IT’S a curiosity, that’s for sure. A nine-acre landscaped garden based on a Regency fondness for all things Swiss.
Swiss Garden, between Bedford and Biggleswade, has a ferny grotto, thatched hideaways on handmade hills, a whole load of 150-year-old fake stonework and a meandering stream with precarious humped bridges.
But in recent history – on and off between the end of the Second World War and the recent £3.5million restoration – the Swiss Garden was neglected and all but forgotten, vandalised throughout the ’70s and ’80s and kept just-about intact, thanks to the cash-strapped local councils and determined volunteers.
With not so much as a hillock in the flat Bedfordshire landscape with which to create his mountain-style retreat, the wealthy Lord Robert Ongley started his European fantasy almost 200 years ago. He began by making some fake hills and valleys – bearing in mind this was long before the advent of the JCB.
Ongley fashioned a fantasy of the times, a mock Swiss landscape in 1820s England at the time when wealthy Brits were in the habit of splashing their cash on the Grand Tour of Europe, although there is no evidence that Ongley ever visited the Alps himself. He did, however, use the garden for extravagant parties and had the staff dress up in Swiss costume to complete the fantasy.
Five years before his death, in 1872 Ongley sold the estate to industrialist Joseph Shuttleworth, who gave his name to the nearby museum, estate and agricultural college.
Tucked away behind the aircraft hangers of the now famous Shuttleworth Collection of aviation history is a quirky and historic garden which is far older than its more famous neighbour. With no fewer than 13 Listed buildings, structures and artefacts, the Swiss Garden was adapted by Shuttleworth but much of Ongley’s structure remains, making it one of the most complete Regency era gardens.
When the Shuttleworths moved in, the garden had been dilapidated and forgotten for 20 years. Joseph and landscape gardener Edward Milner set about bringing in a more Victorian feel, with boardwalks and terraces, but retained the Swiss structures and added the beautiful stained glass in many of the buildings.
What seems odd to the modern visitor is the use of Pulhamite – a kind of fake rockery material where hardcore and rubble was coated in the ‘secret recipe’ of James Pulham – to create sandstone-like (or rather, concrete-like), stonework, most noticeable in the glass-domed grotto/fernery, the underpass and the punt station at the Swiss Garden.
The Swiss Cottage at the centre of the garden is a curiously pretty building and not particularly Swiss when you get up close. It has an intricately restored bamboo and pine cone ceiling and the interiors seem more oriental than Swiss, but the two-storey building is utterly charming nonetheless, and has survived intact, with one of its doors showing the scars of being dumped in the lake during the garden’s neglected years.
This neglect is what made it necessary for the Heritage Lottery Fund and Central Bedfordshire Council to step in with a funding plan for 18-months-worth of historic restoration. It opened at the wrong end of last summer and 2015 sees it open for its first full season. (Unlike most historic gardens it is actually open pretty much all year round if you fancy seeing it truly alpine – with snow on).
There’s a large lake (with fishing) and a walk through the wilder woodland area, with rhododendrons and some unusual, sometimes Lovecraftian sculptures fashioned directly from fallen trees.
The trees are some of the best you’ll see in an open garden and together with the buildings – the cottage, the oddly magical glasshouse-fernery-grotto and the small Indian Kiosk (a cylindrical summerhouse with not so much as a Cornetto in sight) – it all add to the interest of the garden for the visitor. There are many other structures dotted around as well as huge green archways, waiting for clematis and roses to start clambering up them to soften their newness.
The planting, despite the garden’s age, is still new in places. The team had to rip out both mature trees and borders and start again, due to the vandalism and decay. Some of the mature planting has a distinct ‘municipal park’ feel to it – quite possibly because the council parks department were responsible for keeping the place going with no money or time for so many years, and this is all in the plan to gradually open out the space and show what was intended when this all started 200 years ago.
But the bedding is replaced regularly and the herbaceous borders and beds are starting to take shape and mature. There are issues the gardeners have to battle with thanks to Ongley’s vision of Switzerland – the steep man-made banks mean water and nutrient run-off – something that will improve as the ground cover planting starts to mat together and the impressive landscaping settles.
The team of historians and gardeners at Swiss Garden are keen to show off their amazing work so far, and there are trails to be followed for kids both big and small, and some very friendly peacocks. There’s plenty of grass for running about on and picnicing too. There is a smartphone app and you can hire headsets for a guided tour. The garden is mostly accessible to all, wheelchair access is possible in most parts of the garden except for very steep banks and assistance is available if you ask at the entrance.
Entrance to the garden on its own is £8, or you can get a joint ticket with the Shuttleworth aircraft collection included for £20 if you want to make a full day of it. There’s a good-sized car park, cafe/restaurant and gift shop on site, and away from the garden there’s a children’s play area.
There are some special events coming up, including a photography workshop with lunch included on July 16 and a Regency Garden Party on July 19, 2015.