Bridge End Garden
About the Garden
Bridge End Garden was created in about 1840 by Francis Gibson, a Quaker, prominent citizen and benefactor of Saffron Walden. Francis Gibson’s garden was a development of a smaller existing garden thought to be created by his father Atkinson Francis Gibson. The Garden is unusual in that it was never attached to or designed around a dwelling house. There are two main entrances to the Garden from Bridge Street and Castle Street where the Gibson family had their homes.
The Garden is still owned by the Fry family who, through marriage, inherited the Garden in the latter part of the nineteenth century. From the early twentieth century it has been leased to the local borough and district councils, and most recently in 2010 to Saffron Walden Town Council. Over the years, however, the Garden has suffered from neglect and by the early 1980s the Maze had become no more than an overgrown spinney. A major restorationprogramme between 2003 and 2008 has reversed the decline and the garden you see today has been recreated to resemble the original Victorian garden.
The Garden consists of a number of interlinked compartments, rather like the rooms of a house, each with a different design and landscape function. These theme gardens are linked with paths and carefully planned vistas providing surprises at every turn.
The Garden can be reached by either of two delightful entrances that have become gardens in their own right. The gently winding Bridge Street path with beautiful early Spring borders opens up to the splendid Eagle Gates of the Dutch Garden. The path from the Castle Street entrance passes the Fry Art Gallery before going through an arched passageway to reveal a panoramic view of Bridge End Garden beyond the meadow.
The Dutch Garden, Pavilion, Poets Corner and Jacob’s Well
The Dutch Garden is a sunken garden and its developing topiary can best be appreciated from the iron viewing platform. The famous landscape gardener, Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) visited the garden early in the 20th century and the drawing she made at the time assisted the restoration proposals considerably.
Nearly all the box plants are new but most of the yews are original having been severely cut back to encourage new growth and they are now providing an intricate formed pattern. The statue fountain was made in the 20th century but almost certainly from an earlier mould. The beautiful stone eagles on their pillars keep a watchful eye on proceedings. Also, there is a restored goose boy that had previously been wrecked by vandals.
The Pavilion, a listed building, provides a seat and shelter with a long view along the pavilion path to the sundial, a seat and balustraded wall. These long geometric views are a characteristic feature in several areas of the Garden. The herbaceous border adjacent to the wall provides a riot of colour from early summer to autumn.
Adjacent to the Pavilion is Poets’ Corner with its fine draped marble statue. The head of this statue had been lost but is now reunited with its body after the two had been parted for more than 50 years.
Behind the Pavilion is an area known as Jacob’s Well. The ‘well’ on top of the mound probably fed water to the fountain in the Dutch Garden by gravity but we are not certain of this. This area, with its ferns and cool shade, makes an interesting contrast to the Rose Garden nearby.
The Rose Garden
This delightful circle has been planted with roses appropriate to the Victorian period. Some of their fragrances are exotic and heady. Climbers on the restored arches provide a fragrant white circle that encloses this little horticultural gem. The entrance from it into the Dutch Garden has a fine keystone made of Coade stone and is dated 1794 although it is generally believed this does not date that section of the wall. The statue in the centre is of an archer.
The word ‘wilderness’ had a different gardening meaning in Victorian times, denoting an attractive and ornamental grove designed for wandering and reflection. Certainly it did not denote ‘dereliction’ although that was an apt description as recently as 2003. A variety of flowers and bulbs provide a carpet of floral delight that can be particularly appreciated in the spring. At the far end of the metal hoops, over which yew trees and laburnums will eventually form a solid arbour, is a grotto with a ‘laughing cavalier’ coade stone dated 1910. The new metal hoops replace ones that have long since decayed, the remnants of which were found during excavation.
The Summerhouse Lawn
The steps from the Wilderness area give access to a corner of the main summerhouse lawn. Close by is a replica stone depicting four dancing maidens that can be viewed through a hole cut in the nearby yew topiary. This feature was noted from an early photograph of Edwardian visitors looking through it. On a sunny day the time can be roughly interpreted on the nearby sundial as it would have been calibrated in Victorian times, when the concept of British Summer Time did not exist. Across the lawn the Summerhouse was built in about 1840. It is a fine building that, at least twice, has fallen into near terminal decay. Inside there is a pair of large restored decorative murals with cherubs each in a swing of garland. There is also an inscription in Latin that, translated, reads ‘in memory of his grandfather Francis Gibson and his mother Elizabeth P Fry’. On the lawn several restored statues, urns and bases have been placed on their original locations identified from early photographs and the 1877 Ordnance Survey map.
The Walled Garden
This was Francis Gibson’s kitchen garden, built in 1840, as can be seen from the date plaque, MDCCCZL, in a central position on the long wall. Little is known of what was originally grown here. One clue is the formal rows of trees plotted on the 1877 O.S. map that are almost certainly fruit species. The map also shows three glass structures. From old documents it was established that the Walled Garden contained a Peach House, a Tomato House, a Shelter, a Beehive Stand and cold frames. After the end of the First World War it was rented for commercial market gardening and this continued until the early 1930’s but subsequently declined into a state of total neglect and dereliction. The aim of the latest restoration was to replace the original greenhouses and shelter, retain the geometry of the original path layout, recreate the fruit tree layout, and achieve an overall pleasing symmetry corresponding to the original geometry of the space. The grassed quadrants would have produced vegetables but with today’s limited resources, such an intensive cultivation is not practical.
Although the greenhouses are of contemporary construction, the style and detailing, both internal and external, is Victorian. One greenhouse, now the Citrus House, contains a collection of lemons, oranges and limes grown in pots, with varieties selected from those available in the 19th century. The Orchard House contains similarly dated figs, apricots, peaches, nectarines, pears and apples and replicates a technique devised by the famous Victorian nurseryman Thomas Rivers.
The plant theatre provides formal displays of potted flowers of various species for different seasons. The shelter is erected on the site of a former shelter and the design of the seat is based on an early photograph of another that existed elsewhere in the Garden.
The Hedge Maze
The Hedge Maze was completed by Francis Gibson in about 1840. The earliest Ordnance Survey map of 1877 shows the Maze laid out in very similar manner as today. It was probably kept in reasonable care and maintenance up until the 1920s; however by 1950 it had been neglected because invading sycamore trees had become established and by 1980 it was completely overgrown with large trees: self-set sycamores, elms and snowberry.
In 1984 the site was cleared and the new maze planted in 1986. The latest restoration in 2004 involved re-establishing the paths, repairing the wall and entrance gate, and landscaping the whole area to ultimately create glades, provide surprise and contrast, and maintain a sense of magic and mystery. Most of the statues in the area have been purchased but are appropriate to the period. The standing stone in the centre of the Maze is a contemporary sculpture by Hamish Horsley entitled ‘The Mermaids’.
Click on the following link to see Saffron Walden's entries in the World-Wide Labyrinth Locator.
A new Visitor Centre has been built in the corner of the Walled Garden on the site of the former toilet and storage sheds.
The new building has two areas: a Visitor Room and two modern unisex toilets, one with disabled access and baby changing facilities. Entry to the public Is free. The new facility enhances the experience of the Garden by providing an indoor space where information on the Garden’s restoration, history, arts, conservation and horticulture are displayed to be enjoyed all year round. As well as displaying information, the Visitor Room provides an indoor space for small group activities such as workshops, talks and seminars.
Following months of work and meetings, a draft management plan for Bridge End Garden is coming to fruition. This piece of work has been a joint effort between Historic England, Friends of BEG, Liz Lake Associates and the Town Council and has been made possible with funding from Historic England. This mangement plan will provide a framework for future management and maintenance of the historic, Victorian garden and will include details on structure, buildings, statues, access and vistas. The plan will provide a schedule of work for the next 15-20 years ensuring the future and continued preservation of this beautiful, listed garden. A Town Council spokesperson says "we are delighted to work in partnership with such esteemed and knowledgeable parties to create this masterplan which will provide a methodical, detailed and structure management plan for years to come".
Maze photograph - July 2014 courtesy SWTC.