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One hell of a wedding present...
Ascott House Gardens (Wing)
Member Name: Mildew82
Ascott House Gardens (Wing)
Advantages: Spectacular gardens for a relaxing stroll, a great art collection in the house, friendly staff
Disadvantages: A little pricey for non-members, small car park, no refreshments, maintenance
On a whim, with some free time whilst in the area of the rather gnarly named Leighton Buzzard, I took it upon myself to visit the National Trust place of Ascott House Gardens of which I knew nothing other than there was likely to be a house and probably some gardens. In 1873 Ascott House and 90 acres of land were bought by Baron Mayer de Rothschild and it has remained in the Rothschild family until 1949 where the House, the grounds of 261 acres, the Ascott Collection and an endowment were given to the National Trust by Anthony de Rothschild, although his son Sir Evelyn still continues to live there with his family (in the parts marked Private undoubtedly). The house started life as a farmhouse in 1606, and was enhanced by Leopold de Rothschild in 1874 to become a hunting lodge before being transforming into a country house upon his marriage in 1881, whereby the then meagre gardens were also cultivated into the magnificent sight as seen today as a wedding present by none other than Leopold himself and Sir Harry Veitch, a famous Chelsea nurseryman.
Arriving in a tiny car park (so busy times could be problematic, assuming they have busy times) with a lone guard in a booth acting as border control you pay the entry fee (cash only) or flash your NT card, get handed a free map / step-by-step tour guide or the chance to buy a proper guide book, and are instructed of the vague direction to follow in order to get to the main attraction. Armed with the crudely drawn map you weave your way through a lot of privately marked property before hitting a scene of vast fields as far as the eye can see, trees and long stretching driveways. Never good at map reading, thankfully all the incorrect path are signposted with "Private", "Not this way, moron" and "This way for certain death" so it's easy to find your way to the correct destination and eventually the massive house (still attached to many areas marked private) comes into view and you know you've made it and weren't in fact lured to some out of the way place infested with cannibals.
So, you have choices, probably dependent on the weather, on whether (see what I did there) to visit the house or the gardens first. The weather looked a bit shifty when I turned up in late March so I decided to have a stroll in the gardens first in case Thor was having a bad day. The map certainly doesn't do their sheer size justice and they were way more extensive than I was expecting which was a pleasant surprise. Trying to follow some kind of logical route, the obvious place to start is the Sunken Garden which is located completely unexpectedly down a slope. Go figure. It is actually a converted tennis court and was once a fern garden but is now a rectangular, gravelly parterre with lots of topiary like borders and a sprinkling of trees which has a pleasingly symmetrical feel to it. Just past the Sunken Garden is the rather distinctive topiary sundial (I for one have never seen anything like it) which has been constructed from golden Yew on the top and Irish Yew on the bottom making a weird helter-skelter like egg shaped object. Surrounding the "egg" are large Roman numerals made out of dwarf golden Box and there is an inside motto made of golden Yew - "Light and shade by turn, but love always" punctuated by heart shapes at either end. If you see nothing else, you must take a gander at this, although unfortunately for me it was undergoing a little maintenance so I couldn't get up close and personal.
Next you have the choice to venture onto the Madeira walk which consists of a straight gravel path with large Holly hedge borders and an array of plants such as Campanulas, Phlox, Aquilegias and Delphinium as well as the wonderful Tea Room designed by George Devey, the house architect or you can swoop round onto the Coronation Grove which holds a rather bizarre slate sculpture by Richard Long which weirdly looks like a giant robot hedgehog crash landed and fractured into little pieces. Both routes will lead you into the captivating circular Venus Garden with Yew hedges broken up for three doorways and the marvellous centrepiece of Waldo Story's Bravura Venus - a fountain depicting the birth of Venus/Aphrodite naturally on the back of a turtle on a seashell carriage being pulled by two sea horses controlled by a triton - clearly the best and only way to give birth. Going out of the left exit as you face the house just takes you onto some untamed areas, firstly Sixty Trees, which had 60 trees planted to commemorate Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897 (I didn't count so cannot confirm the accuracy) and secondly the Chinese Dell which doesn't have any real attractions to see, but has a lovely unspoilt quality to it.
Back onto the Madeira Walk will lead you into the Magnolia Dell just chock-a-block with dandelions - only joking - magnolias, which is quite a sight to behold which further leads you into the Dutch Garden which is probably the most varied and intriguing of gardens to view. A lovely circular patch of flowers lead on to another of Waldo Story's fountains, a tiered bronze statue of Eros/Cupid which is incredibly eye catching. Further on is a quaint little grotto, too small for any human to fit in, with uneven steps leading up to the back of the house. Drunken people would probably struggle up these steps, but sure-footed sober people will be fine, though they are probably slippery in the rain so some care should be taken to avoid broken bones. From this new vantage point you can have a sneaky peak into the private gardens that the public are too plebeian to be granted access to and also have prime position to view the surrounding landscape which includes the Mentmore woods and distantly the Chilterns as part of the Vale of Aylesbury.
Further afield after a short walk past the back of the house, up some steps and looping round past the front of the house you can get to the Lily Pond and the Lynn Garden via a short, bordered path called the Serpentine Walk, or you can tour the available rooms of the house and do these two attractions afterwards. Unfortunately, on the day I went the Serpentine Walk wasn't deemed fit for public perambulation, as the ground had become all trampled on and in need of some TLC, so I had to go the long way round which was annoying, and also the Lynn Garden (named after Lady Lynn Forrester de Rothschild, wife of Sir Evelyn) which was intended to be a mixture of round ponds, mounds and trees was a work in progress so was a bit disappointing, though I'm sure it's up and running by now. The Lily Pond itself is a serene vision, with sweeping Willow trees fronting it, and lily pads dotted around adding character to what would otherwise be a large puddle which makes it ideal for a brief stroll around absorbing the simplicity of nature.
The question is can the house match the splendour of the gardens? Well from outside appearances, elements of the Jacobean farmhouse remain with the whole wattle and daub look, but also enhanced with more modern Edwardian aspects which give it a fascinating historical vibe. Despite only being allowed into about 4 rooms, all located on the ground floor, the house is packed with small cabinet paintings by 17th and 18th Century Dutch and Flemish painters as well as the more traditional full length paintings by Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough which reek of culture and wealth in that slightly pretentious way the rich from olden days used to love showing off. The furniture is pretty antique as well, I was told dating back to the 18th Century with a mixture of English and French styles built over time with the collection still being added to this century by Anthony and Yvonne de Rothschild. The library is probably my favourite room, with hundreds of old books on display and that typical, stuffy academic feel to the room as well as suitably intellectual pieces of art, including a copy of Rodin's "The Thinker" sculpture. The book choices in these houses always amuse me, as you get the good stuff like Austen, Dickens, Verne and then really random stuff like a guide to Farmer's Markets or the Taxation Laws in Lithuania.
But by far the most interesting pieces in the complete collection are the vast range of Chinese porcelain as collected by Anthony de Rothschild in the 1920/30s, and dare I say it extremely attractive and tasteful ones at that. Normally I find the porcelain in these old houses to be hideous at best, with terrible colouring and ugly patterns, but the ones at Ascott House are very pretty with wonderful imagery depicted on them and were of extremely high quality. There are plenty of paper guides located in all the rooms to peruse at your leisure describing all the worthy objects as well as friendly, if perhaps slightly overly enthusiastic staff members desperate to tell stories and impart their wisdom so you can learn an awful lot about the history of the house and its contents if you're interested.
So despite there being a few attractions undergoing maintenance this is a beautiful place to visit with some breath taking views, spectacularly crafted gardens perfect for some relaxing strolls taking in the best nature has to offer and a brief, but historically fascinating look into the house. You probably won't spend more than a few hours here at the most so it is not an all-day attraction (just as well since there are no refreshment facilities) especially with the tight opening times so you will have to make sure you plan your visit to fit in with these, and as a result it is perhaps a little over priced at £9.20 but if you are a member then it should be no skin off your nose. I would recommend including the house on your visit if you enjoy art, but you will still have an enjoyable visit even if you just limit it to the gardens.
Wing, Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire, LU7 0PR
Tel: 01296 688242
===How to Get there===
It is a bit out of the way and driving is definitely easiest despite the small car park, coming in on the south side of the A418.
Coming in by train or bus will drop you off by Leighton Buzzard train station or Aylesbury which is a minimum of 2 miles away which is either a bit of a trek, or will require further transportation.
* Thankfully there are toilets, including disabled toilets, located by the car park which is a good 220 yards away from the house so best not to get caught unawares.
* Parking is free, and coach parking and mobility drop-off points are available
* There is wheelchair availability in the house but only 3 at a time and there are lots of slopes to contend with, but plenty of level paths too
* Large and Braille prints are available
* Induction loops are available for the hard of hearing
* Dogs must be kept on a leash in the car park only, with the exception of guide dogs
20th March - 29th April 2012
The house and gardens are only open 2-6pm Tuesdays to Sundays.
1st May - 26th July 2012
The house and gardens are only open 2-6pm Tuesdays to Thursdays, with the exception of Bank Holidays on the 7th May and 4th June which are both open 2-6pm.
31st July - 7th Sept 2012
The house and gardens are only open 2-6pm Tuesdays to Sundays, with the exception of the Bank Holiday 27th August and Friday the final day of Ascott's calendar year the 7th Sept which are both open 2-6pm.
The remainder of the year until March the next year is closed.
Whole Property / Gardens Only:
Adult: £9.20 / £4.60
Child: £4.60 / £2.30
Group: £9.20 / £4.60
N.B. National Trust members will have to pay for the gardens on National Gardens Scheme days (7th May and 27th August)
Summary: A beautiful place to drop by for a few hours with lovely gardens and a great collection of art
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