No, not the Special Forces training ground in the Brecon Beacons, but the 110-acre estate that's home to the UK headquarters of SAS at Medmenham, near Marlow in Buckinghamshire. We sent freelance journalist Peter Driver to visit earlier this year.
Landscaping manager George Reeder
Founded in 1976 by current CEO James Goodnight and other faculty members from North Carolina State University, SAS is the leader in analytics software and services with global headquarters in Cary, North Carolina. Its solutions help businesses to access, manage, analyse and interpret data to aid decision-making. The company is one of the world's largest privately held software businesses and its customers include most of the Fortune 100 companies.
Their estate is an amalgamation of two previous sites - Wittington House, a former mansion which is now used as the company's meeting and conference centre and an old MOD premises, which was purchased and demolished to make way for modern offices. It consists of formal gardens and lawns, a unique arboretum, a cricket pitch for staff use as well as the local village team, a 3-hole pitch-and-putt course, 5-a-side football pitch, wildflower meadow, river frontage to the Thames and staff allotments.
Landscaping manager George Reeder joined SAS as a gardener in 2005 and is the man tasked with the job of managing the grounds. He studied at Sparsholt College in Hampshire before joining Countrywide Grounds Maintenance as part of the team maintaining the green spaces of various hotels in the south of England. He has a team of five specialist gardeners to maintain the extensive grounds.
"It's an amazing place to work," he said, "we are extremely lucky to have inherited such a wonderful landscape and we continue to work hard to improve it. The flora and fauna are very diverse; deer, badgers, voles, stoats, ferrets, rabbits and bats - the latter being carefully removed then reinstated during building work at the Stable Block. Feathered residents include barn owls, buzzards, red kites and a family of geese that, oddly, nested high in a 400-year-old oak, and in the summer, swallows that nest in our machinery sheds."
Left: Wittington House
"Recent projects have included new herbaceous borders at the rear of Wittington House, construction of a three-hole golf course and probably our most ambitious, transplanting lime trees from other parts of the estate to form a new avenue to the house. We hired the largest tree spade in England to complete the task and it was well worth it."
"We are located in south Buckinghamshire, by the Thames, within the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty to the north. This region is characterised by quiet valleys, magnificent beech woods and a rolling chalk landscape; our riverside has one of only two sets of chalk cliffs on the Thames."
"Historical records show that Lord Devonport was very proud of the garden he created. It was nothing but poor agricultural land, gravel and chalky soil typical of the Chilterns back then, and the fields were literally covered with thousands and thousands of flints. To clear the estate, he engaged hundreds of men as stone-pickers, which provided major employment for the local community at a time of serious unemployment following the Boer War."
One of Lord Devenport's proudest achievements was the building of the Rock Garden, constructed in 1912 with stone imported from Derbyshire. It was purchased at the amazing cost of a shilling (5p) per ton and shipped to Brentford by rail, then transported 40 miles up the Thames by barge to eventually be unloaded and positioned by two huge cranes.
Other work included the bold planting of herbaceous borders, a rose garden, kitchen garden, planting rare trees, a golden privet hedge believed to be the longest of its kind in England, water meadows, and the informal Undercliff Garden with its curious Smuggler's cave.
"After being famous for so long then spending years in decline, the last three decades have seen the gardens make a significant comeback," George added. "We have renovated and replanted herbaceous borders, rhododendron beds, lawns, an 18-acre nature meadow, initiated tree-planting to fill gaps, replaced Victorian irrigation, and completed the restoration of the magnificent Rose Garden that had totally disappeared."
"We have re-established the Devonport arboretum, which had become wild woodland. With the help of generous benefactors associated with the Weston family and working with the National Tree Council, Kew Gardens and local universities, we have sympathetically planted a selection of trees to represent the huge migratory journey of the Monarch butterfly - south from Canada through North America to Mexico - as well as installing specially-commissioned wood sculptures.
Allowing the site to rest after clearance revealed unusual small orchids. The arboretum also features a totem pole sculpture featuring hundreds of butterflies."
"The wildflower meadow, which came to fruition in 2008, also attracts insects and rare butterflies. Natural processes continue to shape the landscape and we are especially wary of river erosion: repairing banks as soon as they are damaged to minimise loss of our precious riverfront."
There's an atmosphere of professionalism around the estate, plus a sense of community. From its days as an Iron Age fort, through its years as a country house and right up to the hundreds of SAS specialists now based here, Wittington has been always been a community in some shape or form.
Left: Staff enjoying a lunchtime cricket match Right: Hart's-tongue Fern
The house was regularly used for entertaining and there are evocative images from 1936 showing the Weston family entertaining staff from their Slough biscuit factory. Visit these days, and you may see social events like the SAS UK Summer Party, Bonfire Night celebrations or the Hurley Classic freestyle kayak and paddle boarding event. Given the beautiful surroundings, it's no wonder walkers have visited the area for decades; a public right of way runs through the gardens, with a four-mile path leading from the main road to the Thames and riverside before re-joining the road.
Wanting privacy and to protect his property, Lord Devonport built a 150-metre tunnel that, to this day, runs directly beneath the lawns. While the public still doesn't have unfettered access, SAS are delighted that local schools and charities use the grounds for fund-raising and educational activities.
"Our staff enjoy the grounds, especially during lunch hour, when you'll often see an informal football match or the keen golfers using the short course we constructed recently. We have also built a new cricket pavilion, renovated the cricket square and this is used by employees, local cricket teams and local scout group. SAS UK is a community in itself and we're proud of the role we also play in our local and wider community."
"We are an official partner of British Rowing and back in 2018, ahead of the Glasgow European Championships, we organised a 'Job Swap' between two golfers on the Ladies' European Tour and two athletes from the GB Rowing team."
"With both sports being represented at the inaugural European Championships, British golfers Amy Boulden and Annabel Dimmock changed places with athletes from the GB Rowing Team, Tom George and Alan Sinclair. After splitting into teams, the pairs battled it out in double scull boats over 150m down the River Thames in Marlow. After that, they came to us for a series of golf challenges on our course. It was a fun day for all involved and even made the local BBC TV news bulletin.
"Interestingly, this sense of community did not extend to Lord Devonport back in the 1890s. The estate includes the riverside strip below the cliffs, which he bought to annoy his next-door neighbour, Robert Hudson of Sunlight Soap fame, who had acquired the adjoining Danesfield estate. This effectively denied Hudson access to the river resulting in a situation that still exists today."
SAS has long been an innovator in providing technology that helps organisations perform better and this continues a tradition from the 1930s when a Pelton wheel ran at Hurley Weir to power bankside batteries, with a 110-volt current piped to the house. This meant Wittington was the first house locally to have an electric washing machine. Stories remain of household staff having to traipse down to the river late at night to start up the wheel, powering the washing machine to the delight of late-night revellers in the main house.
A stroll around the grounds is a fascinating journey through time. Visitors at the gates are presented with open lawns and wild meadows running down to the sweeping galleries and curves of the modern offices on the Upper Wittington site, opened in 2002. Walk for two minutes and you reach Wittington Court, an elegant fusion of old and new. This single-storey building inside the original house's walled garden includes training facilities and offices and has won a prestigious design award.
Close by is the Stable Block, a Grade II building sensitively remodelled and enlarged as a restaurant and offices, including a large glazed extension and freestanding gallery. Finally, you arrive at the old house, only 150 metres from the Thames. Carefully restored since 1985 without major external alteration, this remains the heart of SAS UK.
A sprig of tea carved in the crest over the main door is an immediate reminder of original owner Lord Devonport, who made his fortune in tea. Numerous notable features in the house include an amazing chimneypiece from the former home of William Wilberforce, the member of Parliament who led the abolition of slavery. Visible in the library is the coat of arms of second owner Garfield Weston, along with elaborate panelling and unusual carvings of people both famous and infamous - including George Bernard Shaw and Adolf Hitler.
"We continue to improve the riverside aspect of the estate and a typical example is the Fern Dell, created in 2017. A year earlier, during one of our donor's regular visits, this area was walked after the team cleared an entrance to this previously inaccessible site. What we revealed was a woodland floor covered in Wild Garlic and Hart's-tongue Fern. Seeing the naturally growing fern, the donor suggested that we clear the existing canopy of Ash and create a dedicated fern garden. Seventy self-seeded Ash were cleared and the branches chipped to be used as pathways. Alder, which are also present in the area have been retained as have some of the better shaped Ash trees. This is an ongoing project and will be expanded over time. We recently added a selection of Tree Ferns."
Obviously, an estate of this magnitude requires a significant amount of equipment and located within the machinery sheds is an eclectic mix of machinery. From the large Kubota L5030 tractors to a selection of Club Car and RTV buggies down to the smaller pedestrian equipment including a fleet Hayter Harrier 56s, Dennis Razor Ultra, Lloyds Paladin and SISIS Rotorake Mk5. Every item has to prove its worth within the small team of landscape personnel.
Left: Ventrac compact tractor Right: Rock garden
"We are in a process to change the machinery from petrol and diesel to electric and this began when we purchased the electric STIHL hedge cutters. Electric buggies will be next and mowers to follow as technology continues to advance. There are many environmental benefits to be realised from these changes such as less pollution, less noise, lighter as well as cheaper to run and maintain."
"We recently took delivery of our latest machine; a Ventrac compact tractor and three different mowing decks. Our mid-mounted rotary mower was nearing the end of its working life and we were in the market for a replacement machine. We were considering an out-front flail, but then attended an RT Machinery open day and saw the Ventrac with its Contour deck. It looked to be a very innovative machine so we organised a demonstration. It worked exceptionally well, producing great stripes and has now replaced our cylinder mower as well. Rye stalks, which are problematic for a cylinder machine, are no longer an issue as it deals with them admirably. This versatility has enabled us to replace two machines with one."
"We have also purchased a Finishing deck and ToughCut deck and there's scope to purchase additional implements in the future. Its compact nature means we can now access and maintain areas on banks and under trees and we have saved considerable man-hours on strimming due to its out-front design and manoeuvrability. All in all, a great addition to our fleet here at Medmenham."
On the long drive down to Cornwall for my next assignment, I had time to contemplate the history of the site and the continued investment that SAS has committed to reviving the fortunes of this magnificent estate. I'm sure that the original owner, Hudson Kearley, would be delighted that they are now the custodians of the land and that it will continue to prosper under their stewardship.
Left: Hurley Weir Capstan Right: Reconnaissance Spitfire
Hurley weir capstan
The Hurley weir capstan is historically important as the only remaining example on the Thames of capstans that once hauled boats upstream when there were only 'flash' locks, similar to dams and not like the locks of today found on canals. The men who provided the manual power to turn the capstan wheel, usually rough individuals, were known as 'tow rags' which gives rise to one explanation for the unflattering description 'toe rag' meaning a scoundrel.
The capstan had survived until the 20th century because of the efforts of Viscount Devonport who pledged to preserve it and donated oak from his estate to replace decayed timbers. The capstan wheel was then restored in the 1980s by two men, David Empringham and Christopher Barnes-Wallis, the son of the man who invented the famous 'bouncing bomb' used in the WWII 'Dam Buster' raids.
Operation Crossbow was the codename for a vital military operation to find V1 and V2 bases in northern Europe, primarily in northern France. Located at RAF Medmenham, 60 miles to the west of London, it was here that RAF personnel interpreted reconnaissance photographs and passed on their findings to higher authorities.
Reconnaissance pilots flew modified unarmed Spitfires that were fitted with five powerful cameras, which reduced their weight and increased their speed. They were painted a grey-blue colour so that they blended in with the sky, as their optimum flight height was 30,000 feet. If by chance they were attacked, it was generally considered that the Spitfires had the necessary speed to escape any attacker, until the introduction of the Nazi's ME-262 jet fighter.
Left: After restoration of the magnificent Rose Garden Right: Chalk quarry
Once a reconnaissance Spitfire had landed, the cameras were taken off and the stills processed and studied. The photographs were put into three categories depending on whether they were of value. They were studied by highly skilled Photographic Interpreters (PI's) at RAF Medmenham and it was up to them to sort the images into the various categories.
If a photo was deemed to be of great interest, a further reconnaissance flight was ordered so that a collection of more detailed photographs could be taken. Overlapping images allowed the PI's to build up a 3D image of what it was that had interested them in the first place. These types of images gave accurate heights and widths - both vital in trying to work out the content of the photographs.
The campaign against the V1 and V2s started when an inquisitive pilot noticed what to him were odd buildings and curious shapes on the ground at a place called Peenemünde, which up to that time was unknown to British intelligence. This was compounded by French resistance information that notified the British of a number of newly built complexes or building projects near to the north French coast.
These were investigated by the reconnaissance pilots, who now had to fly in at a very low level putting themselves in danger of intense anti- aircraft gunfire, which convinced them that what they were photographing was of great importance. In fact, they had discovered the existence of the V1 and the work done at RAF Mendenham led to a major attack on Peenemünde on August 17-18, 1943.
The V2 was also identified by the PIs, but because it was a weapon that could be moved and was invariably launched in woodland, bombing raids would not work. Peenemünde had been virtually destroyed but this resulted in the factories being rebuilt inside of mountains near Nördhausen where they were safe from bombing. The threat from the V2s remained until Nördhausen was overrun by the Americans. It was only then that the brutality behind the V2 was observed as the labourers at Nördhausen came from the nearby Dora concentration camp, where thousands of inmates died during the war.
There can be no doubt that the work done by the reconnaissance pilots and the PIs at RAF Medmenham was vital to the war effort.
The area around the Wittington estate has been occupied since the Iron Age; Danesfield Hill Fort, built over 2,000 years ago, is on the estate's western edge. Numerous Roman coins and artefacts have also been dredged from the adjacent river Thames. According to the house's first owner, Hudson Ewebank Kearley, there was evidence of a Saxon settlement and the Wittington name - which had many variants down the centuries, such as Wydendon and Whittington - is Saxon in origin.
Over the intervening centuries activities such as chalk quarrying were carried out, providing materials for the 13th century Medmenham Abbey, and the Thames was an important freight route.
The remains of a flash-lock capstan, unique in England and used to haul barges upriver by Hurley weir, were discovered in the 1970s. It was fully restored in 1999 and today is maintained by SAS. (see separate panel).
More modern developments began in 1897 when the aforementioned Hudson Kearley MP, Lord Devonport and later Minister for Food during the Great War, bought the land from Oxford University. He commissioned celebrated architect Sir Reginald Blomfield to design Wittington House in 1897, asking him in 1908 to completely remodel and enlarge the building.
In the 35 years following, work in the grounds employed hundreds of local men, particularly important with high unemployment after the Boer Wars. The fame of the gardens spread, so much so that Queen Mary, the present Queen's grandmother, paid a visit in 1931.
In 1934, the Canadian industrialist Garfield Weston bought the site. Branches of the family are based in Canada, Ireland and the United Kingdom and they are a family of prominent business people with global interests in food and clothing businesses. The family operations began with the founding of a bakery in Toronto, Ontario by George Weston and in 2018 they were named Ireland's richest family for the tenth year running with a wealth of €11.42bn.
The main holding company of the British branch of the family is Wittington Investments, with the majority of these shares held in a charitable trust - the Garfield Weston Foundation, with the balance owned by family members. Wittington Investments owns a majority stake in Associated British Foods, which itself owns the discount clothing chain Primark, and 100% of upmarket retailers Fortnum & Mason and Heal & Son.
The Salvation Army took the house from 1948 for a peppercorn rent, running an Eventide House for elderly ladies. Over the period of this tenancy, the grounds became overgrown and the house fell into disrepair. However, a new chapter in Wittington's history began in 1987 when SAS UK arrived with just 11 employees.
SAS bought the land next door in 1997 to support its continued growth and added an additional 34 acres to the estate. Acquired from the Ministry of Defence, it was the former RAF Medmenham base, home to Operation Crossbow, the codename for a vital military operation to locate V1 and V2 rocket bases in northern Europe in World War II. Ammunition and ordnance has been found in this area, including a large casing for a prototype of Barnes Wallis' bouncing bomb.
In 2002, on the Upper Wittington site of the former MOD land, a gleaming energy-efficient 10,000 square metre UK headquarters building was constructed, with a futuristic design centred around a three-storey atrium with dramatic open spaces and eco-friendly features that include grey water recycling. Less than 20 years on, this remarkable building is being totally refurbished to future-proof the company's development requirements over the coming decades.