Victorian splendour at Waddesdon Manor

Peter Driverin Public Places

Waddesdon Manor is a National Trust property in Buckinghamshire - renowned for its Grade I listed house and outstanding Victorian gardens. Last year, Peter Driver paid a socially-distanced visit to speak to Head of Gardens Mike Buffin.

Located in the Vale of Aylesbury, seven miles west of Aylesbury, the house was built in the Neo-Renaissance style of a French château between 1874 and 1889 for Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild. It was used as a weekend residence for grand entertaining and as a setting for his collection of various artworks.

The last member of the Rothschild family to own Waddesdon was James de Rothschild (1878-1957). Upon his death, he bequeathed it to the National Trust and it has been managed ever since by a family charity, now the Rothschild Foundation. It is one of the National Trust's most visited properties, with over 466,000 visitors in 2018, and won Visit England's Large Visitor Attraction of the Year in 2017.

The land was purchased in 1874 by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild. Initially, it was a bare hill with a small farm building perched at the top, so to build the great house, three metres of soil was removed to create a plateau. This involved teams of local labourers digging and removing the spoil to reshape the summit of the hill. They also had to construct the carriageways and roads around the hill to transport stone and building materials to a bare hilltop six miles from the nearest railway line.

The stone for the house, which came from Bath, and most of the bricks, which came from all parts of the country, were conveyed on a temporary steam tram from the railway direct to the foot of the hill, then the trucks were drawn up on rails by a cable engine. Other materials for the building, as well as for the farmsteads, cottages and lodges, and the trees and the shrubs, had to be carted some miles by road.

The foundation stone was laid in 1877 and, six years later, the land had been transformed into a beautiful landscape by planting mature trees and bringing in the water supply from Aylesbury.

Since then, successive members of the Rothschild family have taken turns to enhance and nurture the aesthetics and conservational value of the estate. Baron Ferdinand and his sister, known as Miss Alice, undertook extensive planting and landscaping before James de Rothschild added a golf course and stud. More recently, the current Lord Rothschild and his daughter Beth have recreated major features, such as the Millennium Avenue of trees linking the Manor with nearby Upper Winchendon.

By purchasing the adjoining land, the estate has grown from the original 2,700 acres in 1874 to 6,000 acres in 2011. It is managed by a team of foresters and farmers. Whilst the majority of the land is farmed 'in-hand' by the estate, five tenant farmers play an important role in its tenure. The in-hand operation covers 3,200 acres of arable land and 800 acres of parkland.

The woodlands are managed under a 10-year Forestry Commission plan and significant efforts have improved the landscape as an amenity. The latest project was the creation of a 60-acre Diamond Jubilee Wood and includes ponds, diverse habitats and a wood to be enjoyed by generations to come. Much of the timber felled on the estate is sold locally and seasoned logs are used in log burners in a number of estate properties.

Screened woodchip above 30mm is used in the biomass boiler at the Estate Yard, whilst any inferior chippings are used by the Gardens department to mulch the kilometre-long footpath to the Manor House or is combined with shredded woody arisings from the gardens and composted for use in the ornamental landscape beds. This symbiotic relationship between the Forestry and Gardens departments is carefully nurtured by the Horticultural Team Leader and Head of Gardens alike, as it forms the key element of Waddesdon's horticultural management strategy, as we will see later in this article.

Access to the estate is supported on an informal basis through the network of Public Rights of Way and other organised events, such as fundraising horse rides for charities, farm walks for groups including inner city school children or specialist farmers.

While the Rothschild's are known for their world-famous wines, over the last few years Waddesdon has branched out and started producing its own gins and ales in collaboration with local breweries. One of the latest initiatives has been the launch of a specially crafted ale, Shepherd's Gold. This involves a partnership is with Chiltern Brewery, the oldest independent brewer in Buckinghamshire.

Spring barley is harvested from the Waddesdon Estate and sent to Chiltern Brewery, where it is malted and brewed to create a unique ale. The brewing process mirrors the age-old techniques of the area and long-established relationships between Chiltern Brewery and local hop merchants to secure the best of each year's harvest.

Left: Recently launched Shepherd's Gold Right: Preparing the Parterre

Mike Buffin is Head of Gardens at Waddesdon and heads a team of fourteen full-time gardeners and four students on one-year assignments. His impressive CV includes working at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh, the University of Pennsylvania, the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens and the National Trust. The Gardens department manages over 400 acres at Waddesdon.

"We are renowned for our magnificent floral displays and every spring and summer we change the design of the beds on the Parterre and on either side of the South Fountain. We have around 466,000 visitors each year, so the pressure is on us to produce something really special and, hopefully, we do that," he said.

"The garden year at Waddesdon begins in January and continues throughout February with the planting of new trees and shrubs as well as general garden maintenance. With the onset of spring and the first flush of new grass, we begin mowing in earnest and the Parterre comes to life with a bold mix of Victorian splendour and a magnificent flourish of colour with the beds featuring over 50,000 bulbs planted the previous October."

"The Parterre is a French-inspired formal garden made up of a symmetrical pattern of beds set off by formal grass and contained by neat pathways and low clipped hedges. Usually designed to be seen from above, at Waddesdon it can be viewed from the raised terrace, the main reception rooms and the bedrooms on the south side of the house. In the centre sits a magnificent fountain, originally made for an Italian palace. The Parterre was restored in 1994 to designs by Beth Rothschild and six years later won the Europa Nostra award, a pan-Europe initiative to recognise outstanding heritage conservation initiatives.

"June is our most frenetic planting time for the gardens team. Following the second bank holiday in May, the team and volunteers remove the spring display and spend a month planting the bedding plants for the summer display."

Included in this display is the carpet bed, which is changed every year and features a design taking a reference from an exhibit on display in the main house. An image is taken of the exhibit and sent to a specialist grower, Kernock Park Plants in Cornwall, who turn the image into pixels, with each pixel represented by a single plant.

Once the design is approved, the plants are then pricked out into 84 trays and grown on to create the overall image. The trays are numbered and stacked onto pallets, which are then delivered and unloaded in the correct sequence to be laid in less than a single day.

Further heightened activity comes in October, when the summer plants are stripped out and the bulbs for the spring display are hand planted in the Parterre. In other parts of the garden more bulb planting takes place. For the first time in 90 years the Tulip Patch was full of meadow tulips, which were machine sown using a specialist planter which slits the grass, creates a furrow beneath the surface into which the bulbs fall, while at the same time applying a fertiliser mix. The Aviary formal bedding featured 32,500 tulip bulbs.

Peter Turski is the Horticultural Team Leader and joined the Waddesdon team in April 2019, having spent 20 years in various roles across the industry. A graduate from the Kew Diploma course, he was the oldest student in his year group when he received his diploma back in 2016. Commenting on the affect that the coronavirus pandemic has had on the gardens at Waddesdon, he said, "Anyone who visits us frequently might be surprised at the appearance of some areas of the gardens currently. We have been working with a small dedicated team of gardeners since lockdown and have not been able to plant our usual summer bedding displays, which need a large team and close working. Last March, we focused on general maintenance and keeping the trees healthy, so the formal gardens are not as manicured as they'd usually be. It has been such a shame, because there weren't any visitors to see the spring bulb display. However, we have left the bulbs in situ and, hopefully, they can be enjoyed next year."

Left: Horticultural Team Leader Peter Turski

"There have been many encouraging conservation benefits from taking this less intensive regime. Wildflowers are flourishing and this is because of a decision to massively reduce the regular 'in season' mowing. We have inherited an approach to both garden and nature conservation working in harmony, which has benefitted many niche wildflower species such as a range of orchids, the showy Saxifraga granulata (Meadow saxifrage) and the wide-scale naturalisation of bulb species including crocus and snowdrop."

Wildflower meadow management at Waddesdon is an important practice as it is an integral part of the estate's move towards a more sustainable horticultural and garden management plan. The immediate effect of not maintaining these areas frees up time, saves costs and helps preserve the tree population in two ways, as Peter Turski explains.

"Firstly, by reducing compaction of the tree root zone caused by a ride-on mower," he says, "and secondly, by allowing the uncut vegetation in the root zone area to form a buffering layer against solar heat and dehydration.

"The medium and long-term benefits of allowing wildflower meadows to develop under planned seasonal maintenance is that of increased ecosystem resilience, which in essence means that a healthy and diverse meadow provides food and a habitat for a range of insects and small mammals. These attracts larger predators such as birds, bats and owls, creating a healthy ecosystem, above and below ground, resulting in a healthier garden where pests are kept in check."

"At Waddesdon, we are working to the legacy of Miriam Rothschild, who pioneered wildflower meadow restoration many years before its widespread adoption. We have initiated this process by bringing onboard specialist consultant, Charles Flower, who excels in wild flower meadow restoration, and specialist contractor Andy Hawes and family, who have revolutionised most of the meadow management with an impressive array of machinery and implements adapted from large-scale agricultural applications."

"With many areas enjoying a less intensive horticultural approach, the formal Parterre and Aviary gardens have been planted with green manures, allowing for deep mulching once the foliage dies back. This is a new way of gardening for us, and long-term, it will be very beneficial for the garden."

"We locked down at the end of March 2020 with most of the gardens team on furlough, leaving just a core team of four staff. The gardens were back open in June, but we had but to restructure following an organisation-wide consultancy process following National Trust guidelines, reducing the team to ten and freezing the four student trainee posts."

"Inevitably, we now have to work smarter and use equipment that is more versatile in order to maintain the high standards that are synonymous with Waddesdon. We were fortunate that towards the end of last year we purchased an all-terrain compact tractor called a Ventrac. It's a versatile piece of equipment and has numerous attachments. Initially we bought it with a Tough Cut deck to assist sward management on the steeper slopes of the gardens and to maintain the wildflower meadows and steep slopes across the property, but recently added the Aera-vator, Turbo blower and Landscape rake attachments."

New Ventrac all-terrain compact tractor

"We have some heavy footfall across the garden especially at our annual events such as the Christmas Fair, Colourscape in May, Summer Fest in July and Chilli Fest each September. We are one of the National Trust's most visited properties, which means that the more formal grass areas around the ornamental core of the gardens can become very compacted."

"The main benefit of the Aera-vator and Overseeder is that it simplifies the whole operation in one pass significantly reducing the time taken to a fraction of what it used to. No soil plugs are generated, so no collection required, and the over seeding attachment works in synchronicity with the aerating implement by dropping seed directly into the fractured surface of the sward and ensuring good contact with the soil."

"As you would expect, we have a lot of gravel around the formal areas and this is constantly being pushed to the edges by the passage of visitors. The Landscape rake makes short work of redistributing it across the pathways and other hard landscaped areas."

"Other initiatives have included recently installed electronic badger fencing and this has proved very effective at preventing the bulbs being eaten and the estates department are currently building a significant composting facility. We are also trialling bio fertilisers using native microbes in leaf litter and bacteria in cow dung."

The team are also responsible for the grounds at the Flint House, which was featured in the Channel 4 television series Grand Designs, hosted by Kevin McCloud. Winner of the RIBA House of the Year Award in 2015, the Flint House was commissioned by Lord Rothschild.

In the form of an elongated, stepped wedge, it sits in the heart of the Waddesdon Estate, on a chalk seam that runs from Norfolk to Dover. It was exploring this geology which inspired the architect, Charlotte Skene Catling, to create a building clad in flint which was knapped by hand by Sussex flint-workers from The Flintman Company. The flints are graduated in colour, steely grey at ground level rising to smooth white chalk blocks at the top. Opposite the main building is a similarly stepped, smaller annex, often referred to as baby flint..

Windmill Hill. Photos: Chris Lacey © National Trust

The building is now run by the Rothschild Foundation alongside all the other publicly accessible buildings at Waddesdon, including the Manor itself and Windmill Hill, (another contemporary building which houses the Waddesdon Archives).

The coronavirus has severely limited visitor numbers at National Trust properties and it is such a shame that the house, gardens and grounds at Waddesdon have not been as resplendent as in previous years. But rest assured they will bounce back. The dedicated team of gardeners, foresters and volunteers will ensure that.

Mike Buffin, AH RHS, Head of Gardens

Mike has an impressive CV and has been a National Trust employee for more than 16 years. After completing a National Certificate in Horticulture and Amenity Horticulture at Cannington College in 1987, he spent the next three years studying at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh where he gained a Diploma in Horticulture.

In July 1990, he crossed the Atlantic to take up a position as a Tree Care Consultant at The Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania. Just over a year later he returned to the UK as Curator at The Sir Harold Hillier Gardens in Romsey, Hampshire, where he stayed for the next eleven years.

He joined the National Trust in 2003, as Gardens Advisor, providing advice and guidance at their properties across London and south east of England. In January 2018, he was appointed to his current role at Waddesdon, where he is seconded to the Rothschild Foundation and has (until last year) led a team of fourteen full-time gardeners and four students on one-year assignments.

From October 2014 until April 2018, he was Chairman of Plant Heritage - the world's leading garden plant conservation charity. Its mission is to encourage the conservation of cultivated plants in the British Isles, supporting and publishing research into these plants, their origins, their historical and cultural importance and their environments. He is alsothe author of two books: The Complete Guide to Planting and Growing Trees and The Illustrated Guide to Garden Trees.

Rothschild Foundation

The Rothschild Foundation continues the philanthropic tradition of the Rothschild family and their longstanding support of arts and heritage. Central to the Foundation's vision is an ongoing commitment to Waddesdon Manor, the last remaining 19th century Rothschild house open to the public with its collection intact.

Established in 2010, the Foundation evolved from the consolidation of three previous Rothschild charitable trusts. One of these, The Alice Trust, was dedicated to the preservation, protection and improvement of Waddesdon Manor for the benefit of the public.

Taking inspiration from the Rothschild family's symbol displaying five arrows, the work of the Rothschild Foundation falls within five main areas: caring for and promoting Waddesdon Manor; curating and managing an outstanding collection of art, buildings and landscapes; convening discussion and debate; awarding grants to charities working in the fields of art and heritage, education, the environment and social welfare; and undertaking major initiatives within these areas.

Based at nearby Windmill Hill, the Foundation continues the grand tradition of Rothschild architectural patronage in the Vale of Aylesbury. With spectacular views, an old dairy farm has been transformed by cutting-edge architecture, to create a location for the archives of the Waddesdon Rothschilds and space for offices and artistic performances.

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