Wotton House



The Old Orchard at Wotton Underwood, in Buckinghamshire

- A jewel among old orchards, for the intriguing probability that it has been unaltered since the late 17th century.

Please note that the Wotton Estate is private property and there is no public access.



The map below is probably the earliest known, that shows Wotton and the surrounds in fairly accurate representation. The map extends beyond the area shown here and bears the legend 'Sir John Godwin's'. At the bottom right the wooded area is called Qwenes Wod and Quens Wod and this surely means it was first drawn in the reign of a Queen. The area was the King's Wood from the time of the Norman Conquest and, apart from the revelation of this map, it has been known as Kingswood since. Later additions have been made at some reprinting as 'Grove Wood' and 'Morrels Pond' etc. are in a later script style. The map is too early for Queen Anne and that would suggest that the map was drawn in the time of Elizabeth I, perhaps even Mary, before her. Sir John Godwin, of nearby Winchenden, lived from 1520-1597, taking in both reigns. The black spot is the entrance to our nursery!



It might seem like ‘divine providence’ that, probably, the most interesting and important orchard that has ever compelled our attention is only ½ mile from the entrance to our nursery.

In the early 1990s, two friends were out walking in the grounds of Wotton House, Buckinghamshire, and came across a derelict orchard. They brought us a variety of apples and pears and we visited this orchard in haste. We knew little of the important Wotton Estate at that time, but this orchard was quite obviously ancient and the historical research followed. No histories mention this orchard, though it appears on some early maps.

Now, the thrill of every old orchard is incomplete without a context and it is there that we must begin.

The House and Gardens

Wotton Underwood is recorded in Domesday and there has been a Manor House there since the twelfth century, and in the hands of the Grenville family, until the modern age. They later inherited Stowe and the grounds of both were remade in the 18th century Landscape Movement, in tandem, to some extent. The village, that was inconveniently situated, was swept away along with the mediaeval Manor House, though the Church and some dwellings outside the area of the garden plans still remain.

The historical papers of Wotton and nearby villages were bought by the Henry Huntingdon Library in America as a job lot and many remain uncatalogued, but some useful information has made its way out. We can hope for more.

The Grade 1 listed Wotton House was built between 1704-1714, some say 1717. This second house burnt down in 1820 and was rebuilt a few years later in a more formal style.

Lord Richard Grenville, as the 17th century gave way to the 18th, had already started designs for a fully landscaped garden in the latest style of the grand landscaping movement. The work was taken over by London and Wise early on. London was the founder of the famed Brompton Road Nursery in 1681. Wise became an apprentice there in the early 1700s. Between them, they were responsible for many famous garden designs including Blenheim Palace. London died in 1714 and Wise went on to become Gardener to Queen Anne and George I, designing and replanting several royal palaces and other gardens. He died in 1738. Interestingly, they were also the authors of ‘The Retir’d Gardener’, an influential work that contained lists of fruit varieties, first published in 1706 and again in 1717. Though there is no evidence to suggest they included fruit trees in their landscaping at Wotton, it was a remote possibility, but one which will seem very remote as our narrative unwinds.

Up to the middle of the century, the young Lancelot (Capability) Brown (1716-1783) took over much of the work and added to the designs. It is believed he went to Wotton before he went to Stowe and Wotton might have been his first Landscape Garden. It is also thought that after his work at Stowe Landscape Gardens, after the ownership of Stowe came to Lord Grenville by marriage, Brown returned to work further at Wotton. William Pitt the Elder married into the family and was also said to have helped with the design, sometime in the early to mid-1700s. It has been suggested by some that grounds development started in the 1750s but London and Wise were dead by then and this view is surely wrong. However, we must not get sidetracked into the fascinating subject of the Landscape Movement and Capability Brown. The orchard is our focus. The transformation of the grounds at Wotton was thought by most to be complete by the middle of the 18th century.


The Village

As with most medieval manors, tenanted properties, both domestic and farm holdings, littered the area. A map of 1657 shows great detail of the village at Wotton. This and other maps in the Buckinghamshire County Archives have been very useful in piecing together the history of this very old orchard. We are very much interested in what existed before the village was removed, as will become clear. Since this orchard was preserved and safe from the plans of London and Wise and Capability Brown, it might seem 17th century and would appear to predate the removal of the village. It would make this orchard the only surviving part of the pre-landscape age of the Wotton Estate and the oldest part of the current Grade 1 listed House and Gardens.

This map was dated, with some uncertainty, at 1657, but it might have been drawn earlier. It does look, from our experience, of the style of late 16th century similar maps, as if it was earlier. Another map, dated 1649, might conversely have been later than this date. The important question is ‘when was the village removed to make way for the grand landscaping’? Within the garden plans the entire village, buildings and all the tenants were removed. Even to the south of the landscaping the land was cleared and is now within Lawn Farm (once owned by the Grenvilles) – clear pastures. Some parts would certainly have been gone just before building of the new house started in 1704. It rather looks as if it was all cleared earlier, as Lord Grenville’s garden plans took shape in his head. There has been a belief in some quarters that the village was cleared following the Wotton Enclosure Act, variously put at 1735 and 1743. This was the first or second Private Act for enclosure in the country. However, the villagers and their holdings must have been gone by this time as the garden landscaping was near complete.

The original mediaeval Manor House is shown on this map of 1657, marked as Grenville’s Yardes, Barne and House and a short distance to the south and east of the planned New House. The map has been overmarked by the garden designers with lines of tree plantings and also shows the location of the New House. Historic England and all other histories that we have found say that the location of the original Manor House is unknown, but this map shows it clearly. There is an adjacent kitchen garden and two adjacent orchards marked. The small ‘Old Orchard’ we are considering here was not needed by the mediaeval manor house and was quite distant. When the new house was built and Grenville’s kitchen garden and orchards were eradicated, the ‘old orchard’ would have been a long walk away for a house maid, having to walk around the ‘New River’ which had been inserted across the path between the new House and the ‘old orchard’. A quarter of a mile or more! Besides which, the new House created its own orchard and kitchen garden adjacent to the House. This orchard became part of Lodge Farm and the orchard still existed until the end of the 1990s. We grafted the trees there and have them with us. This orchard then gave way to a swimming pool and tennis court, now in the ownership of Tony and Cherie Blair.

The mediaeval house and the New House had no interest in the ‘old orchard’. So whose orchard was it? When was it in existence and why is it still there?

1657 map


1657 map

The Old Orchard

On this 1657(?) map we see the house/garden and wider holding of Thomas Lovell. It was one of the largest holdings on the map and he must have been a man of some significance. Note also the ‘The High Way’ that dips and sweeps past his holding. The top part of his holding is precisely where the ‘old orchard’ exists today and the line of The High Way was adopted by the garden designers as the path that would be followed for the ‘walk’ they created at the south of the redesigned gardens. Past Thomas Lovell’s holding, the path would cut south-east and head towards the enlarged lake, alongside the new avenue of trees. The deviation of The High Way around Thomas Lovell’s holding was retained.


1657 map


We now look at the 1649 map which seems to be a bit anachronistic, as it shows far fewer dwellings and holdings than the 1657 map, as if the 1649 map was later and the 1657 map earlier. Perhaps it was an earlier map but solely concerned with recording the Closes and ignoring dwellings and holdings. As with the 1657 map, this 1649 map has been overmarked by the garden designers. There are three significant features here.

1. It shows a yellow/orange line added by the garden designers to mark the path of the Walk on the edge of the reconstructed gardens, following The High Way, in a detour loop, north of the dwelling marked there, before heading south east again.

2. This dwelling is that of Thomas Lovell, as it appears in very much the same shape and location as the 1657 map, but without the wider holding he had in the 1657 map. The line of the walk has somewhat truncated part of Thomas Lovell’s holding, but part remains. This is ‘the Old Orchard’. If this 1649 map was later and Thomas Lovell was still living, perhaps he was a valued retainer for the estate and his dwelling continued to exist post-garden redesign. His house is outside the redesign, as was ‘The Old Orchard.’ The dwelling has gone and is now part of the clear fields of Lawn Farm.

3. The marking of ‘The New River’ might be outside the awareness of the garden historians of the ages, since it was considered to have been made in the early to mid 1700s, when the gardens were redesigned. Yet here it is, marked in the old style of lettering, on a map dated 1649! Could it be the gardens redesigning commenced much earlier than has been supposed and if the dates of the maps of 1657 and 1649 are correct, why was it not shown on the 1657 map? Surely the 1649 map is later than the 1657 one. Interestingly, the New River also deviated its path to make allowance for the route of The High Way and Lovell’s property.

1649 map



1649 map


What Happened Here?

Thomas Lovell had a small house and yard. He also had an orchard north of his dwelling, within his larger holding. The various garden designers used the old ‘High Way’ as the limit of their redesigns and for the ‘Walk’, which went around and north of Lovell’s orchard. They trimmed a bit off the northern part of his holding, but certainly deviated their Walk around the main part of it. They had no reason to remove the orchard. It was outside of their plans and probably provided some welcome mature trees to the view, at a time when most else in the view were mere saplings. Perhaps, being fruit tree nurserymen, London and Wise could not bear to destroy an orchard. The orchard had no value for fruit as other new orchards had already been planted next to the New House. No-one had any interest in replanting it, or even using it, since now there were no dwellings for some considerable distance. It was left alone.

A 1798 map (when all landscaping was complete) shows the line of the boundary of the landscaping and shows the ‘bulge’ around Lovell’s orchard, but only marks trees sparsely, where they are not part of the tree avenues.

1798 map




The map of 1847 shows the redesign complete and the orchard there beyond the boundary. It is marked 271, which looks to be a denomination used in the enclosure award a century earlier. Enclosure awards were often numbered such and this later map might have found value in using the same key to parcels of land. This orchard is still part of the Wotton Estate, while, to the south, all is now part of Lawn Farm.



1847 map



The map of circa 1890, has now finally acknowledged that there is an ‘Old Orchard’ there and this is much the same size and shape as exists today.

about 1890 map

What happened to Wotton in modern times?

In the first half of the 20th century, death duties left the estate to neglect. In the middle of the century, the estate was sold to a charity and it later became a boys’ boarding school. Parcels of land were sold to local farms. The House was derelict by 1957 and Buckinghamshire County Council, who then owned the estate, had decreed its demolition. Elaine Brunner discovered it and bought it with the grounds for just £6000, and just two weeks before demolition was due. She started the restoration, albeit slowly, given the scale of the task and restrictions on finance. She also bought back 400 acres of land once part of the estate.

At her death, in 1988, her daughter April Brunner and her husband David Gladstone, descendent of the Victorian Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, took over the task. April is no longer with us and David is planning the succession.

Estate Manager, Michael Harrison, oversaw much of the gradual restoration and took great interest in the history and the enormous amount of work in maintaining the grounds and restoring the features. It was in the early 1990s that we first met him, and shortly afterwards David and April Gladstone. We thank them for their help and support in our own research into the ‘old orchard’ which is the focus of this account.


The Orchard in Modern Times

When we first saw this orchard it was heavily overgrown and Michael Harrison confirmed that nothing had been done with it for decades. It had a close encounter with extinction when Elaine Brunner asked Michael to clear it. He wisely found more pressing work!

Trees had fallen, roots had suckered and grown tall and thick, brambles had become widespread and the shade canopy made proper knowledge of the fruit difficult at the start. Michael Harrison brought some sanity back, over time, with extensive clearing of unwanted bramble and rootstock growth and only judicious pruning. We grafted all the trees at the outset, to preserve them here and for the future. We passed back to Michael a new tree of each in the orchard and he planted them in the spaces of the orchard, for long term continuation.

The orchard is about ½ acre, roughly the shape of a long ellipse, and the uneven ground is crossed with a depressed channel, probably an ancient walkway. There are traces of other paths, marking the passage of relentless feet and the toil of barrows and carts, over countless years. The landscapers of the gardens were meticulous in their imposition of flat grounds everywhere, but this did not happen in the orchard. Another reason to believe it was never part of the plan. The orchard ground is very uneven.

To the north are the Gardens and House. To the south is open farmland – now separately owned and divorced from Wotton Estate. The orchard is ¼ to ½ a mile away from the house and there are no buildings or gardens close to it for some considerable distance in other directions. It is alone on the edge of the estate. It is hard to see why anyone would take any interest in it or replant it. The absence of any middle aged trees, that could not have come from re-growth, rootstock growth or random seedlings, leads to the view that the orchard was frozen in time. Another strong suggestion for this is that there are significant spaces in the orchard, where once there would have been fruit trees. Old trees die out, but why were newer ones not planted to fill the gaps? Long term lack of husbandry is the compelling conclusion.

The Endicott Pear in Massachusetts was planted in 1630 and is still alive, with a full and unbroken history of its existence. Why should we not believe we might be seeing fruit trees at Wotton of excessive age, even if not quite as old as 1630?

When first seen there were 10 apple trees, 5 pears, 7 hazelnuts (of more than one variety), and a single plum that turned out to be a Blackthorn tree of significant age, all by itself. One of the pears and two of the hazels have since died. One apple looks as if it might succumb soon. The gaps in the orchard might have given space to another dozen or more trees. This was a mixed domestic orchard from what we see now, with eating and cooking fruits and space for cider and perry trees, plus nuts for the winter. We might surmise that some of the missing trees were cherry and plum, both of which tend not to live as long as apples, pears and nuts. We have had all the apples and pears DNA profiled and all except two have come back as unmatched against any variety in the National Collection. The two that were matched were a pear ‘Autumn Bergamot’ and an apple ‘Catshead’, both of which have origins by the 17th century and probably in the 16th century. That so few of the trees had matches and that there were no 18th or 19th century varieties found there, speaks volumes.

The pears could be some of the oldest growing in Britain, while the apples are surely setting records for the potential age of apple trees. All the trees fruit, so pollination is still covered within the orchard. We see that at least some of the trees were grafted, judging by rootstock growth, and that there were no repetitions of varieties, possibly excluding the nuts. We do not see the works of Man in this orchard between the laying out of the Gardens and the 1990s.


The Fruits

Pear 1
A small perry pear, ripe in September and very sweet and very tannic, though the tannin is less if kept for a while and it can then be pleasant to eat. It does not store for very long. A very tall, large- trunked and very old tree. Now named 'Wotton Morsel'.

Apple 2
A mature tree possibly 100 years plus and upright. It does not look as old as the rest. A mature younger shoot from the base is the same as the rest, from blossom and fruit. Waxy, small, pale green becoming yellow fruit, with a rare blush and few pale streaks in the sun, with warm brown russet patches and nets. Fruit is ripe in October and is fairly crisp, fairly sweet, with pleasant acid, juicy and tannic. It is possibly a seedling or a sucker from a tree now gone. It might also be the original variety, shooting from a decayed trunk. It would probably make a useful single variety cider apple. Now named 'Wotton Revival'.

Apple 3
A truly ancient tree which fell over many years ago and re-rooted from the trunk. A new vertical shoot is now mature. The original trunk when first seen had nearly disappeared into the ground. Now, the signs of it have almost gone. Some fruit drops in October but the main drop is in November. Medium to large rounded apples with matt green skin with light red streaks in the shade but fully red in the sun. An excellent, crisp, dessert apple, with a complex flavour when young, becoming richer. At the end of November it starts to soften but the flavour is good, sweet and juicy. It will last well until the end of the year. Cooked, it keeps its shape but would mash and is rich, and sweet, needing no added sugar. It does not discolour when cut. One of the best in this orchard and not dated because of antiquity. Michael Harrison has named this Wotton Prolific as it always bears very well.

Apple 4
A very old tree, fallen over and rooted from the trunk. The vertical growth is now mature. The old trunk had largely gone in the 1990s. The fruit is unusual, being irregular, rather flat and very conical and of variable size, some over 3 inches wide and 2-3 inches deep. The flesh is sharp and hard, but rich, in October. In November it is sweeter, still sharp and with a strong flavour. By December it is perfect – still juicy, rich and sweet but still a little too sharp to eat raw. Cooked, it keeps its shape well and is powerfully rich, sweet, very tangy and needs just a little sugar for perfection. Now named 'Wotton Enigma'.

Apple 5
A fallen tree that had rooted from the trunk. The rootstock had suckered significantly. A medium sized, flattened, round apple ripe in October to November. The skin is dull green, and russeted, becoming amber with a warm blush and a few streaks. In October it can be a little sharp, but it is also sweet with a good flavour. It is best in early November when the flesh is tender and juicy. It will last to December and though it tends to shrink and soften, it remains sweet, rich and juicy. Now named 'Wotton Resurgent'.

Apple 6
This tree is tall and upright, with a modest girth, though the trunk is very weathered. It is hard to say if it is a seedling, a sucker or a new trunk grown from a fallen tree. It looks to be 100 years or more. This is the latest flowering tree in the orchard but others are still in flower for pollination. Apples drop in mid-October and are still intact on the ground in mid-November and into December. The apples are of variable shape, small and sweet, without much acidity, a little tannic and a bit dry. They start pale green and turn greenish yellow with an occasional amber patch and a few streaks. It might be a useful Bittersweet cider apple. It is a very prolific cropper and might reveal other qualities if pruned or grown on a younger tree. Now named 'Wotton Autumn Carpet'.

Apple 7 and 10
Two ancient trees that had fallen and re-rooted from the trunks, with several upright re-grown trunks, now old. These two trees had us (and Michael Harrison) fooled for years. The fruit was so variable from year to year, and variable on each tree in the same year, that we all assumed they were the same variety – the apples of both being large, mainly green turning pale yellow, heavily ribbed, and both of similar taste and excellence, either for eating when fully ripe in early November or cooking. Both trees cropped well, came into flower at the same time and with seemingly the same blossom characteristics. They seemed to match what we knew (then) about the long-lost Costards and we named them ‘Wotton Costard’. (We now know a fair bit more about Costards and please read our article on this website) We took cuttings for grafting from Tree 7, as Tree 10 was then ailing with little new wood. We later grafted Tree 10. This is now close to death. When we had these Wotton trees DNA profiled we were not surprised when Tree 7 came back as unmatched. We were surprised that Tree 10 was Catshead. This now makes sense. It had always seemed odd to us that such a mixed orchard would have two trees of the same variety. Now we know why. Tree 7 is Wotton Costard and Tree 10 is Catshead.

Apple 8
This is a large-trunked, tall and upright tree, first found with a rash of large suckers at the base, from the rootstock, and bearing different apples from Tree 8 – so it was clearly a grafted tree. Whether the tree now seen re-grew from a fallen, broken or decayed former trunk cannot be ascertained. The apples are medium sized, roundish and lightly ribbed at the stalk and the eye. Sometimes there is a little russet on the skin, but usually the translucent skin is smooth, pale green and with amber red and maroon streaks. In some years this tree has the habit of producing ripe apples in mid September and further ripe apples over October. When gathered they are crisp, juicy, tangy and sweet with a good flavour, but they do not last long. After a few weeks they become cidery in flavour and soft. We named this tree ‘Underwood Pippin’.

Pear 9
This old pear is still upright, healthy and bearing well. It has enough tannin to mark it out as a perry pear, and is sweet and juicy too. The tannic flavour tends to fade a bit with storing, though not enough to make this a good eating pear. Pears are small and often irregular, becoming ripe in October and lasting a short while. Though they stay juicy, the flesh becomes mealy. We have named this tree ‘Duke of Buckingham’ after the long association between Wotton and the Dukes of Buckingham.

Apple 11
This ancient tree is upright, but is heavily decayed in the trunk and broken off at 8 feet. A new trunk is growing from the side of the old trunk, where the limited living tissue is still in touch with the roots. It is quite a unique apple! The very hard, bright green fruit is quite inedible until the apples have over-wintered on the tree and are then gathered in January or February, when they are best stored for a while longer. The flesh before ripeness is without sharpness or bitterness and only with a little sweetness. Eventually, they become sweet, juicy enough and with a good flavour. As they mature the glossy green skin becomes paler and with some warm blushes in the sun. Unfortunately, we and Michael have not been able to test enough apples for long enough, thanks to the squirrels who make off with them and we do not yet know their full virtues in cooking at the end of their storing time. In early February, they keep their shape when cooked with a sweet lemony flavour. This apple might just be the long lost ‘Deux Ans’ aka ‘John Apple’, known to Shakespeare, as it matches no other apple, sufficiently described. We can, of course, never be sure. Now named 'Wotton Endurance'.

Apple 12
The tree is upright, mature and old, but of uncertain age. The apples are small and the blossom is very attractive. Ripe at the end of August, into September, the flesh becomes softish a few days after picking. The flesh is very fruity, juicy, sweet and crisp straight from tree and would be very good for juicing. Now named 'Wotton Nectar'.

Pear 13
An ancient pear that fell many years ago onto soft moist ground and grew new roots from the trunk, flat on the ground. Much of the old trunk remains, slowly rotting into the ground, while several new trunks have grown vertically from the old one. Having small and distinctly rounded, apple-shaped pears, suggested a very old variety. We named it Capability Pear, for obvious reasons, many years ago now. The pears are green with variable russet, ripening to yellowish. In September the fruit is not quite ripe but can be pleasant to eat, being juicy, sweetish, a little acid and with a nutty flavour. The flesh is granular and sometimes a bit coarse, but in October the flesh is softer, sweeter and richer. They do not last long after that. This tree was DNA profiled by us and was found to match ‘Autumn Bergamot’ in the National Fruit Collection, a pear that is certainly 17th century, if not earlier in origin. Given the matching descriptions for these two pears, we have accepted Autumn Bergamot to be the correct name for this pear.

Pear 14
A curious pear! The tree was ancient and tall when first seen, in excess of 20ft. The fruit is usually ripe in mid-October, green with russet at the stalk and eye and sometimes having a mahogany cheek when in the sun. The pears can be lumpy, irregular and waisted. The skin is rather like an avocado. The stalk end sometimes produces a fleshy lip. As the skin turns yellowish, the pears are ripe, but over-ripe when fully yellow. They decay from the inside out when fully yellow. The flesh is soft, coarse, granular and slightly dry but is very sweet with a good flavour. This pear very much belongs to a bygone age. Now named ‘Wotton Peculiar’.

Pear 15
When first seen, this ancient tree was leaning and only supported by neighbouring trees and ivy. The trunk was hollow and the only growth was high up and sparse. We were able to graft new trees before this pear finally died a year later. The pears are small to medium sized, a little irregular and dull green, becoming yellow with a carmine blush when ripe in late September. The flesh is juicy, sweet and a little tannic. Now named ‘Wotton Reclaimed’.

Apple 17
This apple is of questionable age and merit. It is mature and upright – perhaps 100 years old – but not of the girth of the other old trees. Perhaps it was a seedling that grew unobserved over the ages or a shoot from a rootstock that grew to tree size, while its parent tree died and rotted away. The leaves are small, glossy and rounded while the flowers barely have any petals to speak of. The bark is different from other apple trees. It is an odd tree to find there. The fruit is small, green-yellow, crabby, sharp, tannic and only a little sweet.