Congerstone village

Gopsall Garden

Gopsall Hall Garden

by Mike Foley


For those of us with an interest, even passing, in Garden History it’s a real shame to find that although we are able to research quite a lot of specific detail about the house and its owners, the garden is a lot more difficult to pin down.

Thanks to research on other gardens of a similar era its possible to take some of the clues from Gopsall and make sense of what was there in the past. It would be fascinating to know more stories and names from the garden, if you have any we would be really grateful for them, however small, so we can add it to our knowledge.

Gopsall Hall Garden was laid out  on the orders of Charles Jennens in and around 1750, I say laid out rather than designed because there is a fair amount of arguement as to exactly who was employed for what. No sign of William Kent, Humphrey Repton or even Capability Brown but the timing was right for them and the ethos they all brought to gardening at the time would have been understood by those with the funds to carry out such plans.

A name that comes up often related to garden and park at Gopsall is John Grundy (snr & jnr) both had a hand in the actual application but we currently have little further detail of their involvement. John Grundy’s burial place can be found in St Mary’s churchyard Congerstone, it’s the large altar tomb near to the south door.

John Grundy’s 1749 survey of the garden

This plan view is of the original garden as first laid out, it shows the Great Pond with the valley dammed, tree planting, some defined beds (a pre-Brown English garden idea, sadly swept away by Landscape gardening), a ‘Hanging Lawn’ – a sloping area of grass – and an early Kitchen garden with what appears to be some walling to the north. Paths and tracks across the park and follies, sadly all gone now. The park and garden was said to have cost between £80,000 and £100,000 (remember this is 1750) so we can see it was extravagantly funded.

The plan carries little or no indication of what was planted where, it’s just a description of the overall shape of the site.

1886 Plan of Gopsal Hall Garden

Happily some photos of the garden at Gopsall exist, which were taken in the first years of the 20th century together with a plan from 1886, and what a garden is shown.

A much enlarged scheme from Jennens original. Garden follies, formal bedding schemes, tree avenues, specimen trees,  statuary, vistas, grottos. Walks and parterres, colonaded steps, recumbant lions, an extensive rockery, fountains; even an obelisk!

The Rockery

To the west of the house was an extensive brick walled garden, built into the gentle slope of the park so it would face due south and get full benefit of the sun, subdivided by further brick walls. To the northerly third a range of glass houses stood. From descriptions and placement, a typical mix of lean-to and free standing glass structures existed, all designed to produce enough fruit and vegetables to make Gopsall a self sufficient place.

The Walled Garden – with (L to R) the Rev Ottley Warner, Viscount Curzon & a gardener

The Vine House

See the amount of grapes being produced in the Vinery. Much too much to be consumed at once, so from that we know that a vine store must have been on site, probably one of the Bothy buildings where the inventive Victorian or Edwardian head gardener would have stored the bunches, each with a small piece of stem in a bottle of water with charcoal added to keep it sweet. Many Head gardeners claimed to be supplying grapes from store when the following harvest was being taken. Looking at the picture of Gopsall’s vinery, who knows, but very possible.

Centrally positioned in the walled garden was a round pool, with a Fountain. This was not just for decoration, in an age without sophisticated watering systems the need to water plants under glass was carried out by watering can and this central pond was typically referred to as ‘The Dipping Pool’. The glasshouse and walled garden staff literally dipping their water pots and cans into the pool.

Edith Leek, a Congerstone resident, interviewed in 1980 aged 91, recalled that there were 8 ‘young men’ who worked in the glasshouses (probably Journeymen and a Potboy) plus a few who worked in the Kitchen Garden. Add to that a Head Gardener and a couple of Foremen and you begin to see how important to the estate the productive gardens were.

In a sad final comment Edith recalls when asked if any of the gardeners were still alive (in 1980), she says:    “No, I only remember that nearly all the boys got killed in WW1”.  How often must that have been heard?

Gopsall Hall was very much a Country House, used for Christmas, seasonal parties, shooting and entertaining; so why so many permanent Garden staff stationed here?  Well Gopsall Kitchen Garden supplied the Howe family together with the whole retinue of servants, wherever they were. The fruit and vegetables were taken by train via Shackerstone, usually carefully packed in huge wicker baskets, to either Curzon House in London or Woodlands in Uxbridge. The laundry made the same trip but that’s yet another story.

View of the Sunken Garden looking towards to Show House (above) and looking west along the south terrace to the Rose House (below).

Records show that Gopsall was indeed self sufficient in food (including meat, fish and fowl but that’s for another day), so again we can extrapolate that all temperate climate vegetables would have been produced.

With the amount of glass houses shown in the 1886 plan someone was almost certainly producing more exotic fare. These glasshouses typically produced Peach and Nectarine, Tomato, Aubergine and a great favourite at the time, Melon.

All the glass houses seem to fit what we know about typical structures. By this time an extensive Kitchen Garden had been installed, a Walled Garden built onto the south facing slope to take full advantage from the sun. Divided into three sections by two internal walls each of which was 1 foot shorter than the perimeter walls, apparently to reduce shadows thrown onto the internal crops, genius eh.

The east front of the house leading to Shackerstone was laid out with formal bedding and garden ornaments (see picture of cenotaph with inscription to Holdsworth) and a Cedar tree planted by Edward V11 on one of his visits.These plants would have been produced on site (no garden centre for the Earl to pop to on Sunday) and would have been grown to planting out size after propagation in the glass houses. So from that we know that their would have needed to be a range of cold frames.

Lower Garden with Cenotaph

The south front was levelled with round flower beds and a circular central fountain, colonnaded steps down to a lower sunken garden area called The Rose Garden and planted with a collection of roses. For good measure another more elaborate glasshouse was built at the top of the slope, to grow roses earlier in the season and make for a dry place to enjoy them in inclement weather.

The Fountain on the South Front (top) & the Rose House & Sunken Garden (bottom)

Further up the south garden slope nearer to the house was a Show House, a barrel vaulted building which would have been dressed for showing off a range of plants rather than actually producing them.  Again we don’t have details of the plants except for one picture showing a range of Bonsai trees, one claimed to be 300 years old.  This lovely building was manufactured by a company called Cooke and Son, apparently long since out of business (unless you know differently – let us know).

                 The Cooke Show House and Bonsai Trees

Back outside again the gardens fell away from the house to the park with Cedar avenues and garden ornaments aplenty. The Egyptian style Obelisk in the Cedar Walk (now in the Earl’s garden at Penn Street in Bucks) was originally from Alexander Popes garden in Twickenham, so it’s pretty well travelled and still in one very large piece.

Stone urns, Planters supported by Cherubs, carved Lions and a range of statues were peppered throughout. To the east toward Shackerstone was a tree-lined avenue leading to the gatehouse, past a lake with an ornamental bridge. Remnants of both still exist, the lake a little silted up now.

View East to Shackerstone Drive with formal flowerbeds and the Holdsworth Cenotaph in foreground

By contrast to all this ostentation, the north front, the front door in fact, was all rather subdued with mainly grassed over lawn areas to greet the visitor who arrived at this entrance.  Imagine then the surprise and delight awaiting after taking dinner and going for a walk in the gardens.

How sad that no one can do that any more. But on a warm day do take a walk to the Temple in Racecourse wood and look across to the Walled Garden walls – still in fine condition, at the garden slopes where the roses flowered and see the cedar avenue still standing. Imagine the splashing of the fountain on the terrace.

All gone. But for a memory.


With thanks to Lord Howe and Glynis Oakley for providing some of the illustrations.

© Mike Foley 2019