diamond geezer

 Monday, May 14, 2018

Location: Silsoe, Beds MK45 4HR [map]
Open: daily from 10am (reduced opening Nov-Mar)
Admission: £10.90
Website: english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/wrest-park
Four word summary: gardens! (and a house)
Time to allow: at least half a day

Centuries ago the De Grey family made their home in the centre of Bedfordshire, at Wrest Park. They haven't lived there for some time, the house has been through the wars, and the A6 has lopped off the edge of the estate. But the gardens, evolved through centuries of aristocratic fashion, are fantastic.

They're popular too, as English Heritage properties go, and on a sunny summery Sunday the hordes descend. I suspect a lot have been before, so spend a lot of time slouching in deckchairs, throwing frisbees on the formal lawns or wandering slowly once around the Long Water.

Now's a good time to enjoy the wisteria on the walls of the Italian Garden, and to revel in the bright spring colour of the parterre. The Rose Garden has yet to do its thing. Pick your day carefully, because I suspect any resemblance to Versailles is somewhat less convincing in gloomy weather.

The house, intriguingly, isn't the high point of the visit. It's grand, occasionally glitzy, and contains a well-delivered exhibition. But having been used as a WW1 hospital, company HQ and research institute, the downstairs reception rooms have something of an institutional touch.

If visiting for the first time, be sure to grab an audio guide from the front desk, because from what I saw almost nobody does and it explains a lot. It's for the gardens rather than the main house, and I doubt I'd have spotted the Bath House hidden behind the Orangery otherwise.

The best part of the audio trail was hunting for the monuments in the horseshoe of the Woodland Garden, essentially a game of heritage orienteering. I found Capability Brown's peculiar pillar, two half-houses, a dog cemetery and a fake Mithraic altar the De Greys had built to deceive their friends.

The focal point of the gardens is the Archer Pavilion, a six-bayed baroque hideaway (currently undergoing preservation) with domed trompe l'œil ceiling. Two ridiculously tiny spiral staircases rise up within, leading to garret rooms where servants would have been strategically concealed.

Do pop inside the Dairy Gallery to see the classical sculptures now thought too vulnerable to remain outside in the body of the park. On the day of my visit a jazz trio were doing their thing under the trees, but you might get Sherlock Holmes, or jousting, or nothing extra depending.

The vast majority of visitors to Wrest Park drive, Silsoe's Sunday bus service being non-existent. I walked in from the nearest station, which is Flitwick, which isn't very near at all but the four mile walk proved very pleasant. You can see that walk handily documented here.

The route crosses a lot of Flitwick Moor Nature Reserve, then a less muddy lane, before hitting open country on a surfaced track. Along the way it passes three proper country pubs, which may swing your vote. And at the halfway point is another EH property, very rarely open, but I timed it perfectly.

Location: Flitton, Beds MK45 5EJ [map]
Open: 2pm-4pm (1st Sunday in April-September only) (plus three summer Wednesdays)
Admission: free
Website: english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/de-grey-mausoleum
Four word summary: top notch monumental effigies
Time to allow: 20 minutes

When the first De Greys passed on, they had themselves buried in a chamber annexed to the parish church at Flitton. But when more De Greys died they enlarged the space to create a full-size mausoleum, cruciform in shape, and stashed further generations inside ever more elaborate tombs.

What they accidentally created is an illustrated history of funeral statuary, from pious Jacobean effigies to romantic Victorian tableaux. To walk round is to experience the rise and fall of overzealous afterlife commemoration, as the volunteers on duty will ably explain.

One sad corner contains three large tombs to young adults who died early, each depicted in heroic classic pose. Round the corner Henry De Grey's marble wall is mostly an inscription detailing his life and that of his two wives, one in rather greater detail than the other. Wrest In Peace.

Looking round won't take long, but won't disappoint, if only you can time your visit for the 18 hours a year the gates are unlocked. The De Greys's maxi-mausoleum (and House, and Gardens) have successfully ensured they'll be long remembered long after you and I are long forgotten.

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