bath House Gardens. The current gravelled Broadwalk marks the original south terrace walk of the old house. To the south of this is a sundial which has been in this location since the 18th century, although now surrounded by later statuary.

Below ground archaeology is readily visible in this area of the lawns, and some of the features that made up the original 18th century formal gardens around the old house are also visible in the Horseshoe Lawns, most notably the large circular basins. The Horseshoe Lawns are currently laid out as croquet lawns.

To the east of the Horseshoe Lawns lies the Victorian arboretum (Great Grounds), which continues the informality of the Old Orchard, but is divided from this by the remains of an 18th century yew hedge. To the west lies an area of formal garden known as the American Garden and a statue, known as the Hunting Scene. This is surrounded by post 1917 Atlas cedars.

To the south of the Hunting Scene (although visually separate) lies the 18th century Bowling Green House and Green, with re-planted hedges.

To the south of the Horseshoe Lawns and Bowling Green lies the Great Garden or Woodland Garden, designed symmetrically either side of the Long Canal and continuing the north-south axis, with the Archer Pavilion the focal point at the south end. The Great Gardens are predominantly mixed deciduous woodland intersected by a series of (now grassed) ‘rides’, some defined by evergreen hedging.

Within the gardens are a series of openings accessed from the walks and rides. These are visually separate ‘events’ which contain features and statuary of 18th century and later date. Although the original layout appears to have contained mirror features in the west and east parts of the gardens, later additions have not continued this symmetry. In the later 18th century de-formalisation of the areas to the south and southwest of the Archer Pavilion included the introduction of a hermitage and a Mithraic Altar.

The Great Garden is surrounded by the encircling waters, which originated in the straight canals.

The Pavilion, one of many features in Wrest Park, Nigel Cox 
designed in the Baroque style by Thomas Archer (1668-1743) and built between 1709 and 1711.
It stands at the far southern end of the vista from Wrest Park House.

Location: Wrest Park, Silsoe, Bedfordshire

Grid Reference: TL089355 Ceremonial County: Bedfordshire

Map Link: Streetmap    Get a Map

Aerial photo: Google Aerial 

Getting there: 3⁄4 mile East of Silsoe off the A6, 10 miles South of Bedford

Website: English Heritage   

Other Useful Websites: Wikipedia   Geograph

Address: Silsoe, Luton, Bedfordshire
Postcode: MK45 4HR Telephone: 01525 860152

Opening Times: 1 Apr-31 Jul 10am-6pm Sat, Sun, & Bank Hols only

1 Aug-18 Sep Thu-Mon 10am-6pm, 19 Sep-31 Oct Thu-Mon 10am-5pm

Walled Garden and Visitor Centre only.

1 Aug-18 Sep Wed-Mon 10am-6pm; 19 Sep-31 Oct Thu-Mon 10am-5pm

HOUSE MAY BE SHUT WHEN FUNCTIONS ARE BOOKED. The gardens may also close early.

Charges: FREE to English Heritage members

1 Apr-31 Jul: Adults £5.50, Child £2.80, Concession £4.70, Family £13.80

1 Aug onwards: Adults £8, Child £4.80, Concession £7.20, Family £20.80

Nearby Locations:
Other Location Pages:
Other Relevant Pages:

Notes: No photography in the house.   No stiletto heals in the house

HOUSE MAY BE SHUT WHEN FUNCTIONS ARE BOOKED, the gardens may also close early. Check website for details of upcoming events which may cause it to be closed. If not sure prior to making a long journey to visit, call them first.

Please let us know any other information that we can add to the Grid(s) or page and any errors that you discover. Before making a long trip to any location it is always wise to double check the current information, websites like magazines may be correct at the time the information is written, but things change and it is of course impossible to double check all entries on a regular basis. If you have any good photographs that you feel would improve the illustration of this page then please let us have copies. In referring to this page it is helpful if you quote both the Page Ref and Topic or Section references from the Grid below. To print the planning grid select it then right click and print the selected area.

Please submit information on locations you discover so that this system continues to grow.


By: Keith Park  Section: Historic Houses Key:
Page Ref: Wrest_Park Topic: Historic Houses Last Updated: 03/2011


This page:

Link directly to this page, with text or the button on right.

Text linking: Wrest Park on Photographers Resource

Linking Instructions                            http://www.photographers-resource.co.uk/

Photographers Resource, all the information for the photographer