Friday, 10 May 2013

The Ashdown Kitchen Garden

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
walls. There may also have been pineapples, which were very fashionable, figs, melons, peaches, apples and pears, gooseberries, rhubarb, raspberries and redcurrants grown inside soft fruit cages. Vegetables in the Victorian kitchen garden included asparagus, broad and runner beans, onions, turnips, spinach, cabbages, potatoes, cauliflower, kale, beetroot, carrots, lettuce and Jerusalem artichokes. Salad vegetables, tomatoes and cucumbers, were also grown, alongside herb beds. It is likely that the greenhouses would also contain flowers that could be cut and used for decoration in the house.

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.


deana sidney said...

I just mentioned Knightshayes and Ashdown in this week's post. An unlikely combination of rockstars and William Burges brought it all together! WOuld love to see a kitchen garden in all it's glory.

Nicola Cornick said...

Great post, Deana. Thank you! I would have loved to see the Ashdown kitchen gardens too. Like so much of the past at Ashdown it has been swept away but having one huge sarsen wall left is an intriguing clue to what once existed. I'm glad I've seen the Knightshayes garden so I can imagine what it might have looked like.

Mrs Black the shoppe keeping cat said...

I lived close by to Knightshayes and visited the kitchen garden here regularly, it is highly recommended by me! I learned so much from them, the gardeners and staff were most generous with their knowledge. Such a shame so many of these gardens are lost, as the one at Ashdown is. Minerva x

Nicola Cornick said...

Thank you, Minerva. The Knightshayes garden is wonderful. I learned so much about the way the fruit trees would have been trained along that huge wall at Ashdown. I love the idea of a mushroom house as well!

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Interesting post! I love learning more and more about the Victorians, and this was informative on many levels: gardening, food, etc., and the estates, as well.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

PS: I added your link to my blog, Victorian Scribbles at

Nicola Cornick said...

Thank you for commenting, Elizabeth. I'm so pleased you enjoyed the post. We have a lot of detail on the Victorian history of Ashdown, which is great. And thank you for the link to your blog as well.