Gentrification of Chester Farm gardens

11 January 2017
Main house at chester farm

​The County Council was delighted when the Northamptonshire Gardens Trust agreed to support further research into the gardens and landscape of Chester Farm. There is much more research to undertake, but the gentrification of the farm in the 18th century and the influence of its owners made for a fascinating insight for our ongoing series of Chester Farm Stories.

Sarah Ekins (1733-1788) is a pivotal figure. She was orphaned at 12, inherited the Chester estate, became the ward of the Rev Philip Doddridge, and later married Dr James Stonhouse, who is well-known for being one of the founders of the Northampton Infirmary. It was during Sarah and James’ tenure that the house was ‘gentrified’ and a certain amount of landscaping was carried out, recorded on a plan of 1756. This work appears to have remained largely intact in outline, though the exact timing of changes to the detailed layout needs further research.

More research is also needed into the exact relationships of the Ekins family, confusingly Thomas and John being family names that feature repeatedly across several generations.

17th century Chester FarmMore research is also needed into the exact relationships of the Ekins family, confusingly Thomas and John being family names that feature repeatedly across several generations.

We know that the house, a substantial two-storey building, was built before 1662. It seems possible that it was Thomas Ekins who purchased the land in 1616 who was responsible. This building may have been on the site of an earlier medieval house. Initially when the house was built, probably little was done to the surrounding garden area, apart from some basic terracing.

By 1756 the plan (shown above) depicts the gardens surrounding the house which follow the tradition of large productive and enclosed areas. The new additions to the house face west where four rectangular plots are cut into what is probably grass, the whole surrounded by either a fence or wall with an opening on the north leading to the plain terrace and slope to the river. This is possibly the only formal decorative garden, and beyond to the west is a small enclosed space, the Bee yard, which has openings shown in the wall between to accommodate bee skeps.

The north terrace of the house provides access on the east to the bridge over the River Nene whilst to the west it leads to a Shady Walk. From this terrace there would have been fine views over the river to the meadows beyond, and footpaths are clearly marked on the plan westward above the course of the river and across the Great Cinquefoil Close towards the Chinese Temple.

Adjoining the kitchen garden is a very large orchard with surrounding borders and which has a building at its north-west corner. There is no indication as to the function of this small building, but it is likely to be a decorative summer house rather than a utility building. The orchard was likely to have been in existence in Sarah's father's time, as it was noted in the 1720's that a hoard of brass coins was found in Captain Ekins’ orchard. Captain Ekins was also a Thomas!

At the time of the original research by the Gardens Trust, it was thought that the whole garden area was already walled by 1756. However, subsequent study suggest that the perimeter walls may not have been built until the 1780s when the avenue was also created.  It is now clear that the Victorian layout included moving the line of the boundary wall further north and west in the lower end of the garden area.

Beyond the gardens shown on the 1756 map the names of the closes suggest an attempt to create parkland to the south, e.g. the Walk, Upper Park and Nether Park closes. The close labelled Walk on the 1756 plan indicates plans to create a grander entrance to the house rather than use Watry Lane, but the approach still runs between the utility areas of the farm buildings and the walled fruit and kitchen gardens. There are entrance gates on the main road boundary in the position of the present avenue, but it is not shown as tree-lined at this date.

It seems possible that the so called Lime Avenue was first planted in the 1780s at the same date as other avenues in Irchester parish were being planted. It was certainly well-established by the mid 19th century as shown in a later drawing of this southern entrance by George Clarke, dated c.1850 (see below) which shows the house framed by avenues of trees screening these areas, a view of which the Stonhouses would surely have approved.

The Burrow close, which contained much of the ‘Roman fortifications’ marked on the 1756 Plan, has a small building situated in its south-west corner marked Temple. The Northampton Mercury of June 1758 advertised ‘an act of vandalism by the locals, breaking down one side of the Chinese Temple recently erected by Dr Stonhouse.’

The naming of the recently erected ‘Chinese Temple’ is intriguing given the pious nature of both Sarah and James Stonhouse. Chinese buildings seem to have appeared in English gardens from the 1730s reaching their zenith by late 1750s. Chester Farm’s Chinese Temple is built on the edge of the ‘parkland’ landscape, on a mound which probably set the building as an eye-catcher on the Wellingborough to Higham Ferrers road. It is almost certain that the circular stone foundation of 30 feet in diameter on a mound, recorded during by the Rev. Baker’s excavations in 1878 was the base for Stonhouse’s Chinese Temple.

Recent excavations in the area of the garden have revealed that the tennis court created in the late Victorian period has not destroyed the earlier archaeology (including Roman and medieval remains), so some of the earlier history of what became the Stonhouse’s garden remain to be told in our series of Chester Farm stories.


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