The History of Elcot Park

June 2020

Elcot Park is now a hotel just off the A4 west of Newbury. It is hard to imagine now but in the 1820s, it was a small Victorian estate created by Anthony Bacon. Bacon, the son of a wealthy Welsh industrialist,  bought Elcot Park early in the eighteenth century.  Berkshire has been described as bearing “much of the brunt of the increased demand for villas . . . built on a relatively small estate, in a favoured location[1] and this is a good description of Elcot Park. In the 1820s, Bacon built the mansion house and then added a walled kitchen garden with a substantial row of glasshouses, a range of farm buildings, the lodge house at the southwest corner of the estate, and the walls around the estate as well as laying out the grounds. The original house still stands, although it has had a large extension; but only a small portion of the original gardens still exist as they were in the 1820s.

View south from Elcot Park Hotel, 2014

It was claimed in a book written by a local historic group that Capability Brown had been involved in the design of Elcot Park. It isn’t surprising that this should be suggested – what remains of Elcot Park shows a very Brownian style of landscape. Anthony Bacon would have been very familiar with Brown’s work as he stayed for a number of years at Benham Valance where Brown had redesigned the landscape. However, Brown died in 1783, well before Bacon bought Elcot Park - the historic maps do not show any designed landscapes until the 1800s. It is most likely that Bacon designed the landscape himself, perhaps with the assistance of his head gardener, to look as if it was Brownian, as part of his desire to be considered one of the Berkshire’s landed gentry.

What is surprising though is Elcot Park’s true claim to fame – it was the place, according to the 1834 edition of the Gardener’s Magazine that should be “celebrated as the scene in which the mode of heating hot-houses by hot water was displayed[2]. It was reported that it was the first use of this method by an amateur gardener. It was important because it allowed the successful cultivation of exotic plants, particularly orchids, by the general public. The article goes on to say that the range of glasshouses at Elcot was 320 ft. long consisting of 4 hot-houses and 4 houses for vines and peaches. This is supported by the physical evidence on the walls of the kitchen garden, the historical maps and a description in the 1828 edition of Gardener’s Magazine.

North wall of Kitchen Garden with evidence of glasshouse, 2014

When Anthony Bacon died in 1827 it became clear that Elcot Park was financed by mortgages and he had no other assets. Although his son eventually purchased Elcot in 1831, the auction of plants (including a large collection of exotic plants) and farming equipment was needed to raise money. This was insufficient to clear his debts, and the estate was put up for sale. 

In 1844, the estate was purchased by Lady Shelley, mother of the famous poet. Under the ownership of the Shelley family, Elcot appears to have stayed relatively unchanged for the remainder of the nineteenth century. The estate was let to a succession of tenants from about 1887 until the 1960s when the property became a hotel. 

There Is very little left of Bacon’s estate. All that remains of the walled kitchen garden are the ivy-covered, crumbling walls along three sides. It is just possible to see where two of the glasshouses were against the north wall. The view over the Kennet Valley remains and there are still a few clumps of veteran trees, including a magnificent Cedar of Lebanon. 

[1] Tyack, Geoffrey, 1998.  Country Houses 1750 – 1900.  In:  J. Dils, ed. 1998.  An Historical Atlas of Berkshire.  Reading:  Berkshire Record Society, p. 96.

 

[2] Loudon, J.C., ed.,1834.  The Gardener’s Magazine.  London:   Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green and Longman, p. 301.

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