The Grand Etang, Boughton House

Laura Malpas makes a welcome return to the gardens at Boughton House and shares some of the history behind the development its beautiful landscaped gardens.

May is with us! That most delightful of months when the natural world seems to explode into life in full technicolour could not be more welcome after being cooped up for so long. I was delighted to learn that Boughton is opening its gardens for both the bank holidays this month, and I can’t wait to revisit.

The Rose Garden

One of the reasons I love the outdoors at Boughton is that it blends together of some of the best ancient and modern garden styles. Seemingly simple green and graphic lines created several hundred years apart work incredibly well together. Vast lawns, expanses of water, ancient trees, and glorious formal and informal bedding make Boughton something truly special.

These gardens owe everything to the vision of two father and son teams. The ‘ancient’ elements of the gardens at Boughton were developed by the 1st and 2nd Duke of Montagu over 55 years, beginning in 1684. The ‘modern’ restoration and innovation was begun by the current Duke’s father in 1975, and has been continued by Richard, 10th Duke of Buccleuch and 12th of Queensbury.

The First Duke, Ralph, was a man of his time. Born during the reign of Charles I, his young life was coloured by the maelstrom of the English Civil War and Cromwell’s Commonwealth. This dour time was extinguished in an explosion of excess, colour, and freedom with Restoration of Charles II, when Ralph was 22 years old. Ralph was charming, loving and generous to family and friends, and an enthusiastic patron of the Arts. Unfortunately, he was also ambitious, manipulative and unscrupulous when it came to his personal pleasures and advancement. A high-profile glamorous life required equally opulently furnished homes in the latest fashion, and Boughton owes much to his investment. Duke Ralph introduced the formality of straight lines, avenues of trees, fussy decorative elements and over-ambitious plans for water features. An envious Charles Hatton from Kirby Hall gloated 

The Walled Garden

‘Here is great talk of vast gardens at Boughton, but I heard my Lord Montagu is very much concerned that ye water with which he had hoped to make so fine fountains hath failed his expectations.’ 

In fact, issues with the flow from the diminutive River Ise continued to affect the water features, as the ambitions were always greater than the supply. 

Ralph’s son John the Second Duke seems to have been a likeable character, a competent soldier with a taste for fun. His mother-in-law complained bitterly that ‘all my son-in-law’s talents lie in things only natural in boys of fifteen, and he is two and fifty; to get people into his garden and wet them with squirts…’

 She had fallen foul of his practical jokes too often. However, Duke John was a great supporter of the Arts, and enthusiastically continued developing the landscapes at Boughton. Fashions had changed from the strict formality enjoyed by his father, to a more natural style of garden architecture. John removed some of his father’s fussiness, aiming for simplicity and clean lines, employing the Golden Ratio to harmonious effect. John developed the structural Canals, the Broad Water and the pyramidal Mount. As a lover of avenues of trees, he planted over 30 miles during his lifetime. 

All this investment of time and money stopped after John’s death. The estates were inherited by his daughter who chose to live elsewhere, as did her children. When inheritrix Lady Elizabeth Montagu married the Duke of Buccleuch in 1767, Boughton entered its ‘big sleep’ as the house was mothballed by the family for 150 years.

The Dead Reach canals

The current Duke’s father Duke John inherited in 1973, and two years later began a restoration of the gardens of his ancestors, beginning with redefining the Broad Water. His son, Duke Richard has continued the restoration, commissioning modern schemes which resonate perfectly with the formality of the 18th century design. The most successful of these is ‘Orpheus’. This complex feature is massive, yet hardly intrudes upon the historic vistas. Designed by Kim Wilkie in 2008, the main feature is a square hollow, 23 feet deep with a pool of flowing water from the River Ise at the bottom. This negative space lies opposite the 23 feet high truncated pyramid constructed around 250 years earlier by Duke John. Walking down the graduated square following the path has a curiously hypnotic effect. The sounds of nature and the wind are stilled, and there is a feeling of being cocooned. Above lies the Golden Section terrace, the design picked out with a stone rill through which water flows. This combines the ancient and the modern in perfect harmony, and both are united by the canal flowing past, inhabited by water-fowl. 

Another hugely successful restoration is that of the 300 year-old Grand Étang. Originally part of Duke Ralph’s design as a reflecting pool for the house’s façade, it is over an acre in size, and possesses the most dynamic water jet in Northamptonshire. At up to 75 feet high, it casts rainbows and refreshing spray if there is a breath of wind. As a counterpoint, the sensory and visual feasts of the orchard, the walled herb garden, and the rose garden are not to be missed. 

So if you’re looking for somewhere to visit for the May Bank Holidays where you can enjoy a garden designed to delight, check out the website and book your tickets, dress for the weather, and be prepared to enjoy your time communing with natural beauty. If we are lucky, the bluebells might be out in the woodlands too!

For more information and booking, please visit www.boughtonhouse.co.uk

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