Fernery, attached wall to west and steps to south, Ashridge


Heritage Category:
Listed Building
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Statutory Address:
Ashridge House, Ashridge, Little Gaddesden, Hertfordshire, HP4 1NS


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Statutory Address:
Ashridge House, Ashridge, Little Gaddesden, Hertfordshire, HP4 1NS

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Dacorum (District Authority)
Little Gaddesden
National Grid Reference:


Fernery built in 1864 to the designs of Matthew Digby Wyatt.

Reasons for Designation

The fernery, built in 1864 to the designs of Matthew Digby Wyatt, is listed at Grade II* for the following principal reasons:

Architectural interest:

* it is an excellent example of its type, presenting a handsome and well-proportioned composition in the classical style embellished with measured ornamentation; * it is an early and rare surviving example of a fernery from the 1860s; * it was designed by a prominent architect who belonged to one of the most distinguished architectural families of the C19.

Historic interest:

* it is a well-preserved and fascinating representation of one of the defining horticultural interests of the Victorian period.

Group value:

* it has strong group value with the listed house and estate buildings and the Grade II* Registered Park which altogether form a highly significant ensemble created by the most renowned practitioners of the Picturesque movement.


Ashridge originated as the earliest English College of Bonhommes, founded in 1283 by Edmund, Earl of Cornwall, a nephew of Henry III. Very little of the monastery survives except the undercroft and the well which were both created around the time of its foundation. The Monk’s Barn was also built as part of the monastic site as a tithe barn in the 1480s. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536, Ashridge was retained by Henry VIII, and his daughter Elizabeth lived here during Mary I’s reign. After Elizabeth’s death in 1604, it was sold to her Lord Chancellor, Thomas Egerton, Baron Ellesmere, whose descendants became the Earls and then the Dukes of Bridgewater. In the 1760s Francis, the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, who amassed a fortune by developing waterways for industrial transport (becoming known as the Canal Duke), commissioned Henry Holland to design a more comfortable Georgian residence, and Capability Brown was commissioned to landscape the park. By the early C19, the house was in disrepair and in a ruinous state. The 3rd Duke decided to erect a new mansion in its place, and the vast majority of the old house which included parts dating back 500 years was demolished by 1803, the year he died. As he had never married, the Dukedom became extinct and the earldom and estate passed to his cousin, John William Egerton who became the 7th Earl of Bridgewater. The eldest son of the Bishop of Durham, Egerton joined the Army in 1771 and rose through the ranks until he was made General in 1812. He also served as the Tory MP for Morpeth from 1777 to 1780, and for Brackley from 1780 to 1803.

The 3rd Duke opened a competition to redesign Ashridge House and the winning architect was James Wyatt (1746-1813). Wyatt was the sixth son of Benjamin Wyatt, the founder of the Wyatt building business in Staffordshire. He was sent to Italy for six years where he became the pupil of Antonio Visentini under whom he made rapid progress as an architectural draughtsman. Between 1769 and 1813 Wyatt designed or altered several royal palaces, five cathedrals, seventeen other churches, eight colleges as well as over a hundred country houses in England, Wales and Ireland. Many of his houses were in the neoclassical style, such as Heveningham Hall, Suffolk (about 1780-1784) and Dodington Park, Gloucestershire (1798-1813), but it was as a Gothic architect that Wyatt enjoyed a special celebrity. His most accomplished works in the Gothic style are Ashridge and Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire (dem. about 1800) for William Beckford. Wyatt was killed in a carriage accident in 1813 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

The foundation stone of Ashridge was laid on 25 October 1808 and the house was fit for habitation by 1814. Wyatt died before it was completed but a series of pen drawings produced by J Buckler around 1813 capture the extent of his work. The remainder of Wyatt’s designs was completed by his nephew Jeffry Wyatt (1766-1840) who later became Sir Jeffry Wyatville. He was apprenticed to his uncle Samuel Wyatt before transferring to the office of his more celebrated uncle James with whom he remained until 1799 when he went into partnership with John Armstrong, a carpenter and building contractor. Wyatville soon became well known as a country house architect in the Tudor Gothic style with a large clientele among the Whig aristocracy, and by the 1820s he was one of the half dozen leading English architects. His most accomplished work is the transformation of Windsor Castle which he carried out between 1824 and 1840.

Wyatville’s main contribution to Ashridge was in extending Wyatt’s design through the addition of new service quarters to the west, including stables with an attached cottage, coach house, workshops and other ancillary structures. He added the family wing at the east end of the building (away from the service quarters and state rooms) which terminated in an orangery. Repton was commissioned to design the gardens but Wyatville also played a significant role in their development, including the design for the Gothic fountain (Grade II listed) in Repton’s Monk’s Garden. By 1821 the bulk of the work to the house was largely complete and it was much admired by contemporaries. The Earl commissioned his chaplain, H J Todd to write a history of Ashridge, entitled A History of the College of Bonhommes (1823), which includes a description of the new house, along with a detailed floor plan and illustrations by H Le Keux.

In the wake of the First World War, the 3rd Earl Brownlow, who had inherited vast estates, instructed in his will that his trustees sell the Ashridge Estate. Most of the parkland was purchased by the National Trust in 1925, and the house was purchased by Urban Hanlon Broughton who donated it to the Conservative Party in commemoration of the late Prime Minister, Andrew Bonar Law. In 1929 it was formally opened by Stanley Baldwin as a Conservative college. During the Second World War Ashridge was offered to the Ministry of Health as a site for an emergency hospital. The hospital moved out in 1947 and the college reopened. In 1954 a bill was passed stating that the aim of the college was to provide an education without any bias towards a political party, and it became known as Ashridge Business School. As a result of the support of Sir Hugh Beaver, the college undertook a programme of modernisation and improvement in 1957, and the college continued to expand its teaching and accommodation facilities throughout the later C20.

The fernery was built in 1864 to the designs of Matthew Digby Wyatt (1820-1877) who had been commissioned by Lady Marian Alford (the widow of the 8th Earl’s nephew) to redecorate the interiors of the house during the 1850s and 1860s. It was built on the site of Repton’s greenhouse and originally held at its centre a shallow pool of water, around which guests would promenade. This has since been concreted over. Digby Wyatt also helped in the alteration of the gardens at Ashridge but he was primarily an architect and art historian. He became the first Slade Professor of Art at the University of Cambridge in addition to holding the positions of Secretary of the Great Exhibition and Surveyor of the East India Company. His prominent architectural commissions included enlargements to Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, the interiors of the India Office in London, and the private residence Newells in Horsham, Sussex.

The fernery was created at the height of pteridomania, or fern madness, which swept through Britain between 1837 and 1914. Hundreds of books and articles encouraged a popular fascination with ferns that resulted in the widespread collection and cultivation of the plant. Ferns and fern motifs appeared everywhere; in homes, gardens, art and literature. The interest in ferns had begun in the late 1830s when the British countryside attracted an increasing number of amateur and professional botanists. Ferns were a particularly fruitful group of plants to study because much less was known about them compared with flowering plants. They were also more diverse and abundant in the wilder, wetter south-west which was becoming more accessible with the development of better roads and, in the mid-C19, the development of the railways. The increase in the popularity of ferns is illustrated by the provisions made for them at Kew Gardens: in 1851 a temperate fern house was created, in 1861 a small house for tropical tree ferns was built, and by 1868 over eight hundred species and varieties of ferns were in cultivation. Methods of cultivating and displaying ferns varied from small indoor glass cases to glasshouses and outdoor ferneries. These were created in the form of rock gardens with grottoes, and were designed to have a primeval appearance to evoke the original setting of ferns which had emerged around 130 million years before the first dinosaurs.


Fernery built in 1864 to the designs of Matthew Digby Wyatt.

MATERIALS: red brick laid in English bond with brick and ashlar stone dressings and glazed iron-framed roof.

PLAN: the fernery is located at the southern end of the stable court to the west of the house. It has a rectangular plan and is situated on a raised grass terrace overlooking the fernery garden to the south-west.

EXTERIOR: the classical style fernery has a stone plinth and seven bays defined by round arch openings with brick voussoirs and stone keystones. The spring lines are emphasised by stone bands and a moulded string course runs along the top of the arches. The glazed openings have wooden glazing bars forming a cross. The central entrance bay is emphasised by a prominent stone surround with a keyed round arch opening and plain frieze. The jambs and spandrels are embellished by a sinuous acanthus leaf design. The round arch doorway contains a glazed double-leaf door in a timber frame which does not appear to be original. The fernery has brick pilasters at each end and a decorative parapet in the form of a moulded stone balustrade. This is interrupted over each arch by sections containing, alternately, red terracotta balls held in shell-shaped bowls, and white terracotta moulded roundels with cherubs’ faces. The three-bay return walls are in the same style as the facade. The roof, which is hidden behind the parapet, has a glazed steel frame.

A row of red brick sheds are built against the rear wall of the fernery. These are under a mono-pitch roof, clad in slates laid in diminishing courses, with one gabled bay that is flush with the elevation. The sheds are lit by two-light wooden-framed windows with chamfered lintels, and have two plank and batten doors with latches.

INTERIOR: the north-west internal wall is largely covered with large pieces of roughly hewn Totternhoe stone in which ferns have been planted in the crevices. In each corner of the fernery are narrow beds edged in stone, and water pipes with decorative cast iron grilles run around the edge. The floor has been concreted over except for a wide border of red and black tiles laid in the pattern carreaux d’octagones. The light iron-framed roof structure incorporates the opening mechanisms for the release of hot air. The south-east slope is glazed but the north-west slope is clad in vertical panels.

SUBSIDIARY FEATURES: the fernery is flanked by two flights of stone steps leading down to a small lawn with red brick, stone-coped retaining walls. Another flight of steps at the south-east end of the left-hand wall leads out of the fernery garden.

Attached to the north-west corner of the fernery is a tall buttressed and crenellated wall of flint rubble. This turns northwards at right angles, after which the wall is constructed of red brick. It has a gateway with piers surmounted in cross gables and a decorative iron gate, and terminates at the edge of the C20 building known as Coronation Walk. This building does not have special interest and is not included in the listing.


Books and journals
Inventory of the Historical Monuments of Hertfordshire, (1910)
Colvin, H, A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects 1600-1840, (2008)
Coult, D, Ashridge, (1979)
Doubleday, AH, The Victoria History of the County of Hertford, (1908)
Lindstrum, D, Sir Jeffry Wyatville: Architect to the King, (1972)
Pevsner, N, The Buildings of England: Hertfordshire, (2002)
Ashridge House, Hertfordshire: Conservation Management Plan, Volume I (July 2018), Purcell


This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.

End of official listing

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