8th Marquess of Hertford Saved Ragley Hall House and Gardens, Warwickshire Life

PUBLISHED: 23:40 07 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:23 20 February 2013

Ragley Hall and gardens

Ragley Hall and gardens

Ragley Hall was once on the point of being bulldozed. Thank goodness for the 8th Marquess of Hertford who saved the house and gardens and transformed the estate into a thriving business.

Ragley Hall was once on the point of being bulldozed. Thank goodness for the 8th Marquess of Hertford who saved the house and gardens and transformed the estate into a thriving business. Today, Ragley Hall is in the care of the 9th Marquess of Hertford who recently celebrated 50 years of the house being open to the public. Tessa Jenkins reports. Photographs by Phil Britt

In 1912 Ragley Hall faced the biggest threat to its survival in its 300-plus year history. After the death of the 7th Marquess the estate's managing trustees advised the family that the best option for the house would be demolition. At a stroke one of the earliest Palladian houses in the country - designed by Robert Hooke - would have disappeared and with it fabulous plasterwork ceilings, priceless marble staircases, the grand portico designed by James Wyatt.

Thank goodness Ragley Hall had a stay of execution. It was the First World War, that won the house a temporary reprieve. The house was converted into a military hospital for the duration of the First and Second World Wars. That, coupled with the determination and business acumen of the 8th Marquess, the late Lord Hugh Edward Conway Seymour, who inherited the estate in 1940, proved the real turning point. His response to the trustees' advice to bulldoze the house the message was unequivocal.

"He said he did the rudest thing he could think of, which was writing a postcard to each of them in pencil - you simply didn't do that back then!" smiles his son the 9th Marquess.

Next he took a radical decision, and in 1958, two years after moving into the house, the doors were thrown open to the paying public, with an entry fee of half a crown.

Strange as it may seem today, this was a brave new world for stately homes at this time. Just four or five others, including Longleat owned by his great friend the late Lord Bath, had previously taken the step. Fortune favours the brave and the venture proved a great success.

Along with a wonderful family home, and a successful visitor attraction, the current Lord Hertford has clearly inherited his father's ability to 'think outside the box'. Many of the challenges of the past 17 years, have been transformed into business opportunities.

"When my parents opened there was a fascination as to what went on inside a stately home, I don't think that's there anymore. Now most of our visitors come for the open space, the lake, and the adventure playground area" says Lord Hertford, whose 400 acres of parkland were recently named as one of the '50 Best Picnic Spots' by The Independent newspaper.

Given this history of moving with the times, it's no surprise that 10 years ago, when Ross Barbour applied for the post of head gardener his innovative, and some might say controversial ideas, fell onto a fertile landscape.

At odds with the stereotypical image of a tweed-clad, weather-beaten head gardener of advancing years, Ross, 37, sports a T-shirt and combats topped off with a funky hair cut and earring.

A leisurely afternoon of exploration reveals that with Lord Hertford's enthusiastic backing, Ross's vision of a stately home garden for the 21st century incorporating a thriving eco-system full of biodiversity, has been a powerful catalyst for change.

Leaving the tea terrace in front of the house we pass by the mixed border, a blaze of summer colour, and reach the rose garden.

Created by the renowned Victorian garden designer Robert Marnock as a showcase for the botanical discoveries of the New World, the area subsequently fell into disarray, before being revived as a rose garden in the 1960s.

"I didn't have much of a love for roses at first but I grew to love them. I just thought that the way they were laid out, in quadrants of grass with flower beds filled with a single variety of rose, wasn't particularly great. There were also a lot of problems with black spot, aphids and mildew," says Ross.

Numerous ideas were debated, and finally a mixed planting scheme that fills each of the quadrants with a mixture of trees, shrubs, perennials and bulbs was chosen.

Twelve months on, the area has an altogether more contemporary feel. Around 70 per cent of the roses, along with the trees and shrubs have already been planted; bulbs and perennials will be added in autumn or spring. In the meantime a wildflower mix has been used to provide a temporary infill around the ribbons of rose bushes.

There are practical benefits too. "With a monoculture of one plant in one bed it's like a landing strip for anything that might come and to prey on it. With a variety of plants you'll still get that to some extent, but you also attract other insects in, some of which will be predators, and hopefully you create a natural balance so that the pests are kept at such a level that they don't cause a problem. It also attracts in the birds that feed on the insects as there's lots more cover for them now," explains Ross.

We pause briefly and look across to the right at an unusual feature with a tropical feel. Inspired by the Brazilian landscape architect Burle Marx, and the world famous botanical gardens of Rio de Janeiro, this nook is also a reflection of Lady Beatrix Hertford's Brazilian origins.

Moving further away from the house we reach an area that four years ago was a formal lawn but is now a traditional meadow, and which continues to evolve beyond recognition as Lord Hertford explains. "This spring we were going around and I said: 'I've never seen that before, where's that come from?' Four years on there's still plants emerging that we've never seen before."

Chock-a-block with grasses and flowers, the prairie skirts the meadow - bursting with colour and texture at this time of year - and we swing left towards a collaborative project between Ross and his friend Dale Goll from nearby Golls Nursery. Planted up in the winter of 2005/2006, this was designed to provide a sensual feast for the colder months of the year. White stemmed beeches create perspective, Cornus and Salix provide colour, whilst Rubus heuchera along with Jasmine provide texture, and Lonicera x purpussi 'Winter Beauty' and Sarccoca confusa will contribute a wonderful scent.

From the aptly named Winter Garden we enter the intriguingly named, tree canopied Fumpary, an earthy, sculptural setting where the reclaimed roots of fallen trees are surrounded by erythroniums, hellebores and lush ferns.

One of the first projects tackled by Ross 10 years ago, a revamp is planned for the coming months.

"What I am always keen on at Chelsea and Malvern are the displays they have of early spring woodland flowers. So what I want to do is make some raised beds a bit like the show benches so that people can actually walk up and see these plants, something like that," he says.

In the neighboroughing Scott Garden the original Lawson's hedge, surrounding what was once a 'Secret Garden', was found to be past its prime and was removed.

"We'd every intention of replanting it, but then we saw how it had opened up the area, and the view up the bank to the house. It was Lady Hertford's idea to plant these hornbeams around it; she's got a good eye for design. Now each of the gardeners has their own bed here that they design and plant out."

Nestled nearby is a clutch of ponds, created on the site of the old croquet lawn. A quirky, shocking pink, bench provides an ideal spot to stop and rest, but visitors will find that they're never quite alone, as overlooking the pond are sculptures of the Hertford children, Gabriella, William, Edward and Antonia, by the Brazilian sculptress Christina Motta.

These are just one example of the artworks that make up the Jerwood Sculpture Trail.

An uphill climb following a grassy bank that's planted with 150,000 crocuses to create a sweeping blue and yellow carpet that follows the early show of snowdrops before dying away as the daffodils come into full bloom, leads us back to our starting point.

Truly a garden for all seasons, my lasting impression is that it's in its constantly evolving nature that the true beauty of this garden lies. True to the Hertford family motto "Fide Et Amore" (By Faith and Love), and thanks in no small part to the inspiration and passion of Ross Barbour, it not only embraces its heritage but marches on towards a brighter future.

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