Lucy, Countess of Bedford

The gardening women of Chenies Manor

My first visit to Chenies Manor, sandwiched between Amersham in Buckinghamshire and the M25, and renown for its displays of tulips in the spring. In the summer, dahlias take over in the formal beds edged with beautiful old specimens of box and yew.

What I hadn't realised was just how many connections this venerable building and its gardens have with 'gardening women'.  In the late sixteenth century, Lucy, Countess of Bedford, nee Har[r]ington, knew Chenies through her marriage to the third Earl and frequently entertained leading poets of the day such as Ben Johnson at the house. There is even a rumour that A Midsummer's Night's Dream was written for her marriage. The Countess was known as a passionate gardener as well and influenced the layout of the gardens at Chenies.

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Lady Anne Clifford also lived in part of the house during the late sixteenth century. Lady Anne later was to have great wealth and gardened on her various estates across Yorkshire and Westmoreland, making a large garden at Brougham Castle.

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Since the late 1950s, Elizabeth MacLeod Matthew has devoted herself to recreating the grounds around this magnificent house, including introducing a grass labyrinth, a maze and a Physic Garden. She is quite correct of course that every house of this standing would have had a garden devoted to herbs for use by the apothecary who in many cases, was the wife.

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On my way out I popped into the modest little shop selling the usual tea towels, local honey and mugs, and bought some small packets of seeds collected from the garden and carefully packaged in brown paper envelopes. It's lovely to take something away from one garden for your own. So I was delighted to be able to buy some seed of  Eryngium giganteum, or 'Miss Willmott's Ghost' which grows happily in the Victorian vegetable garden at Chenies (see its silvery spikes below).

I've written a great deal about Ellen Willmott in Gardening Women. She was an amazing woman and astounding gardener but perhaps everyone's favourite story about her is that she used to scatter the seeds of E. giganteum surreptitiously as she visited other gardens which is how it got its name. Did she ever visit Chenies Manor? It would be lovely to think that she did.

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If this has given you a taste for sixteenth- and seventeenth-century gardens, pop over to my other blog, A Gardening Woman to find out about one of my favourites, Wyken Hall, near Bury St Edmunds, in Suffolk.