1898-99 – Sunningdale Park, Ascot, Berkshire

SM 03 – Aug 11

Sunningdale Park is situated in what once used to be part of Windsor Great Park, and still contains a Spanish Chestnut tree – with a girth in excess of twenty feet! – that dates back to the time of Henry VIII.   James Wyatt built the first house at Sunningdale in 1785, and, over the years, this was rebuilt and enlarged by its successive owners until Major William James Joicey – of the Northern mining family – bought it in 1890.

Fig 1  –  The rocky bank and boat cave on the edge of the lake at Sunningdale Park   (Photo by Ellie Johnson)

 The original gardens at Sunningdale are reputed to have been laid out for James Wyatt by a student of ‘Capability’ Brown in 1786, but several changes were made over the next century or so.   The most significant were during the late 1890s, under the direction of Major Joicey, who commissioned James 3 to enlarge the lake, and create an area of ornamental rockwork between that and the house.

The Joiceys were very enthusiastic gardeners, and the Major was particularly interested in orchids.   His Head Gardener was Mr F J Thorne, who – according to a report in Journal of Horticulture and Cottage Gardener dated 5th July 1899 – was obviously a very busy man:

‘. . . At Sunningdale, there is much which gladdens the eye . . . It is about six years ago since the writer first went to Sunningdale, and was then much interested in the grounds and the glass structures, but in the interim the face of Nature has been changed, and one would, but for some salient features that must never be removed, scarcely recognise the place.   The pleasure grounds have been altered in a most skilful manner, and the result is that though their dimensions remain practically the same, the extent is apparently much greater.

Fig 2  –  The rustic wooden bridge over the stream at Sunningdale Park

‘It is in cases such as these that the skill of the landscape gardener is evidenced, as he seizes salient points, emphasises them, and covers defects in some manner that must be governed by the immediate surroundings.   Perhaps the most marked improvement has been effected in the neighbourhood of the lake, which was originally of somewhat formal design, and of such shape that the whole of the water could be seen in one coup d’æil from several different points.

‘The gardener in chief was, of course, anxious that this should be improved upon, and being a very considerable piece of work, it was placed in the hands of Pulham and Son, whose skill in such matters as these is world renowned.   The water has now been margined with rock, and as the banks have been skilfully contracted here and expanded there, the appearance of a great deal more water has been secured.   Jutting rocks have formed a congenial resting place for hardy plants, which in a few years will produce a very handsome effect.   At the head of the lake the rocks have been thrown up to form cascades, with divisional resting pools, and already, though scarcely completed, looks charming. . . .’

Based on the fact that this article was published in the summer of 1899, when the work was ‘scarcely completed’, it seems fair to conclude that the rockwork was constructed c1898-99, under the direction of James 3.     Further confirmation is contained in the diary of a Pulham rock builder – referred to in the book – in which he notes that he visited Sunningdale Park during January 1906 to make some ‘alterations to lake’.

Following the death of William Joicey in 1912, Sunningdale remained unsold for several years, and the gardens fell into disrepair.   It became the home of the Civil Service College in 1969, and the house was named after the Right Hon Sir Stafford Northcote, who was one of those responsible for the reorganisation of the Board of Trade and the Permanent Civil Service.   The house was Grade II listed in 1998, and the gardens in 2003.

Fig 3  –  The top rock garden at Sunningdale Park

 There is a boat cave and rocks at the end of the lake nearest the house – Fig 1 – and the stream feeding the lake is pumped over a Pulhamite cascade, and along a ‘cliff lined gorge’ that passes through a couple of holding pools.   Fig 2 shows a rustic wooden bridge that crosses the gorge, and this held a particular interest for me, as I had seen a number of archive pictures of Pulham sites in which such bridges featured, but, when visiting the sites, had always found that they had had to be replaced by stone ones some years later.   I therefore concluded that the wooden ones were less durable, and probably became more dangerous over time.   The one at Sunningdale was the first and only one I had seen, so I asked if it might be a masterful reproduction of the original.   Our guide did not think so because, although there had certainly been some underpinning, and the base supports had been replaced at some time, the superstructure was, to the best of his knowledge, original.

There is a very ‘Pulhamesque’ flight of rusticated steps that leads from here to the top terrace garden, shown in Fig 3.   The main feature here is a small, attractive Pulhamite rock garden, into which was incorporated a grotto (Fig 4).

Fig 4  –  The grotto in the top rock garden at Sunningdale Park

 The parkland at Sunningdale is generally kept in very good condition, although, at the time of my visit in 2005, the banks immediately surrounding the lake were a little disappointing and overgrown.   Routine maintenance work is kept well under control, but little money or time is left to focus on specific problems, one of which happens to be a small leakage in the water system flowing through the Pulham gorge

While discussing the wooden bridge, my guide asked if Pulhams also built other structures, like summerhouses.   They did – especially around the turn of the century – so the answer had to be yes.    ‘Well, come and have a look at this one,’ he said,  ‘Because we understand that this was built at the same time the gardens were reconstructed.’

Fig 5  –  The summerhouse at Sunningdale Park

So off we went, right down to the far end of the lawns, where I took the picture shown here in Fig 5.   One cannot be absolutely certain about this, because no records remain, but this charming little building was obviously constructed specifically for this particular location.   My conclusion is consequently circumstantial – if it was built around the time the Pulham workers were on site, it is known that part of their team would have been quite capable of doing it, so why would Major Joicey have brought in someone else to build just that summerhouse?

This was a very interesting visit, and I am sure that Pulhams had quite a substantial influence in the 1890s development of the gardens at Sunningdale Park.

2 thoughts on “1898-99 – Sunningdale Park, Ascot, Berkshire

  1. Just a few comments for the sake of accuracy:

    William James Joicey was certainly one of the Northern mining family but the head of the family would have been considered to be his cousin Sir (later Lord) James Joicey.

    WJJ purchased Sunningdale Park in Aug 1890, not 1891.

    WJJ died 23 Jan 1912, not early 1920s.

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