Not forgetting watercress
Denham's Gardening history
With no fewer than four well known, well established and well used garden centres directly opposite the two roads from the A40 into the village, plus the extensive Smith’s Garden Centre on the road into Uxbridge, Denham evidently has a long and thriving relationship with horticulture. The continuing success of the Denham Village Garden Club is sure testimony to that.
Gardens and cultivation are very much part of the village’s history. Throughout the 19th century, as revealed by the census reports from 1841 to 1901, the village taking in what is now Cheapside Lane, Old Mill Road and Village Road was home to at least five residents who described “Gardener” as their profession and source of livelihood in addition to the many “agricultural workers” who laboured on the farms around the village.
The census reports do not reveal exactly which gardens these residents tended but there was certainly no lack of opportunity for work. The two grand houses Denham Place and Denham Court each enjoyed beautifully designed and well tended gardens.
Gardening is a very old practice of the human species. The enclosure of outdoor space can be traced back as long as 12,000 years. As early as 1600 years before the beginning of the Christian era, the Egyptians had laid out ornamental gardens. As with so many other instances of settled urban and rural life, gardening declined after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the fifth century AD. However, it revived in southern France in the 13th century and by the 17th century was again well established throughout Western Europe with large landscaped formal gardens around the mansions and palaces of the wealthy and powerful.
Denham’s overlying superficial geology mainly comprises undifferentiated river terrace deposits with a band of alluvium along the path of the river. A 2007 Soils Survey classifies the soil around Denham as seasonally wet deep loam to the south of the Misbourne, deep silty soil to the north of the river and seasonally wet loam over gravel along the path of the river - in short pretty good for gardens.
The enclosure of what we know as Denham Place may have first occurred around 1000 years ago. It was a substantial part of the property in Denham owned by the Abbey of Westminster until 1540. It is known that a formal garden existed on the site in the late 1600s, in the time of King William III and subsequently Queen Anne. The mansion we see now dates from that time, the home then of the Whig MP for Wendover and High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire, Sir Roger Hill. He surrounded the mansion with elaborate formal gardens to the west, south and east, with over sixty pieces of sculpture and a geometrical canal. The layout can be seen in a painting of around 1705. The main east/west axis of the house was flanked to the south by a further formal walled garden area, also aligned east/west, a stable block to the south-west of the house and a geometrical canal running the whole east/west width of the estate, divided by a water pavilion about 100m south of the house.
In 1742 the estate was inherited by the Way family. The formal gardens were removed by Benjamin Way in the 1770s though he retained the walled garden to the south. Some items and structures of 17th century garden do still remain, but some of them have been relocated. The gardens gave way to a landscape park with a lake at its centre. It is thought possible that one of the people involved in the design was none other than Lancelot “Capability” Brown, landscaper of Blenheim and Hampton Court Palace Gardens and recognised as England’s greatest landscape designer.
During the mid to late 19th century further development included formal beds west of the mansion, but these are now gone.
The level gardens at the southern end of the estate are mainly laid to lawn. The area west and south of the house was covered until the 1760s by the formal garden showed in the 1705 painting. This was later incorporated into the parkland and is largely level lawn though there are traces of earlier structures visible during dry weather. The dominant feature is the broad lake to the south, created from the River Misbourne as it enters from the west and dammed at the east end before it leaves the garden under Old Bridge in front of Misbourne Cottage.
The walled garden appears to have been used both ornamentally, in the northern half, and as a kitchen garden, to the south. It is surrounded by the estate wall on the west, south and east, and bounded to the north by a further Grade II listed brick wall. A trapezium-shaped pond lies at the centre of the walled garden, a remnant of the 17th century layout.
The main formal feature lies north of the house. This is a rectangular sunken garden with a north/south stone path on an axis with the north front of the house leading from the low iron gates at the south end to a yew-backed seat at the north end. The area is surrounded by a clipped box hedge and flanked to west and east by tall, clipped yew hedges and enclosed lawns. It is screened from the park to the north by a row of late C20 conifers, and was constructed in the 1930s by Lord and Lady Vansittart.
Denham Place is now a grade II registered park, first designated in 1987. The designation is demarcated by the walls of the park and encompasses the Denham Place house and a number of stables and outbuildings.
Much less information is available about the gardens of Denham Court. They have of course latterly been remodelled and incorporated into a golf course.
The Denham Court mansion is a late 17th-century mansion house with extensive grounds on the banks of the River Colne. There is no doubt that it did once have well tended gardens. An engraving of the early 1600s shows gardeners at work at Denham Court with the mansion itself at some distance across an area of well cultivated ground. The poet Dryden was a frequent visitor, calling it “one of the most delicious spots of ground in England.”
Denham Court ceased to be a family home in 1935. In subsequent years the estate was intensively farmed and the house and gardens fell into decay. There are however still remnants of avenues of lime, and footbridges across the River Colne north of the mansion and the main front garden dating from the late18th century is still evident. The remains of fishponds dating from the 14th century can also still be found on the site.
Nor should John and Sheila Palmer’s home, rose growing business and walled rose garden just across from the mansion be forgotten. Though John and Sheila left in the early 1990s when the Buckinghamshire Golf Club was established on the Denham Court estate, several gardens in the village, small and large, still display the roses they cultivated, some of the finest blooms in the country.
We’re very grateful to local buildings historian Christopher Carter for drawing our attention to the remaining evidence that the gardens to the cottages on the north side of Village Road appear to be laid out as burgage plots.
Burgage plots are a feature of medieval town “planning”. They are a natural consequence of the desirability of having both an access directly onto the village or town street together with a plot of land to cultivate behind the dwelling. The manorial landowner would deliberately establish narrow fronted dwellings backed by long narrow plots of land and let them to moderately well-off tenants. It is known that some of the existing cottages on the north side of Village Road, apparently wide fronted are in fact formerly two or very narrow fronted cottages fitting the traditional burgage pattern. The configuration is evident in a map of the village dating from 1590 and in a later map of 1793. The 1590 map has been inverted here the better to be compared with more modern maps showing north to the top.
The tenancy of a burgage conferred rights. A burgage tenancy could for example be bought and sold in contrast with rights of occupation which were entirely personal as between landlord and tenant. The ownership of a burgage tenancy was also commonly the basis of voting rights, a notion of linkage between property ownership and the right to vote that persisted in the U.K. until as late as 1928.
But that’s another story to be told later this year.
The gardens of Denham certainly had no lack of villagers to look after them. The census of 1841 shows five residents reporting themselves as having the profession of “gardener”, two of them Joseph Hames and his 25 year old son James living on Milestone Lane which appears to be the short stretch of road running on the east side of St. Mary’s churchyard. Ten years later there were six professional gardeners, two of them Harman, a family which provided gardening services in the village for several decades of the 19th century. Another of the gardeners of 1851 was a William Marshall of Cheapside fortuitously for him not a victim of the horrific Cheapside murders 19 years later, but perhaps a relative.
By 1861 there were eight gardeners in the village. William Harman had added “gamekeeper” to his professional talents probably working either at Denham Place or at Denham Court. Then by 1871 there were twelve plus a few more in the developing areas of Red Hill, New Denham and what we now know as Denham Avenue. That is also when we first come across William Peverell who reappears in the 1881 list. In 1881 gardeners were being accommodated within the Denham Court estate and the professionals had taken on assistant “gardener labourers”. The Lea also then had its gardeners though nothing is easily discoverable about the gardens of The Lea.
The 1891 census reveals 23 professional gardeners serving the community, the names Hearn, Styles and Mills reappearing. By this time the Rector had his own gardener.
At the turn of the century, as revealed by the 1901 census, there were 41 gardeners in the wider Denham community, gardeners of every kind, market gardeners, flower gardeners, domestic and estate gardeners and then several “gardeners’ labourers”. Mr Frederick W Russell resident of The Cottage on the Denham Court estate proudly proclaimed himself to the census taker as “Head Gardener.”
Gardens have remained popular in the village through the 20th century up to the present day. Kevin Brownlow, biographer of the celebrated Film Director David Lean, writes of his subject’s new home following his marriage to actress Kay Walsh in 1940 “Eventually David ... moved into a picturesque little place in Denham village called Melgan Cottage, where David could - in his free moments - practise gardening, something he grew to love”.
Today’s Denham gardeners take both pleasure and pride in their gardens. The White House has an “established 6 acre formal garden in picturesque setting with mature trees and hedges and the River Misbourne meandering through lawns, shruberries, flower beds, rockery, rose garden and orchard, large walled garden, herb garden, vegetable plot and Victorian greenhouses”. It is opened annually under the National Garden Scheme. Village houses are named after favourite flowers such as Fuschia, Rose, Myrtle and Jasmine or are adorned with fabulous displays of Wisteria.
And the Denham Village Garden Club has of course a very special history of its own. We'll be telling more of that when we come to the history of Denham's Clubs and Societies.
Strictly speaking the story of the Denham Allotments is outside the scope of what we can achieve in a history of the old Denham Village. But this is a community history and there is no doubt that the allotments have been very much a part of the community history of the village.
The allotments movement as we know it today has its origins in the 19th century as attitudes towards poverty began to change. Land was given over to the labouring poor for the provision of food growing. It was a measure desperately needed as the country was rapidly industrialised. In 1908 the Small Holdings and Allotments Act came into force, placing a duty on local
authorities to provide sufficient allotments in response to demand. However it wasn’t until the end of the First World War that land was made available to all, primarily as a way of assisting returning service men instead of just the labouring poor. The Allotments Act of 1925 established statutory allotments which local authorities could not sell off or convert him:j without Ministerial consent.
Parish Councils, the first tier of local government in England and Wales, came into existence as a result of the Local Government Act 1894. As early as its second meeting on 22nd January 1895, residents of New Denham had some success in their request that the council consider providing allotments. Money was raised but over 20 years passed before a satisfactory plot of land became available. Finally in 1919, Mr Harold Swithinbank of Denham Court, himself the first chairman of the council and no doubt incentivised by the renewed drive to establish allotments for returning servicemen, leased to the parish the four acre allotments site now to be found between the KFC restaurant and the New Denham Community Centre on the road to Uxbridge. The tenancy continues at a rental today of £440 per year.
The site has 112 separate plots operated under much the same rules that were adopted in 1928, though the vegetables grown are much more varied and exotic.
It is typical that there is friendly rivalry amongst plot holders seeking to outdo each other in their produce and the appearance of the allotment. There have, over the years been several shows and competitions. In 1999 the Parish Council began awarding the “Mrs F Powell Cup” to the winner of the Best Allotment Competition. The judging takes place in June/July each year and the presentation on the last Sunday in September when the rents are collected on site at the traditional time of Michaelmas.
No community history of gardening in Denham would be complete without a mention of watercress.
Watercress, notable for its piquant flavour, is a rapidly growing, aquatic or semi-aquatic, perennial plant native to Europe and Asia, and one of the oldest known leaf vegetables consumed by humans. Though regarded by some as no more than a weed and 95% only water, it began to be commercially cultivated in 1808 along the River Ebbsfleet in Kent. Its significance in Denham is that it thrives around the headwaters of chalk streams. The Misbourne running through Denham provides an ideal environment. Watercress beds could once be found along the Misbourne from Higher Denham to the Mill House.
But beware. In the wrong circumstances, watercress can harbour parasites and the compounds in the 5% of it that isn’t water could interfere with some medications. Probably safer to get it from Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Waitrose or the Co-op in Denham Green.
There are probably many more stories of Denham gardens. If you have some to tell please email us on
Buckinghamshire Historic Towns Assessment Report
© Buckinghamshire County Council 2010
Denham Conservation Area Character Appraisal 2008 © South Bucks District Council
“Allotment History” © Denham Parish Council
National Garden Scheme website - www.ngs.org.uk
“David Lean” by Kevin Brownlow published in hardback by Richard Cohen Books 1996 and in paperback by Faber & Faber 1997 © Kevin Brownlow