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Strategies for historic gardens

Maurice Johnson's gardens at Ayscoughfee Hall

Ayscoughfee Hall stands on the east bank of the River Welland in gardens extending over some seven acres. Although the house has origins in the 15th century, the present gardens were first laid out by Maurice Johnson around 1730. The grounds of Ayscoughfee Hall are an important example of an early 18th-century urban garden and the present arrangement of the gardens mirrors closely that shown on John Grundy’s map of 1732, drawn to record Spalding and the new gardens laid out by Maurice Johnson.

It is Maurice Johnson’s planting that determined the development of the gardens and after his death little was done to maintain or alter his schemes until c.1900, when the Council came into possession in succession to the last of the Johnson family. Some of the surviving character and features were lost during the 20th century, with the creation of tennis courts, bowling green, café and other facilities within the gardens, besides the War Memorial of 1922, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens.

Such landscapes possess a cultural and aesthetic value, but the loss of any element reduces the value of the whole and the link with the past. The aim of conservation is to retain the cultural significance of the landscape, and should provide for its future maintenance. This involves an understanding of the current fabric prior to any work of conservation.

Part of an earlier enclosure wall
Urban parks such as Ayscoughfee Hall have been reassessed in recent years, not only as parks, but, especially, where existing gardens were taken over by local authorities, as heritage assets of local and national importance.

A programme of research has investigated the history and development of the Hall, the Gardens, and archaeological remains. This has allowed recommendations to be made, with the object of restoring and protecting the historic character of Ayscoughfee Hall and its gardens.

The lost medieval landscape

Excerpt from Grundy's 1732 map
The Hall dates to the mid-1400s and both the west front, facing the river, and the east or garden front, betray these origins, with large oriel windows on both east and west fronts rising through two storeys to light a large hall. The west front was the formal entrance, with turning space for carriages rather than any elaborate landscaping. Ayscoughfee Hall and Gayton Hall stood close together, but on adjacent plots. It can be seen from Grundy’s map that Ayscoughfee’s grounds may have occupied three plots, which may have dictated the division of the gardens.

However, little is known of any early gardens around the Hall and the present gardens go back to Maurice Johnson’s schemes in the early 1700s. The avenue of yew trees at Ayscoughfee have been dated to around 1720. There were also yew trees in front of the house, removed in 1794.

When the Hall changed hands in 1616, an inventory listed a working house, with yards and stables, and a horse-mill.

Maurice Johnson: his house and gardens
The Victorian Fountain, moved into the Peace Gardens in 1954
Maurice Johnson, born in 1688, was clearly inspired as a young man by the new spirit of scientific enquiry, and its social context. A member of the Royal Society while still young, he saw himself at the forefront of modernising and scientific society. Maurice helped to found the Society of Antiquaries of London in 1707 and went on to establish the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society in 1712, with the aim of scientific enquiry in a provincial setting, with himself as Secretary.

Maurice Johnson took over the Hall in his early 20s, his father moving out to another house in Spalding, perhaps to allow his son to make his dreams real: a metropolitan centre in Spalding, an exemplar of scientific modernity with himself at its centre, or at least its mainspring. The Society meeting room at Ayscoughfee was a first step, his new gardens the next. These were set up on the latest principles, and included the creation of a Physic Garden close by in Love Lane. Laid out in accordance with current fashions, his gardens were also along the latest lines, not just in design but in the plants and techniques to be seen in them.

It should be stressed that Ayscoughfee Hall was an urban house, on an awkward site, with limited space for any large ‘landscape’ design. The hall was medieval, built in the north-west corner of a large triangular plot, fronting the road and set against the north wall of the property. With a constricted site, the kitchens and other offices were always a problem to garden design. The west front was the entrance court, the north front stood against the road, whilst the east and south fronts were the formal garden fronts.

At Ayscoughfee, inspiration for the gardens came ultimately from the ‘urban gardens’ seen in the Low Countries, with especially strong links established with England through the accession of William of Orange to the English throne in 1688.

Aylsham Old Hall, Norfolk, with similar enclosed gardens
Typically, this inspiration led to the creation of separate inward-looking compartments, each arranged along strong axes, often defined by hedges of yew. In the Low Countries, canals were also important features of gardens, and Maurice Johnson had a canal cut in the gardens, possibly after the two main compartments or gardens were established against the south and east fronts in its own compartment, visible only from within that compartment. Later photographs seem to show that the north end of the canal was enclosed, by a wall with elaborate gate; Grundy’s map shows this wall as continuous, the canal being reached via the south garden. The digging of the canal may have been connected with the building of the Ice House, in which case it is quite an early example.

Within twenty years, his schemes were essentially complete; Grundy’s plan of 1732 shows the gardens near their final form.

One of the subsequent changes involved the introduction of statuary, especially important in creating interest and a focus within a garden, and fashionable in the earlier part of the 18th century. Popular figures were typically of classical gods, and in the 1740s, some time after the gardens were effectively completed, Johnson bought four lead statues, depicting a Kneeling Slave, Roman Warrior, an Amazon, Diana and Stag (see below).

Plantings included both the standard flowers and trees, with walnuts and elms within the gardens, but besides encouraging the latest in garden design, Johnson filled his gardens with the latest plants from fashionable nurseries, sending to London for them and acquiring the latest exotics from abroad. Some of his plants were those intended for the royal collection at Richmond (the later Kew Gardens), brought in by botanical explorers.

Within the gardens, one of the likely features would have been a hothouse, one of the latest advances in gardens, and this may have stood in the kitchen garden area.

A proposed late addition to his gardens was a Triumphal Arch, to commemorate defeat of the Scots at Culloden in 1746, perhaps to honour his own son, Maurice IV, who was one of the Duke of Cumberland’s officers. Was this ever built? Cumberland’s reputation for inhumanity to the defeated Scots may have scotched this project.

The Physic Garden

A Physic Garden was set up in Love Lane, but when Gayton House passed to the Johnsons in 1743, it was laid out there. This arrangement did not last long, for when Maurice II died in 1755, the house passed to his son and the Society gave up the Physic Garden.

After Maurice Johnson II

Maurice Johnson’s successors were happy to retain his beloved gardens, and changes were mostly slight (and these were mostly to the house). His grandson, Maurice Johnson IV (1756–1834), gave the west front a ‘Gothic’ look in the late 1700s and cut down the yews in the west front. In the middle of the 19th century, Maurice Johnson VI (1815–1864) gave the west front a ‘mock-Tudor’ look in 1845 and built the ‘Owl Tower’ at the far end of the canal in 1848 (removed in 1921).

Local ownership: the gardens in the 20th century

The Council came into possession of the Hall around the turn of the 19th century. Its purpose was to make it suitable for public enjoyment. Ayscoughfee Hall became a public amenity, and this necessarily compromised the Gardens.

There were additions and losses in the gardens, besides the inevitable changes from natural growth and loss.

1908    Bowling green was laid out to the rear of the Hall
1920    Tennis courts (on the aviary site).
1921-2    Owl Tower removed and War Memorial built
1925    New tennis courts laid out and aviary built
1931    New gates on Love Lane
1937    Coronation bandstand built in south gardens
1939    Allotments created on tennis courts
1942    Bombs damage lead statues
1954    Fountain moved here from market place
1959    Chestnut avenue felled and replaced
1966    Stable block burns down
1974    Café built
1990    Trees planted (Cedrus Libani, Araucaria Araucana)


Base for a removed statue
Maurice Johnson furnished the gardens with four lead statues in the 1740s, of which only the four stone plinths remain. They suffered during the bomb strike in World War II and were badly damaged, although they stood at some distance from the point of impact. They were sold in the 1950s, although they remain in circulation, having come onto the market in recent years.

Lead statues were produced commercially in England from the early 18th century, mostly in the form of Gods of Antiquity, drawn from classical mythology, recalling the myth of a Golden Age. Venus was hailed as the leading deity of gardens, while Diana became a symbol of chastity. Gardens became in effect, outdoor ‘museums’, in the older sense of ‘the abode of the muses’. The taste for such statues, first in marble, came to northern Europe from Italy, and were later reproduced as lead casts. They came first into royal gardens, and thus fell somewhat out of favour in Puritan England, but were revived in the later 17th century. They remained in vogue, with an enlarged cast of characters, until the Napoleonic Wars led to their conversion into musket shot.

West front

View of the west front
The west front has retained its identity as the main entrance front, although around 1800 it lost its yew trees and acquired a ‘Gothic’ screen, and was later given a ‘Tudor’ character, and then new gates and railings in modern times.

East gardens
The east front was both a garden front and contained the kitchens; at first, the kitchens were on

the south-east corner (where they compromised the garden front), but were moved to the north-east corner, and then extended.

View over the 20th century bowling green and tennis courts, on the site of the avenue and garden house
On the east front a small terrace overlooks a 20th-century bowling green, and beyond that the municipal tennis courts, replacing Maurice Johnson’s formal 18th-century allée with garden house at the far east end.

The east front and gardens must always have been difficult to integrate and give a coherent identity, with this front having the kitchens and other services. The gardens on this front have also been compromised, with the long allée and garden house replaced by modern ‘compartments’, containing bowling green and tennis courts.

To the north of the main east garden, Grundy’s map shows that this strip contained two lines of trees, now given grass or over to gardeners facilities.

South gardens

Yew 'allée'
The south front overlooks the least-changed part of the gardens, framed around a strong north–south axis, with lawns at the north and a ‘wilderness’ to the south.

The south side perhaps stays closest to the original concept, with lawns and a wilderness beyond (in which was built the Ice House). The gardens are now very overgrown, but losses have been few, except for the lead statues. Modern additions have been the bandstand (cobbles remain) and the rustic pergola along the west wall.

The Wilderness is now represented by trees along the south boundary.

Canal and War Memorial

This garden retains its original character to a large extent, and the War memorial may strengthen the line of the canal. There is evidence from the Johnson letters that elms stood on the terrace overlooking the canal.

The south-east quadrant
Pond Garden

This area was set aside for kitchen garden, and perhaps hothouses, and is perhaps the most changed since Johnson’s day, with café, two distinct formal gardens, modern aviary and play area for children, besides toilet facilities. The bank between the aviary and the tennis courts is modern.

East of the Peace Garden was another bowling green, replaced in 1974 by the present formal garden, with the Fountain moved here from the town centre at the same time.

The Chestnut Avenue

An avenue is shown on Grundy’s map, but this appears to have been replaced in 1848; in 1959 the trees here were felled and replaced by the present chestnut avenue.


Ayscoughfee Hall and its gardens are of national importance, being a rare example of an enclosed urban garden of the 18th century. Although much altered, the arrangement of its compartments and the yew planting survive still. The yew gardens are the most significant feature, representing some of the original planting, in contrast to the more amenity-oriented parts of the gardens.

After ownership by the same family since the gardens were laid out, it is fortunate that the town bought Ayscoughfee Hall when it did, at a time when many similar houses and gardens were being lost, and replaced by speculative building. Special consideration therefore should be given to this area of the gardens, and the removal of later features of the landscaping in this area.

Thought should also be given to the future restoration of the long sight-line on the east front, perhaps recreating the avenue and garden house in some form..

18th century lead statue of Atlas, removed after World War II

The last survivor of the original Wilderness..?

The Peace Garden with 18th century stone pyramid and Victorian Fountain beyond, placed there in 1954