The garden was built in the 1770s. As the ‘kitchen’ garden it was a major food and flower growing space for the large house of the Bedfords estate. Bedfords was an ancient manor dating back to the early 13th century. The house itself used to occupy the site where the Essex Wildlife Trust visitor centre now stands. Sadly only the front steps remain of the original house from this time.
The garden is an average size for gardens of the period circa. 100m x 62m. This is almost the size of Arsenal’s Emirates football pitch (105m x 68m). The brick walls are also quite high for a walled garden at 3.4 meters to protect the garden from cold winds and give the highest growing space for fruit trees.
The garden was an example of horticultural innovation – the pineapple house was heated with rotting manure to grow real pineapples. Not unique in Britain but a huge statement of decadence and ingenuity at the time.
The Bedfords estate was described in 1819 (J.P. Neale) as having a ‘well-stocked garden with green houses, hot houses and a pinery of considerable extent’. This shows the wealth of the estate, as there was both glass tax (from 1746) and window tax (from 1696) in place at this time. The fern house looks more like a traditional green house that we’d recognize today but we don’t know when it was actually built it could be Victorian
In the Victorian age of innovation steam engines pumped the water from spring ponds to the main house and were also used to heat the north wall of the garden so that delicate peach trees citrus could grow through the British winter. The ponds can still be seen today just outside the garden walls. There’s also a spring and an ancient well within the walled garden.
The Bedfords estate was bought by Romford Urban District council (now London Borough of Havering) in 1933 for use as a public park and the house was opened to the public. The walled garden operated as a nursery, growing the bedding plants needed for all the urban parks in the borough. The whole site was covered in glass houses, nothing was growing in the ground itself and the valuable topsoil was removed many years before. The nursery was forced to close in 1999 due to safety concerns around the deteriorating walls.
After many years of neglect and the further dilapidation of the walls the site became a jungle. The road to restoration was even steeper than before! The Friends of Bedfords Park decided to try to get the site open once more and could see the garden’s potential as a great community asset, The friends and the council tried in vain to get grant money to restore the garden to some sort of usable plot. It was when our wandering lovers found the romantic secret garden and CLEAR VILLAGE stepped in.
CLEAR VILLAGE brought together local stakeholders: the London borough of Havering, Friends of Bedfords Park, Essex Wildlife Trust and the Havering-atte-Bower Conservation Society and other enthusiast “Garden Angel” volunteers from all over the globe to start to build the vision for the garden. The local community has been deeply engaged and has experienced that change is possible through collective dreams and actions. As one person put it: “this is the most exciting thing that has happened in the community in the last thirty years.”
CLEAR VILLAGE successfully secured a lottery Food Grant to provide an active and engaging community space by growing, educating and interacting with and through food to enhance local well-being. A team of experts for planting and oversight of the garden have now been recruited and the dreams for the once secret garden are becoming a reality.