AMPTHILL PARK (Registered Historic Park: Grade II)
The area of Ampthill Park has probably been parkland since the 15th century when Ampthill Castle was built on the crest of the Greensand Ridge. In the 16th century it was part of a royal property which also included Houghton Park to the north east. In the 1660’s Lord Ashburnham acquired the land from the crown and built Park House at the northern foot of the ridge. There is some evidence for formal landscape associated with the house at this time.
In the later 18th century Park House was enlarged and at the same time Capability brown was engaged to “improve” the grounds; he worked at Ampthill in 1771 and 1772. The present landscape of the Park and its main features are the result of Brown’s work.
The only major alterations have been the creation of public recreational facilities on the southern edge of the park in the 20th century. Katherine’s Cross (Listed Building: Grade II) was erected in 1773 as a garden feature in Brown’s new landscape. The idea for it came from Horace Walpole, a friend of the then owner the Earl of Upper Ossory.
Crosses are rare as garden features and the Katherine Cross is an early example of a Gothic Revival monument. Capability Brown is considered to be the most important figure in the 18th century English landscape movement. Although Ampthill Park is not one of his major commissions it is probably the best examples of his work in Bedfordshire. In spite of later insertions into the landscape Brown’s work is still relatively unaltered, particularly in the northern part of the Park. Overall Ampthill Park is of considerable significance both locally and at a national scale.
Royal Residence and Aristocratic Use
Since the 15th century Ampthill Park has been the site of a royal residence and hunting ground, and a landscaped garden for generations of aristocratic residents of the Park House (also known as Great Park House). Ampthill evolved as a market town in early medieval times. Its central location, on two main routes and strategic location at the foot of the Lower Greensand Ridge made it a focal point for the local agricultural community. In the 15th century Ampthill Castle, a fortified house was built by Sir John Cornwall, an ally of Henry V who had married Princess Elizabeth in 1400.
After the death of Cornwall, the castle and estates were bought by Lord Edmund Grey of Wrest. In the early 16th century both the castle, Ampthill Park and nearby Houghton Park became royal property. While Henry VII showed little interest in Ampthill, Henry VIII used the castle and grounds for hunting. His first wife, Katherine or Aragon was imprisoned there during the anulment of her marriage.
Towards the end of the century the castle was neglected and ruinous by 1600. In 1606 James I preferred to enlarge the Steward's house called the Great Lodge, rather than re-build the derelict castle. In 1661 Charles II gave the Park to John Ashburnham. Ampthill Park House was re-built between 1687-1689 under contract from the lease-holding Ossory family, by John Grumbold, the Cambridge mason and architect. It was altered between 1704-1707 under the direction of John Lumley and again by Robert Chambers between 1786-1772.
Concurrent with Chamber's work, Capability Brown was employed to transform the formal gardens to an open landscape and was responsible for the wooded perimeters, strategically placed stands of chestnut and pine, the winding west drive and the "Rezzy". The best of the former landscaping, such as the oak copses and lime tree drive designed by Chambers, were left by Brown. In 1772-1773 Katherine's Cross was erected by the architect James Essex in the Gothic style.
He was influenced by the poet and writer Hugh Walpole, whose verse can be seen on the cross today, commemorating the imprisonment of the Queen. The cross is considered to be an important monument by virtue of its rarity and social history and is protected as a Grade Two Listed Building. Park House and the grounds were sold to the Bedford family in 1864. During this period the public were permitted to roam freely through the Park and enjoy organised sport.
During the Great War 1914 - 1918 the Park was used as an army training camp. Immediately after the Second World War the Park accommodated a Prisoner of war camp. In the 1940s the Bedford family sold Park House and adjacent land to Bovril Limited. In 1947 the Park was sold to the predecessors of Ampthill Town Council for just under £11,000.
AMPTHILL CASTLE (Scheduled Ancient Monument) Ampthill Castle was built in the early 15th century by Lord Fanhope as a “residence meet for his royal spouse” Elizabeth, sister of Henry IV. It passed to the crown in 1524 and Katherine of Aragon lived at the Castle in1533 during her divorce from Henry VIII.
By the later part of the 16th century the buildings were already in a state of decay and had been completely demolished by 1649. In spite of its name Ampthill Castle was never a castle in a military sense although it may have had some of a castle’s external trappings. Its true character was that of a palace with the emphasis on the domestic and the activities of an aristocratic household with royal associations.
A plan of 1567, together with other descriptions, give a good idea of the layout of the house around a number of courts. Nothing of the buildings survives above ground, however, there are clear earthwork remains which closely match the 1567 plan. It is clear that well preserved archaeological deposits belonging to the house survive within the area of the SAM quite close to the modern ground surface.
The Castle is of considerable importance both locally and nationally, especially for its associations with national events during the 16th century. Although no buildings survive above foundation level the buried remains are of great value. There is good contemporary documentation of the house which adds value to the remains.
That the Castle was built on a new site rather than representing a phase of development at a previously occupied one is also of interest. The fact that site was occupied for a relatively short time, less than 200m years, at a time of considerable change (from medieval to post-medieval periods) mean that the artefacts buried in the site are of considerable value in developing our understanding of this period of transition.
Improving Westminster Field for people and wildlife
Westminster Field is the western most part of Ampthill Park, separated from the rest of the Park by a tall hedge. Historically it was part of the Park but had been separately owned and farmed for many years before it was bought by the Town Council in 2001.
This summer the Town Council and the Friends of Ampthill Park, helped by the Greensand Trust and kindly funded by Ampthill Fireworks, started a project to restore the field to the flower-rich grassland that would have been typical on its clay soils in the past. We are lucky that there is a remnant of grassland like this at Steppingley Hospital and so a good local source of seeds.
So, in July, the Friends did a hay cut at Steppingley and transported the green hay straight over to Westminster Field. It was spread out over an area of about an acre which had previously been cut, raked and chain harrowed in preparation. After two weeks the seeds should have dropped into the soil and so the hay was raked up and removed. We plan to do this again in another area of the field next year and slowly, with time, we hope that we will begin to see a wider range of flowers become established – which will make Westminster Field a pleasanter place to walk, and will be good for pollinating insects too.