Great Fosters: A Story of Survival

Great Fosters is a red brick Tudor mansion near Egham in Surrey, with extensive formal gardens which are described as amongst the finest Arts and Crafts gardens in Europe. How was it that I had never heard of such a major historic garden, so close to London? It seemed like the perfect post lock-down trip back into garden history and I looked forward to enjoying a mature, period garden in all its glory. Surprisingly the visit turned out not to be about cosy Tudor architecture and the delights of the English Arts and Crafts garden style but a touching tour through the life of this site which reveals its battle scars and finest moments, with the easy grace of an elder who has seen it all.

Like Gravetye Manor, also with a notable Arts and Crafts garden, Great Fosters is a Country House Hotel, in fact it was England’s very first, opening to the public in 1930. To see the garden today you have to book a stay, or at least take tea, which is served pretty much all day from around 11am, either at a table or brought to you in a picnic basket anywhere you like in the grounds. If you come for the gardens don’t worry about time limits – you will be able to stroll at your leisure both before and after your meal. This year however, you will have had to visit with a generous spirit and come prepared to use your imagination because, like many major gardens, Covid19 and the Furlough Scheme have left their mark. The challenges this place has had to face in its long history are endless, something I came to understand only after my visit – changing my viewpoint and informing this introduction.

Early Residents: People have liked it around here for a very long time. Records show the de Imworth family lived there in 1224 and probably built a Manor within the confines of the Saxon Moat which survives today and dates from around 500AD. What an amazing thought that this strip of water, hand dug and the pride and joy of people more than 1,500 years ago, is still with us; somehow surviving all the vicissitudes of time. That is what I love about history – reading about what has happened here through time has the power to transform a pretty garden feature into something which speaks of generations of local people. When you understand what it is you are looking at while sipping your tea, the experience is soaked in meaning. A fairly detailed leaflet outlining the stream of ownership is available at the hotel showing how the place today is a palimpsest of past lives. It is that layering of personal ambition, dreams and foibles, lived within the confines of politics and social norms which is written on the house and gardens today.

The earliest mention of the site as ‘Fosters’ dates from 1521 and there are pretty good records relating to subsequent ownership. William Warham, who built the oldest surviving part of the Manor house, lost the house in debts to a money lender. The house was at the centre of several subsequent ‘deals’ and unpleasant shenanigans until, in 1604, it was sold to Sir John Denham who remodelled it to become the foundation for the substantial building it is today. Henry VIII used it as a hunting lodge, as the grounds were once part of Windsor Old Forest, as did his daughter Elizabeth I, and there are personal crests in the house belonging to Anne Boleyn – so this was a Tudor house with strong royal connections. Family feuds, neglect, avarice, uprisings, treason and madness all affected the interests of the estate. In fact, Great Fosters was a lunatic asylum in the early nineteenth century when it belonged to Sir John Furnival, and almost certainly welcomed King George III here during his treatment for insanity. On the doctor’s death in 1846 the house was treated to lots of money and a thorough refurbishment but was again in trouble by 1902.
Twentieth Century Life: The Hon Gerald Montagu, who made his fortune in poultry farming, bought the neglected estate in 1918 and sprinkled it liberally with fairy dust. I can imagine that, after the trauma of war, the comfort of owning an old house resonant with the greatness of the Tudor dynasty would have been a draw for Gerald. Who can blame him if he was nostalgic for the certainties of a past, (albeit fantastical), Golden Age? Nostalgia and neo-Elizabethan pastiche were exactly what his chosen architect, W H Romaine-Walker ARIBA (1854-1940) was known for; that, and garden design in the ‘contemporary’ style, which is known to us as Arts and Crafts. Montagu asked Romaine-Walker and his assistant Gilbert Jenkins, to design ‘such a garden as would recreate the old-world charm of the place and be interesting all year round’. And that is what he got: a Tudoresque Parterre, a Sunken Rose Garden, a Pergola and hump back Oak bridge connecting the two. Plus, just beyond the formal gardens on the east side of the house, a Thatched Pavilion for lawn archery as a nod to Ye Olde England.

The Parterre Garden: was laid out in the rectangle of land on the east façade of the extended house which is defined by the Saxon Moat. The four hedged compartments follow a traditional design of knots with box edged beds and yew topiary, including sculpted peacocks, each with a sculpture in the middle representing one of the four seasons. The centre point of the whole design is marked by a monumental stone sundial, probably created by Nicholas Stone the elder, and acquired by the then owner, Sir John Doderidge, one of the first members of the Society of Antiquaries – although it was possibly a donation by Sir Francis Drake. This is the spot where real Elizabethan history meets nostalgia but it works for me: the Arts and Crafts mash-up of our garden history has touched a deep chord in our national psyche, has surreptitiously crept under our skin, inoculated us with a certain way of seeing that has become second nature. It is as difficult to see a stone mullioned window without the silhouette of yew topiary somewhere close by, as it is to see sunflowers, without thinking of Vincent van Gogh.

The Sunken Rose Garden: is the companion piece to the Parterre. It really is not my thing as I find rose gardens in general are ugly things which isolate this beautiful shrub from the rest of nature and blindly hope to showcase their superb blooms while choosing to ignore their less-than-beautiful carriage. Roses, in my opinion, are best shown in a harmony with other plants where they sing in tune with the group. There are some rose gardens which I think achieve this but this formal Edwardian design leaves me cold. The focus is a circular lily pool and fountain (I read that this was innovative of Jenkins’ but I am doubtful on this point). Eight evenly spaced sets of steps radiate up through a ring of iron hoops and trelliswork – who cannot think late Repton? Lavender and York stone paving complete the look – which many people admire.

The Pergola & Bridge: Joining these two areas is a wooden pergola which runs parallel to one arm of the moat and embraces a hump-backed bridge. This classic Arts and Crafts garden device leads out from the house into the parkland beyond while hinging the two main garden events by way of a hump-backed bridge. Today this is covered in wisteria and recalls the Japanese bridges made famous by Monet’s paintings of his water garden at Giverny. The rockwork in the moat, on the side flanking the pergola, was designed by Gomez Waterer (1867-1945) of John Waterer Sons & Crisp, who also supervised early planting of the moat.

A Country House Hotel: The house and garden were in the game again with their new old-style makeover fit for the coming century – but in 1930 it was all change again. The new owner, Sir Harold Sutcliffe, a Conservative politician, turned Great Fosters into England’s first Country House Hotel. I would love to know more about what inspired him, where did the idea come from and what convinced him to put so much energy and money behind it? Whatever the reason, the idea was a resounding success – for a time at least. The new hotel hosted stars of stage and screen as well as debutantes, politicians and bon viveurs from old money – a visit by Queen Mary in 1931 was the icing on the cake. Such was its success that the old dining room was replaced by the larger Elizabethan tithe barn imported from Ewell Manor. I can imagine the gardens full of guests, playing tennis, gossiping in the Parterre and perhaps having a go at croquet and archery on the lawns.

The Sutcliffe family held on to Great Fosters for over ninety years until they sold to the current owners, Alexander Hotels in 2018. They remained in place longer than any family in its entire history. They continued to make improvements throughout their tenure but did not have an easy time of it. In the 1960s the entrance driveway, which had never been long, was truncated further when the line of Stroude Road was altered. In the 1970s land was compulsory purchased and the new M25 brutally swept away a third of the Lime Avenue on the east of the property. This avenue leading the eye away from the formal gardens and linking the informal parkland was an important design feature which now was a bleeding artery, letting in the noise and pollution of heavy traffic. When the great storm of 1987 was followed by another in 1990, destroying many of the protecting old trees, it must have seemed like it was time to just give up and let the house and garden go. In the face of a stark choice – more money, energy and a rescue plan, or give up, the Sutcliffe family chose to find a positive solution.
Twenty-First Century Rescue: It must have been an agonising decision for the Sutcliffe family but they were bold and brave and commissioned Kim Wilkie, who at the time had just set up his own landscape practice, to work with them to resolve the existing issues and also create new interventions which would consolidate the designed landscape around the house. Wilke is well known today for his particular approach which, as he says, is ‘to listen to the stories and then continue the tale, allowing the memory and imagination of what has gone before to inspire fresh design in the evolving pattern.’ It must have been this quality which inspired confidence in the Sutcliffe’s when they began their association in 1990. The objectives are summarised on his website in a clear voice so I am borrowing it:

• Restoration of the historic approaches and listed formal gardens around the house; extending the formal gardens with new and complementary designs.
I admit to having been a bit sniffy about the Romaine-Walker Parterre Garden. The hedges were shaggy and the underplanting of salvia, Alchemilla, purple sage, ‘Hidcote’ lavender, catmint and geranium was patchy, leggy and not ‘billowy’ enough. I quickly realised that this must have been due to the lack of working gardeners during lockdown but I would never have guessed there had been an immense restoration work programme without which this would all have been completely lost. It is only by doing some background reading that I discovered that by 1990 this listed garden was derelict with the yew hedges lining the pathways grown so thick as to be almost joined up. The yews were cut back to the wood and over time the right balance of shape and size, crisp outline and fulsome silhouette was achieved again.
Many of the historic approaches to the house had been obscured too and these were given attention, as was the south side of the house where Wilkie wrapped new formal extensions around the building by creating compartments of crinkle-crankle hedges, some waist high in wild flowers, others shorn to suit the sculptures which inhabit them.
I also particularly liked a quartet of little gardens designed by Wilkie which, to my mind, are little vignettes of historic garden forms: an Arts and Crafts herb garden, full of artfully relaxed charm; an evocation of a seventeenth century Wilderness (trimmed bushes replaced by daisies); An Elizabethan Mount; and a Victorian fantasy ‘Dell’. That’s my interpretation but they are formally described as the Secret Gardens of Peter Pan, the Armillary Sphere, The Mound and The Dell. I think they are clever and intriguing but, again, they were suffering from the effects of Covid19 and I found a gardener working in one who was clearly distressed at the state of the planting and the loss of what she described as seven years of her work.

• Reacquisition of the original grounds and creation of a new lake; regenerating existing oak woodland and stream corridors.
Wilke is known for his passion for the environment and, together with his belief in the historic memory of place, he was able to make the case for enlarging the estate to allow it to breathe and develop a healthier ecosystem. He persuaded the Sutcliffes to buy forty-six adjoining acres of derelict land which he would nurture to reflect the old forest, create a lake to extend habitat and resurrect old ponds and streams which he saw as vital arteries of life for the landscape. Today this area looks so natural it is a victim of its own success as no-one would think to praise all the effort and drive required to make something which should have been there all the time – but wasn’t. Particularly moving are two ancient oaks, the last remnants of the ancient forest, which stand out as two towering personalities supporting a whole raft of animal and vegetal life.

• Protection of the land from the intrusion of the M25 motorway with 6-metre-high earthworks and a formal turf amphitheatre.
The local Highways Agency had a nickname for the man who rang them every month for six years to progress his planning application – ‘Persistency Wilkie’ – but he got there in the end. The Lime Avenue stretching out from the Elizabeth East façade used to be 210 meters long but in 1971 it was severed by the new M25 road and reduced to 125 meters. The noise and pollution was horrendous and solving this problem was at the top of the list if the garden was to be saved. Wilkie is known today for his large-scale sculptural landforms, based on the eighteenth-century landscape garden tradition. At Great Fosters he clearly was inspired by the great grassy amphitheatre designed at nearby Claremont by Charles Bridgeman for the Duke of Newcastle and built in the early 1720s. It took much longer than anticipated to gather the funds and secure the permissions but at last Wilkie was able to build half a mile of protective earth bunds and a six-metre-high grass amphitheatre which serves as a practical device to protect against noise but also as a splendid focal end to the axial vista. It is a feature of great bravura which I enjoyed very much but, my goodness, the roar of cars on the road beyond is still distressing.

While Great Fosters is not the most beautiful or enjoyable garden I have visited, it has touched me in a way that that is sometimes missing in a perfectly lovely place. It showed its vulnerability, the scars of misfortune and abandonment, its struggle to be properly funded at various times as well as the love and care it has had lavished on it. Today it fells like a place which is marooned with all exits blocked off and little space to breathe. However lovely the experience provided, the constant roar of traffic is heard outside, and in normal times the noise of air traffic overhead must be horrific. But what to do? At what point do we admit defeat and let heritage gardens slip away. What price is a garden worth? Having taken the time to get to know it a bit better, I have come to think of Great Fosters as a great ship which refuses to go down despite stormy seas, which is funny really as a shot of the entrance façade was used in the 1958 Rank Organisation film about the Titanic. ‘A Night to Remember’. At this difficult time, the hospitality industry is facing disaster and unthinkable closures which will affect the destiny of some of our major gardens. I don’t know if the gardens at Great Fosters will be able to weather this storm but hopefully it will thrive again so that the lines in Noels Coward’s play, ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’ will ring true again:
‘Really darling, you’re lounging there sipping vodka as though you were at Great Fosters’.

Comments 1

  1. An energetic and entertaining account of the history of this historic garden and its vicissitudes. looks like a wonderful place to visit or stay.

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