But, like many vast piles, it eventually became too much for its owners as well. After the war, Lord Braybrook, a descendant of James's Treasurer, gave it to the nation in lieu of death duties. Now the huge kitchen gardens at Audley End are about to come to life again, as English Heritage restores them to full working order in partnership with the Henry Doubleday Research Association. They will open for the first time on 1 April.
The scale is vast, as you would expect at a house as grand as Audley End. The central (and oldest) walled garden alone extends to more than two acres, and the whole complex, protected by high walls of mellow red brick, covers almost 10 acres.
Nothing makes me feel happier than walking into a kitchen garden, especially a walled one. The real world disappears. Here instead is an ordered, productive microcosm. No climbing garden plant is more beautiful to me than a well- trained espalier pear; no herbaceous border sings more harmoniously than an old-fashioned vegetable border, snug inside its box hedges.
At the moment, Audley End's box hedges are just a few inches high. Restoration began earlier this year, when archaeological digs had revealed the lines of the original paths. These were 6ft wide and made of hoggin, a mixture of sand and pebbles. The main central path follows the old line exactly and leads to a huge, extended glasshouse covering the whole of the south- facing wall.
The glasshouse was built in 1802, when there must have been a big surge of new interest in the garden. A slate plaque in the kitchen garden records that the walls were built by Richard Ward, bricklayer, in that year. Another plaque commemorates James Brown, who was head gardener at the same time.
Being an early prototype, the glasshouse does not have all the complicated heating and ventilating equipment that characterises later Victorian models. It was probably built by estate carpenters, who adapted the kind of sash window you find in houses to make huge sliding sashes in the glasshouse roof. If you pull one of the sash cords inside the greenhouse, a great panel in the roof slides open. If you pull on one of the heavy weights dangling against the whitewashed back wall, the roof panel slides shut. It's simple and satisfying. But you do need muscle.
How can English Heritage afford to restore a kitchen garden on this scale? Only because of its partnership with the HDRA, which has made such a success of its Organic Gardening Centre at Ryton, near Coventry. The HDRA will manage the garden for English Heritage, planting it with old-fashioned fruit and vegetables: `Champion of England' peas, `Crimson Flowered' broad beans and `King of the Pippins' apples. Everything will be organically grown, and spare produce will be sold in the garden shop.
Early reports of the kitchen garden at Audley End spoke approvingly of "excellent walls for fruit culture" and an orchard house where peaches, nectarines, plums and figs were "well burdened in fruit". These provide valuable insights into how the garden once looked.
English Heritage has also found a diary kept by one of Audley End's gardeners. At this time, 125 years ago, he was potting off more than a thousand `Lord Palmerston' geraniums in the glasshouse, thinning the grapes and syringing the peaches. He fumigated the glasshouses with home-grown tobacco, raised kidney beans in boxes, sowed Brussels sprouts and cauliflowers in the open ground, well netted against birds.
On his way to tend the boiler at 9.30pm on 30 March 1874, he disturbed and killed a rat in the boilerhouse. The following day, he dusted the fruit trees in the orchard house with snuff to kill overwintering pests. Finally, on 31 March 1874, he received his wages from the head gardener, Mr Bryan - pounds 2.16s.0d for working nine weeks and two days, six days a week. That is one detail that will not be replicated in English Heritage's restoration programme.
The garden at Audley End, Saffron Walden, Essex CB11 4JF (01799 522399) will be open from 1 Apr to 30 Sept, Wed-Sun, Bank Hol Mons (11am-6pm); and 1-31 Oct, Wed-Sun, 10am-3pm. Admission to house and grounds pounds 6, to grounds only pounds 4
Good Enough To Eat: Kitchen Gardens To Visit
Barrington Court, Ilminster, Somerset TA19 0NQ
Tel: 01460 241938
National Trust property with espaliered apple, pear and plum trees. Open daily (11am-5.30pm) except Friday. Admission pounds 4 Beningbrough Hall, York YO30 1DD Tel: 01904 470666
Fine glasshouses and a tunnel of fruit trees. Open Sat-Wed (11am-5.30pm). Admission pounds 5
Blair Castle, Perthshire PH18 5RI Tel: 01796 481207
18th-century walled garden. Open daily (10am-6pm) Admission castle and grounds pounds 6.
Castle Fraser, Kemnay, Aberdeenshire AB51 7LD
Tel: 01330 833463
Kitchen garden with herbaceous borders plus fruit and veg. Daily (9.30am- 6pm). Admission pounds 2
Creagh, Skibbereen, Co Cork
Tel: 00353 28 22121
Regency kitchen garden now producing organically grown fruit and veg. Open daily (9am-6pm) until end Sept. Admission pounds 3
Croxteth Country Park, Liverpool Tel: 0151 228 5311
Mushroom house, organic fruit and veg. Daily (11am-5pm). Admission to walled garden pounds 1.05
Deans Court, Wimborne, Dorset BH21 1EE Tel (tourist information): 01202 886116
Kitchen garden with serpentine wall. Open Suns, 4 Apr, 2 May, 29 Aug, 19 Sept (2pm-6pm), Mons 5 Apr, 3 May, 30 Aug (10am-6pm). Admission pounds 2
Edmonsham House, Dorset BH21 5RE Tel: 01725 517207
Heritage vegetable collection, pit house, brick and cob walls. Open Apr 5, 7, 14, 21, 28; Oct 6, 13, 20, 27 (2pm-5pm). Admission pounds 1
Glenbervie House, Stonehaven, Kincardine and Deeside
My favourite walled kitchen garden. Superb glasshouses, traditional layout. Open only Sun 25 July (2pm-5pm). Admission pounds 2
Glenveagh Castle, Churchill, Co Donegal Tel: 00353 74 37088
Castellated walls and Gothic conservatory for fruit and veg. Daily (10am- 5pm). Admission pounds 2
Heligan, Mevagissey, Cornwall PL26 6EM Tel: 01726 844157
Walled garden with bee boles, pineapple pit, tool shed. Open daily (10am- 6pm). Admission pounds 5
Helmingham Hall, Suffolk IP14 6EF Tel: 01473 890363
Tunnels of sweet peas, beans and gourds. Open 25 Apr-5 Sept, Suns (2pm- 6pm). Admission pounds 3.50
Oare House, nr Pewsey, Wilts
Henry Keswick's garden: fine fruit and veg. Open Apr 25 and Jul 25 (2pm- 6pm). Admission pounds 2
Somerleyton Hall, Suffolk NR32 5QQ Tel: 01502 730224
Glass houses designed by Joseph Paxton. Open Easter Sun to Sept, Thurs and Sun (12.30pm-5.30pm). Admission pounds 4.80
West Dean Gdns, Chichester, W Sussex Tel: 01243 818210
Superb period glasshouses, frames and pits. Don't miss. Daily (11am-5pm). Admission pounds 4Reuse content