In Victorian times it was usual for large country houses to have a working walled kitchen garden producing food, herbs and flowers for the family, staff and guests. Great houses were largely self-sustaining in terms of food, especially a hunting lodge that provided its own game and meat.
After the Second World War with reductions in the workforce and increasing availability of cheap, imported food, kitchen gardens largely became neglected and many were destroyed. In Ashdown’s case the decline of the kitchen garden dates from the mid-1920s after Evelyn, Countess of Craven died and the house was let.
The Ashdown kitchen gardens were laid out some time after 1850. An old map reveals that the kitchen garden was situated on the west side of Ashdown village. We do not have a record of the layout and design of the beds but we do know that these lay behind the high sarsen wall that is still visible today (pictured). The area of the kitchen garden is now a paddock. In front of the sarsen wall, between the wall and the road, were potting sheds, a mushroom house and greenhouses that could be heated. These were built up against the sarsen wall and the outline of the fireplace and flue is still visible today. What we do not know is where the water would have come from for the gardens, a fascinating mystery.
The hothouses would have contained grapevines and other fruit that would be trained to grow up against the
According to the census returns there were six gardeners at Ashdown during the later Victorian era but there may have been others who came in to work from the local villages. In addition to the kitchen gardens they also had to keep the formal gardens and parterre looking good.
At Knightshayes House in Devon and a number of other National Trust properties there are existing or restored kitchen gardens and I’m grateful to the information provided by Knightshayes that gives us an insight into the sort of fruit and vegetables that would have been grown at Ashdown. You can read more about National Trust kitchen gardens here.