1883-85 – The Rectory, Benington, Hertfordshire

SM 56 – Jan 16

This month’s site is something different.   In fact, it is something completely unique in my experience, and I was only made aware of it after the publication of my book, ‘Rock Landscapes: The Pulham Legacy’.   A lady told me one day that she had recently been to an ‘Open Garden Day’ in Benington, near Stevenage, and wanted to know if I had ever seen the Pulham grotto there?   My immediate reaction was that she was talking about the massive Norman folly at Benington Lordship, which is featured in Chapter 1 of the book, but she assured me that this was somewhere else.   It was in the garden of a house ‘just up the road from The Lordship’, so this was especially intriguing, because our databases show no record of the Pulhams having worked on a second site in Benington.

5-10-55-01 - Benington Peterscourt, GatewayFig 1 – Part of the external wall and entrance gateway into the Rectory Maze

I obviously had to follow this up, and discovered that she was talking about a house that was once ‘The Rectory’,tached to the local church of St Peter’s, and has since been split into two.   The part in whose garden the grotto is situated is now called ‘Peterscourt’, so I contacted the present owner, Mrs Rayfield, who confirmed that she did indeed have an ‘odd sort of grotto’ in her garden, and would be happy for me to come along and have a look at it – which I did.

The feature is inside an enclosed walled space that I would guess is about 20 metres square and 3 metres high, and Fig 1 shows the simple arched gateway that leads into it.   But inside is something else!   It is not a grotto, because there is no roof to it, but it has ‘Pulham’ written all over it.   It has become very worn and degraded over the years, but the planting pockets and rock stratifications are plainly there for all to see.

5-10-55-02 - Benington - Peterscourt, Maze - Path 1Fig 2 – Venturing inside . . .

It is, in fact, an incredible little maze, the like of which I had never seen before.   There are paths twisting around in all directions between banks of Pulhamite rock, and one can readily imagine the fun that a group of children would have playing hide and seek in such a place – in fact, Mrs Rayfield confirmed that her children and their friends loved to do just that.

Fig 2 shows the view that greets you as you walk through the gate, and Figs 3 and 4 show the paths that await you further in. They twist and turn tantalisingly to tempt the visitor around the next bend, and, on one’s first visit, one might even wonder for a moment if it was possible to get lost.

One can only imagine what this space must have looked like in its prime, with beautifully planted pockets and climbing plants, but, sadly, the condition of the rockwork in some places has badly deteriorated, as can be seen in Fig 5.   It would be marvelous if it could all be brought back to its original condition, but that would need a considerable investment.   Mr and Mrs Rayfield have already spent a lot of time and money on its maintenance and odd pieces of repair, but it would indeed place a heavy financial burden on them to commission a complete professional restoration.   Sadly it is most unlikely that the Heritage Lottery Fund would be able to help because this is on strictly private property, and there are no regular admissions to the public.   This is a problem that faces almost all private custodians of our garden heritage sites, and one can only wish them luck, and hope that, perhaps one day, they might be lucky enough to win the lottery, or a first prize on the Premium Bonds . . .

5-10-55-03 - Benington - Peterscourt, Maze - Path 2Fig 3 – A little further in . . .

5-10-55-04 - Benington - Peterscourt, Maze - Path and ArchwauFig 4 – I wonder what’s around this next corner, and where does that archway lead to?.

There had to be a story behind the creation of this structure, and the first thing to do was try and establish an approximate date for its construction.   It couldn’t be earlier than 1877, since it was not noted in James 2’s promotional booklet, ‘Picturesque Ferneries and Rock Garden Scenery’, which was published at that time, and the general character of the work also indicated that it was probably slightly later than that.

I had often found during my travels around other Pulham sites that people tended to ‘beautify’ their gardens within a year or two of moving into a new house, and Mrs Rayfield was able to tell me that The Rev William Mills moved into The Rectory of Bennington – as it was called and spelled in those days – in 1880.   This would have fitted nicely, although I found it difficult to imagine how a young churchman would have been able to afford a feature like this.

5-10-55-05 - Benington - Peterscourt, Maze - Damaged WallFig 5 – Bad deterioration along the rear wall, and an intriguing archway that leads . . . where?

And then I had a stroke of luck.   A few further enquiries revealed that the Rev Mills’ grandson, Robin Mills, still lived in the village, and had always thought that the tufa rocks in the grotto were ‘lumps of slag from the Lea Valley hot houses’ – which was quite a reasonable assumption, since the Pulhams often used material like that as a core for their Pulhamite covering.

Robin was more than happy to talk to me, and was able to provide a mine of fascinating information.   His grandfather, William, was one of five brothers, who were all born in Youghal, County Cork, in Ireland, and most of whom followed their father into the church.   William was educated in Trinity College, Dublin, and moved to England to be ordained Deacon at Worcester in 1875, and Priest the following year, when he was a Curate at Coleshill, Warwickshire.   He became Curate at Upton cum Chalvey in 1876, and then at Little Marlow, Buckinghamshire, in 1879.   That was where he met Jessie Nixey – daughter of a wealthy black lead manufacturer – and they married in 1880.   Eustace, their eldest son (and Robin’s father), was born in 1881, the year in which William was inducted at Bennington.

The Rev Mills proved to be a force to be reckoned with in the village – quite apart from the fact that he was responsible for getting one of the ‘n’s’ knocked out of its name.   If parishioners happened to miss church on a Sunday, he wanted to know why, and there is a story that, on a Choir outing to London, he arranged specifically for the return train to stop and let them off at Knebworth – the nearest and most convenient station to Benington.   It failed to do so, and went about five miles further on to Hitchin, so he insisted that the railway company must provide a special train to take them back, and, as far as we know, they did . . .

5-10-55-06 - Benington - Peterscourt, Maze - A Final Look

Fig 6 – A final look back as you leave the maze

He spent a lot of money on the Church of St Peter – including rebuilding the Chancel in 1889 – although it seems more likely that most of the money came from his wife, or her father, rather than from his own resources.   Sadly, Jessie died in 1896.

He contributed generously to the Parish Hall in 1902, and bought three cottages in the village – one of which he gave to Eustace, who was then just 21, so that he could vote.   He also had money invested in Germany, but that meant that, at the outbreak of war in 1914, these investments became worthless, and he could no longer afford to live at the old Rectory, so he moved to a cottage overlooking the village pond – which then became known as Rectory Cottage – and enlarged it in 1915.   The Bishop appointed him a Canon, and, in 1921, he donated the Lytch Gate to the Church in memory of his fourth son, Gerald, who was killed in 1917.

William lived at Rectory Cottage until his death in 1922, after which the house became known simply as ‘The Cottage’.   He was buried with his wife in the churchyard of St Peter’s, and the story goes that the gravestone was turned round so that his name could be seen from the path, while Jessie’s now faced the back.   It is not known why this was done, but perhaps it was as a result of his own instructions – in which case, in view of his obviously powerful personality, one can’t help wondering whether he issued them before or after he was laid to rest. . .

However, back to The Maze.   With the help of Robin’s background information, it is no longer difficult to imagine how it came about, and who might have funded its construction.   Just imagine a new young Rector and his wife arriving in the village with a new baby in 1881 – how proud his grandfather would have been!   He would have wanted to do everything he could to spoil him, so the main question was how best to do it.

William and Jessie would have soon got to know Leonard Proctor, Squire of the village and well-known campanologist who only lived a few hundred yards away at ‘The Lordship’.   They would certainly have visited each other to discuss village affairs, and the Mills would have seen the fabulous folly and gardens built by the Pulhams in 1835-38.   William is almost certain to have also seen another example of their work at The Church of the Holy Trinity in Weston, where they built a new Chancel, designed by Thomas Smith in 1840.   So why not get the Pulhams in to build something at ‘The Rectory’, and how about a Maze – something that would keep young Eustace amused as he grew older?

My final thought is that Robin was almost certainly right about the origin of the ‘slag’ used as a core for the Pulhamite.   The ‘Lea Valley hot houses’ were only a couple of miles or so from the Pulham manufactory in Station Road, Broxbourne, so this is quite a logical assumption.   There is, of course, a more fanciful possibility that it may have come from a certain black lead manufacturer who lived in Little Marlow, Buckinghamshire, but that would hardly have been a practical source.   Whatever its origin, however, there can now be little doubt that this lovely feature was constructed sometime in the early 1880s – perhaps 1883-85.

Return to Christmas 2015 News Letter

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