The story of the Swiss Garden

The Swiss Garden at Shuttleworth was created between 1824 and 1832. It was the project of a wealthy young gentleman, the 3rd Baron of Old Warden Lord Ongley, whose family had bought the estate in the 1690s.

When the garden was complete, he threw extravagant parties and even got his servants to dress up in Swiss costume to complete the look.

Creating the ‘mountainous’ effect of an alpine scene in the flat Bedfordshire countryside would have been a particular challenge.

Excavated soil was used to create embankments and mounds that give the garden its distinctive appearance. In addition, all of the ponds were intentionally created, after a nearby river was dammed. The style is clearly influenced by medieval groves, with the tall trees in the garden creating a canopy and, in places, natural covered walkways.

This clever use of earthworks, shrubbery, trees, paths, little lakes and follies transformed the garden into what a contemporary visitor described as a ‘fairyland’.

Find out more about how the Swiss Garden was planned as a series of scenes and discover what inspired Lord Ongley to create this garden in our short video:

The buildings

At the highest point and in the centre of the garden is the Swiss Cottage. Used as a teahouse, it has with a cleverly hidden lower ground floor where the food could be prepared.

Some of the other structures aren’t quite as in keeping with the Swiss theme. However, an exquisite Indian kiosk and a startlingly bright blue Ancient Greek-style urn don’t look out of place. Instead, they add to the delightful quirkiness of the garden.

Look out, too, for the impressive glass-roofed Grotto and Fernery, the Chapel and the Subterranean Passage – where you’ll get the sense of entering a secret world.

Inspiration for the little structures may have come from JB Papworth’s Hints on Ornamental Gardening, first published in 1818, which focuses on the use of buildings within a garden setting. Also, he lived nearby so may have been invited to advise on the creation of the garden.

Be sure to drive through the village of Old Warden on your way here to see the estate village also created at the wishes of Lord Ongley. Its Swiss-influenced rustic little cottages will set the scene for your visit and give you a taster of what you are about to discover.

Find out more about the history of the estate, the village and the Ongley family:

The Shuttleworth influence

During the 20 years between Lord Ongley’s departure in the 1850s and industrialist Joseph Shuttleworth becoming the new owner of the Old Warden Estate, the garden fell into disrepair.

When Shuttleworth purchased the estate he made sweeping changes. Knocking down Lord Ongley’s mansion, he replaced it with the Jacobean-style Old Warden House. This was designed by the famous architect Henry Clutton, whom he also commissioned to restore and regenerate the Swiss Garden with the help of respected landscape gardener Edward Milner.

Shuttleworth’s changes are still very much in evidence today. Painted glass windows were added to the Chapel and the Indian Kiosk, creating the most beautiful coloured patterns on a sunny day. A dog cemetery was created with some 14 headstones belonging to the family’s beloved pets, on which the names are still visible.

The addition of a formal Terrace and Broadwalk – very fashionable in mid-Victorian times – would have proved useful as a promenade during the family’s elaborate garden parties and special pageants to which the local villagers would be invited.

One of the most obvious additions was the introduction of Pulhamite, artificial rockwork invented in the 1840s and used until the 1880s for pre-cast garden or architectural ornamentation. It can be found all over the garden, most notably in the Underpass, the Grotto and Fernery and the Rock Garden.

Thanks to the careful preservation work of Shuttleworth, 13 of the structures today are now listed as of national historic importance – including six Grade II* buildings.

After the Second World War, the Swiss Garden fell into disrepair and by the 1970s was in a perilous state, urgently needing restoration.

On and off over two decades and again at the beginning of the 21st century, the garden received much needed attention. This work bought valuable time for the garden and its many buildings and structures.

Now that the most recent restoration work has been completed and given a few years to mature, the Swiss Garden will become a time portal – an authentic snapshot of late Regency fancy and Victorian sophistication.

To discover more about the changes and restoration that Joseph Shuttleworth commissioned in the 1870s, his descendents and the history of the garden during the 20th century, watch our narrated video: