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The history of The Weir Garden

The River Wye viewed from the Summer House, The Weir Garden, Herefordshire
The River Wye viewed from the Summer House, The Weir Garden | © National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

The Weir Garden has a rich and varied history, from Roman settlement to family garden. The 10-acre layout you see today, is largely due to the improvements made by owner Roger Parr in the 1920s. Discover the stories of times past and learn more about the garden's history.

Roman origins

Little is known about The Weir Garden throughout the Middle Ages, as few records exist from beyond the 17th century. Interestingly, it sits near what was once a thriving Roman town, now known as Kenchester. One of the first features you see here is an exposed octagonal cistern which was discovered by workmen who were digging trenches in 1891.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the cistern dates from, but the stones used were found to be plugged with tesserae, a material which was invented and utilised by the Romans. It’s possible that this cistern could be a Roman wash basin or shrine, or possibly a structure from a later date made with Roman-inspired materials.

Roman archaeology

Excavations took place at The Weir by ITV’s Time Team in 2005, which revealed the site did indeed have Roman roots. The remains of what was initially believed to be a large riverside villa or temple were found in the riverside garden, in the area surrounding the two large buttresses that can be seen today. The team even discovered a mosaic, hidden away under centuries of dirt.

In 2014, the site was revisited by archaeologists who uncovered a section of the black and white mosaic, as well as an opus signinum bath. It was then determined that the site was too small to be a Roman villa, and therefore more likely to a discrete, private bathhouse. The Weir Garden is situated roughly 1km south-west of Kenchester, a once thriving Roman town, meaning an associated villa may have been located nearby.

Owners of The Weir Garden

The Smyths

The first records of The Weir Garden date back to 1673, where Thomas Symth is recorded to have owned the estate in the ‘Alphabetical Account of the Nobility and Gentry of England’. The Symth line continued to live here until 1765 when the current Richard Symth died with no son, making his daughter, Elizabeth heir to the estate.

Elizabeth married Timothy Markham, who was responsible for the impressive white mansion we see at the top of the riverside garden today. Markham appeared to have drained his funds with the new build, as in 1778 it was up for sale and the Markhams retreated to a lesser dwelling on the estate.

The Parrys

By 1788, the New Weir, as the mansion was known, was bought by William Parry, a Hereford solicitor. However, Parry faced a dilemma; his wife didn’t want to move to Herefordshire. Jane Parry liked life in the city, as she spent her time attending theatres and parties. To tempt his wife to the countryside, Parry promised to make huge improvements to the mansion and pleasure grounds. He added new windows and wings to the fascia.

Improving the garden

William soon set to work on the garden, with advice from the renowned landscape designer, Humphry Repton. Finding a home for the walled garden was a tricky task. The garden couldn’t be too close to the mansion as it would spoil the view of the landscape. Yet it still needed to be accessible to allow the gardeners to supply the kitchen.

It’s likely Repton recommended to put the walled garden at the east of the park, with its own track that led off the main drive. Luckily for Mr Parry, these improvements persuaded Jane to move, where she stayed until his death in 1813.

Inside the Foster and Pearson Greenhouse in the garden at The Weir, Herefordshire
Inside the Foster and Pearson Greenhouse at The Weir Garden | © National Trust Images/David Sellman

Griffiths family

After her husband’s death, Jane Parry sold the estate to John Griffiths, whose family owned it throughout the 19th century. By 1832, John had six children and with such a large family, the walled garden and farm were responsible for feeding a full household.

When John died, the estate passed to his eldest son, John Harward Griffiths who eventually moved to Staffordshire with his wife and rented the estate to the Burney family.

The Burney family used The Weir as their country retreat away from London. Arthur Burney had four children: three sons and one daughter. Their youngest daughter Cecily took many photographs, providing us with the earliest known pictures of the walled garden.

Roger Parr

In 1923 the house was sold to Roger Charlton Parr and four years later he bought the rest of the estate. Being a wealthy man, Parr made vast improvements to the mansion and grounds. With the assistance of his head gardener, William Boulter, Parr started the restoration of the walled garden.

Parr replaced the original glasshouse with a Foster and Pearson glasshouse and an expensive Beeston Boiler was installed to heat it. Parr spared no expense, using the same reputable company as the late Queen Victoria. His impressive glasshouse was used to grow tomatoes and cucumbers in the first section, a fig tree in the central part and hardy plants in the end section. Cucumbers would hang from the ceiling, while tomato plants were planted in champagne boxes and grew up canes.

Improvements made

Known for being a generous boss, Parr built modern homes for his gardeners. For William Boulter he rebuilt the gardener’s cottage and at the top of the estate he built Weir Cottage One and Two, where his other two gardeners lived.

Parr had new ideas for the garden and planted many fruit trees along the pathways and 200 hollies around the garden.

The glory days ended abruptly, with Parr’s death in 1958.

Victor Morris

Upon his death, Parr bequeathed the estate to the National Trust, with one request, to let his dear friend and chauffeur Victor Morris, live in the mansion until his death in 1985.

Morris had little time for the garden and instead spent his time fishing, driving and throwing lavish parties. During Parr’s time, there had been six gardeners to maintain the garden. Morris hired only two part-time gardeners, who struggled with the walled garden’s upkeep and the garden suffered with neglect over the next 50 years. Following Victor’s death, the mansion was converted into a residential home for the elderly, as it is today, with the Trust still maintaining the building.

Restoration of the walled garden

Despite suffering 50 years of neglect, restoration of the walled garden started in 2009 to return the garden back into a functioning kitchen garden. One of the most recent restoration projects has been the original cold frames which had become completely covered in rubble and was a labour of love for one of The Weir’s long-standing volunteers, Roger Weaver.

Despite the hard work clearing the site, especially when a tree fell on the area during the process, the frames were reconstructed as close to the originals as possible; including the underground conduits for the heating system which were never used. The 120 panes in the top glazing were cut by hand by Roger using second-hand glass. The cold frames have now been fully restored.

You can discover more about the projects in the gardeners’ scrapbook in the glasshouse or tea tent.

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