On a fine spring day in May, Trust members enjoyed a conducted tour of the gardens of the Hurlingham Club on the banks of the River Thames in Fulharn.
Founded in the 19th century as a gentlemen's shooting club - see the separate box for some history notes - the club offers its 12,000 members outstanding facilities for tennis, croquet, cricket, bowls, swimming and other sports as well as rather more staid activities like bridge, backgammon and chess. Surrounding the historic clubhouse and all this sporting activity are some fine ornamental grounds. Head Gardener Mike Batie and his wife Helen, a senior gardener, were our hosts for the afternoon.
We met at the Main Gate to the west of the clubhouse and in front of the four-acre lake, believed to have been constructed in 1740 from a natural creek in the River Thames. Mike told us that, contrary to some reports, there is no historical evidence of Capability Brown's reported involvement in its design. The lake was originally in the grounds of Mulgrave House to the north-west of the lake itself, where Captain Cook is reported to have stayed on a regular basis. Mulgrave House itself was demolished in 1927. In 1928 a disastrous flood saw the lake rise and over six feet of water flood in the grounds where it even reached the clubhouse. Boards inscribed 'H.W.M. 7/1/28' can be seen in different parts of the grounds recording the flood levels.
The lake was originally formed from an inlet of the Thames.
The lake now acts as a reservoir for irrigation and the club has recently sunk two boreholes to feed it. It is an important location for wildlife local and visiting fowl, including snipe and little egrets from nearby Barnes Wetland Centre. Sadly the 20-foot fountain in the lake was not working at the time of our visit and a pair of coots had taken the opportunity to build a nest over it.
We crossed the lake over the 1929 bridge, built after the flood, and arrived at the tennis pavilion, originally named 'The Tea House', on the site of the old pigeon-shooting pavilion, used when the club first opened in 1869. Later, golf was introduced and at one time, Mike told us, golfers used to tee off from its roof. Now it is used as offices and changing rooms. The flowerbeds here are planted with a blue and gold theme.
Continuing towards the main house we next arrived at the splendid herbaceous border. Helen Batie explained that the herbaceous border, originally in the grounds of Hurlingham House, was relocated in 1990-1, when the new fitness centre was built. Everything was moved to a new south-facing wall, including, Helen added ruefully, the weeds. So they replanted it 10 years ago. Helen records its progress in season, when the flowers are cut, and maintains it in the winter. In the spring it is forked through with horse manure and staked with hazel sticks.
Beyond the herbaceous border is a magnificent wisteria-clad walk leading to the main house, where a beautiful set of bronze dolphins entwine on a fountain outside the refreshment rooms. The dolphins are the work of the sculptor David Wynne, who presented them to the club in 1995.
The main house at Hurlingham overlooks the club's croquet grounds.
Overlooking the lawns leading down to the river, we finally arrived at Hurlingham House itself, an imposing 18th-century mansion. Originally, Mike told us, Repton had proposed allowing cows to graze there, to enhance the rus in urbe landscape. Today the lawns are used for croquet and bowling and social activities. On one side is the rebuilt conservatory. Helen explained that they use biological pest management and non-harmful sprays on the plants growing in it. We admired the conservatory from outside, as it is a popular sitting area for club members.
Near the main entrance is the new function wing, officially opened by His Royal Highness, The Duke of Edinburgh, in 2004. Mike recalled that there were two openings, one by the Duke and another for members. To ensure the borders were at their best, they grew two sets of bulbs in pots and planted them out for each occasion.
The restored garden pavilion with Lutyens-style wooden benches
In 1906 the leading architect Sir Edwin Lutyens was employed to make improvements to the house. He designed a terrace for the river façade, which is now planted with David Austin roses. Nearby an original pavilion has been rebuilt in a small glade and three Lutyens-style wooden benches, donated by members, have been placed there. The cricket field, now to the east of the house, was originally sited on the south side in the grounds of Broom House, which was purchased by the club and demolished in 1912. The armillary sphere on the East Terrace dates from 1997 and commemorates the 2nd and 3rd Viscounts Cowdray, who did so much for the Club in its polo days.
Turning down towards the river, we strolled through the Lilac Walk to enter a small clearing containing a pigeon house on a post and two large wooden sheep, a ewe and a ram. These are carvings by Rees Ingram, called Little Fluffy Angel and Big Old Devil Ram Runs Away With Your Fancy respectively These are very popular with children and get moved around the grounds at intervals.
Alongside the Thames is the River Walk, constructed after the flood of 1929, with a jetty built in 1939. There are mature London plane trees here that probably date back to the 18th century. In places the path has been diverted round the trees, which include a copper beech and an elm. There are also younger trees planted by the croquet lawns and elsewhere. Mike said they lost 40 mature trees and a great many other specimens during the great storm of October 1987.
Trust members stroll along the River Walk
At this stage we had reached full circle and returned to the lake. We stopped to thank Mike and Helen Batie for being our guides and to congratulate them on all the hard work and care lavished on the gardens to bring them to such a high state of maintenance. Mike told us there are five full-time gardening staff and three seasonal gardeners, who work on the gardens. Mike himself has been at the Hurlingham Club for over 21 years now.
It only remained to return to the clubhouse in search of refreshment, having completed our tour of the grounds and enjoyed, in the words of the first owner of Hurlingham House, Dr Cadogan, "temperance, activity and ease of mind."