Woburn Abbey reborn

Lesley Bellew / 19 June 2019

Lesley Bellew meets the down-to-earth duchess who is transforming the gardens of one of Britain’s greatest estates.



‘There are no quick fixes here,’ laughs Louise, Duchess of Bedford, who volunteered to take responsibility for 28 acres of the 42-acre Abbey Gardens, at Woburn, when she married Andrew, the 15th Duke.

‘When you marry into a family like this people ask, “What is your generation going to bring to Woburn?”’ says Louise. ‘In 2000, more people came to see the house and parkland than the garden, so I thought, “I could do something here”.’

Former Duchesses of Bedford have made history, so the chic 21st-century duchess knew she needed to make a mark. Louise’s mother-in-law, Henrietta, the 14th Duchess, was a glamorous TV personality in the 1960s and 70s, appearing on Call My Bluff and Juke Box Jury.

In the 1840s, the 7th Duchess created the concept of afternoon tea to plug the gap between luncheon and dinner. The idea caught on.

When the Great War raged, Mary, the 11th Duchess, founded four hospitals and was honoured for her nursing service. She learned to fly aged 63 and broke records for long-distance flights.

‘We have a lot going on at Woburn – the house, function room, golf club, hotel and safari park – but I thought I would take on the garden,’ says Louise. ‘I didn’t know a huge amount, so I signed up at the London Garden Design School.’

Her first assignment was to measure a herbaceous border and create a planting scheme. The border in Louise’s six-acre private garden was 30 metres, which puzzled her tutor who suggested she may have confused feet with metres.

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Duchess of Bedford
The Duchess of Bedford

Louise explained that her figures were right and her tutor ‘immediately appreciated the challenges’ and Louise went away with her enthusiasm raised.

She then invited landscape architects to survey the garden and quickly learned how expensive such projects can be. When she told Andrew the estimated cost she got a firm response. ‘Forget that, it’s not happening,’ he said. But he gave her a vote of confidence by suggesting she could take it on herself with the estate’s gardening team.

‘So that was my opportunity,’ says the Duchess. ‘The head gardener was retiring so I inherited a team of gardeners.’ She advertised for a garden manager, adding: ‘Lady of the house wishes to learn horticulture from a professional’.

She hired Martin Towsey, who had been working on an estate in Nottingham. ‘I could tell that he was passionate about horticulture.’

As well as the 42-acre garden, Martin, who is now the estate gardens’ manager, oversees The Woburn Hotel garden, golf club entrance, safari park gardens and the estate’s London gardens in Russell Square, Bedford Square, Montague Gardens, Southampton Row and Tavistock Square.

Woburn folly
The Folly and Children's Garden, restored based on Humphry Repton's plans. Work was completed in 2005.

Getting started

A plan was essential, and it began with the bog garden. ‘It was a wet, grassy area because of the natural springs,’ Louise says. ‘We have ribbons of clay and sand, but the gardeners would struggle with the lawnmowers on this uneven site, so it made sense to start there.

‘I didn’t realise how long it takes to create a garden, but I have become a patient gardener, and Martin and I work well together. He knows what I like and don’t like. I prefer relaxing, calm colours – pinks, blues and whites. I am not one for oranges and yellows.

‘I wanted to create a wild meadow and thought it would be easy, scattering a few seeds, until I discovered how much work goes into it,’ she says. ‘But he was brilliant and now wildflowers bloom in many areas of the garden.’

Woburn is big business with around 450 people working across the estate. ‘We are one big family,’ says Louise fondly.

The Duke and Duchess’s son Henry, 14, is part of the garden team and enjoys tinkering with tractors, while daughter Alexandra, 18, has just taken her A-levels and loves being in the countryside. ‘Both children saw a lot of the garden when they were young,’ says Louise. ‘Their nanny, Tina, met Martin in the garden while walking with the children. I think there was a lot of walking! Martin and Tina married and now have children of their own, which is so lovely.’

Woburn Abbey camellia house
The Camellia House was designed by Sir Jeffry Wyatville and built in 1822. It was restored in 2008.

Recreating Repton’s Woburn

Louise’s biggest project came about when the curator of Woburn’s library showed her the 200-year-old plans of the grounds. The 1804 Red Book for Woburn was drawn by Humphry Repton, the first person to describe himself as a ‘landscape gardener’.

‘I was so excited to see the original plans,’ says Louise. ‘It went back to John, the 6th Duke of Bedford, and not only showed the Repton designs but also those of the architect Jeffry Wyatville. It was a complete snapshot of the time.’

So began a ten-year project to recreate the Repton landscape, but also incorporate Louise’s taste in colour, texture and style. One find from the past that excited Louise was the way the gardens reflected the 6th Duke’s appreciation of his family. There was a children’s sensory garden used as a story-telling venue and even a kangaroo enclosure.

In 2013, the Humphry Repton project won the Georgian Society’s award for the UK’s best garden restoration. ‘We have a fantastic team,’ says Louise, keen not to take all the credit. Martin gives me direction and he has some great ideas.’

Some challenges at Woburn are far more unusual. ‘At the safari park, giraffes were eating all the vegetation,’ Louise says, ‘so we planted a hexagonal enclosure and took a section out so the giraffes could get in but not reach everything.

‘The gardeners also devised a grass-seed mix for rhinos because when grazing they pull out the entire plant. They have planted cocksfoot so the rhinos can rip off the top but the plant will continue to grow.’

Woburn Chinese dairy
The Chinese Dairy was designed by Henry Holland in 1787 and restored in 2004.

Another plan in the pipeline is a walled kitchen garden with espaliered peach trees. ‘In a kitchen garden, children can learn how vegetables grow,’ Louise says. ‘I am really keen on this sort of education – from trying to save bees and hedgehogs to bat walks and deer conservation. We have nine species of deer, including the herd of red deer, and we have reintroduced the Père David deer back into China.

‘We also make our own compost – 100 cubic metres every year gets mulched back into the ground and we irrigate the estate with water from the lakes. We use only recycled plant pots and we don’t use insecticides.

‘There’s never a dull moment here and we do get asked some funny questions. People have written asking for lion poo because it scares off cats in their gardens. It works well but has been reclassified as clinical waste and needs to be incinerated. So, unlike days of old, we cannot dish it out.’

With so much happening, does Louise, whose focus is on ensuring that everyone on the estate is appreciated, ever relax? She smiles broadly and says: ‘I recently took up carriage driving and I enjoyed it so much, we now offer carriage tours – visitors can book a ride and have afternoon tea. We are, after all, the home of afternoon tea.

‘The private garden is my favourite place. When I wake up, I love to look out at the formal Wyatville layout with its lawns, ponds and borders. I am so lucky. In the evenings, I walk our cocker spaniels, Minkey and Nugget, in the garden. They do a lot of digging, so I am sure that I love the dogs more than the gardening team does, but it’s hard for dogs to live in a deer park without digging.’

House and gardens open from 11am-5pm daily (last entry 4pm). Admission £18 or £8.50 garden only; over-60s 16.50/£7.25 garden only; family ticket £45. For details, visit woburnabbey.co.uk or call 01525 290333

Woburn Abbey private gardens
The private gardens of Woburn Abbey.

Woburn Abbey Garden Show

Now in its tenth year, the Woburn Abbey Garden Show gives rare access to the Duke and Duchess of Bedford’s private garden. Award-winning exhibitors and nurseries offer garden enthusiasts the chance to talk to top growers and buy plants. Pippa Greenwood of Radio 4’s Gardeners’ Question Time and garden designer Adam Frost host Q&A sessions with Woburn’s gardens manager Martin Towsey. Visitors can join tours to learn about the creation of the Humphry Repton landscape. Show opening times 22-23 June from 10am-5pm (last entry 4pm). Admission adults £16.25, concessions £15.25, children 15 and under, free

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