During the late 18th Century, Sir Thomas Orde-Powlett, Governor of the Isle of Wight, designed and built a modern residence for his occupation at Fernhill, Wootton. The Gothic tower surmounting the new house gave a commanding view of the elegant grounds where landscaping and planting befitting a house of this stature had been undertaken, and in the further distance, a prospect across the Solent.
Albin’s ‘History of the Isle of Wight’ offers a fleeting glimpse of the life at Fernhill at that time, the occasion being the celebration of Lord Howe’s victory over the French fleet off Ushant on the 1st June 1794. 'The lawns and gardens were crowded with respectable parties of the Island inhabitants and within doors hospitality loaded the table with every kind of substantial and delicate refreshment.'
Samuel Shute purchased Fernhill in 1804 and died two years later, but his widow remained in occupation until 1813. Although barely two decades had passed the gardens were already considered amongst the finest in the Island. ‘The Arbutus abounds herein perfection and various tender and exotic shrubs are to be found thriving amongst the sheltered walks.’
Fernhill passed through various private hands during the next 100 years but little detail is known of the period. The Sanders family were in occupation for some 44 years until 1862, and later, for 52 years until 1933, the well respected Brodie family owned the estate. At the death of Charles Gordon Brodie in 1933, Fernhill Park Estates Ltd of Newport purchased the property, and in 1935 divided the house into flats. Just three years later however the house was to be destroyed by fire, a picture of the devastation appearing in the County Press of 18 June 1938. Today most of the grounds belong to the Briddlesford estate, being acquired after the destruction of the house.
The visual evidence of the former glory that was once Fernhill is now a walled garden, an ice house, and most significantly the main ornamental drive, which remains virtually intact.
The remains of the circular walled garden shown on early maps of the estate are now in private hands, however the present owner is very amenable to receiving visitors interested in the old estate. Enough of the garden remains to show its shape and along the approach road are shrubs that were certainly planted in the heyday of the gardens.
Under the jurisdiction of the Briddlesford Estate are the ice house, the ornamental drive and also a large meadow in front of the former house. This meadow ran down to Wootton Creek and contained numerous trees. Only an odd oak or two now remains and one of these is amongst the largest specimens (in girth) on the Island.
The ornamental drive is of great beauty and is composed of a belt or rew of trees and shrubs of an extremely diverse nature, running from Station Road to the bridge at the bottom of the High Street, with easy access at both ends. Trees and shrubs now found in the ornamental drive include specimens of Acer campestre, Acer pseudoplatanus, Aesculas, Crategus monogyna, Fagus sylvatica, Lonicera periclymenum, Prunus spinosa, Ribes uva-crispa, Rubus fruticosa, Ruscus aculeatus, Salix cinerea, Sambucus nigra, Taxus baccata, Ulex europa, Quercus robur, Fraxinus excelsior, Prunus laurocerasus, Rhododendron ponticum, Ligustrum ovalifolium, Viburnum tinus, Cedrus atlantica, all carpeted by an excellent understory of mainly woodland plants.
Although surprisingly few Wootton residents are aware of its existence the drive has great historical and aesthetic value and could in due course be of paramount importance should future proposals to build a by-pass road for Wootton come to fruition. The screening effect of the drive would be of great value in separating the village from the road in both visual and acoustic terms. Fortunately the drive in itself has little monetary value for development purposes as it borders a large drainage gully taking water from the Wootton hillside. This in no way detracts from its scenic attraction however as it is full of ferns. It is therefore possible to imagine that the drive might be purchased for a modest sum raised by local subscription, and thus its future secured for the people of the Island. The neglected amenity could then be made into a beautiful and peaceful walk connecting Station Road with the bridge while avoiding the High Street. I believe its potential to be that of the finest ornamental walk on the Island.
Sources: Bill Shepard January 1990
Isle of Wight Gardens Trust Newsletter