The Chilton Estate, near Hungerford in Berkshire, dates from the late 18th century, when John Pearse, who had made his fortune during the Napoleonic Wars, acquired over 2,000 acres of land associated with a 16th-century hunting lodge called Chilton Lodge. He commissioned a new house for his estate from Sir John Soane, but a few years later demolished it and built a larger house on a new site, designed by Sir William Pilkington, with a surrounding park designed by Humphrey Repton. A magnificent pair of walled gardens, an east garden of about two acres, and a west garden of one acre, were constructed at Leverton, about 600 yards from the main house. In their heyday, the walled gardens included four peach houses, three vineries, a rose house, a carnation house, a tropical house, four melon houses, hot pits, cold frames and hundreds of yards of cloches. From the 1830s, some of the houses were heated.
In the 1890s the property was bought by Sir William Pearce (no relation of the earlier owner), who made major alterations including extending the estate village of Leverton which survives today, with a model farm and thatched apple store, and extending a row of thatched tenant cottages, adjacent to the kitchen gardens and their outbuildings. In 1908 Chilton Lodge and the surrounding estate were acquired by the Honourable John Ward and his wife, Jean.
During the Second World War the walled gardens were turned over to vegetable production for the war effort, and in 1947 Harry Dodson was appointed head gardener to the Chilton Estate by the Honourable Lady Ward, and was tasked with their restoration. With a team of 12 staff Dodson successfully restored the gardens, and the Chilton Estate exhibited regularly at RHS shows, winning a total of ten gold medals for vegetable displays.
On his retirement in 1981 the walled gardens were run as a commercial nursery by Dodson and his wife, who had been granted a life tenancy of the cottage, potting sheds and walled gardens by Colonel E.J.S. Ward. Unfortunately the Dodsons lacked the resources to maintain the gardens properly. In 1984 an offer from the BBC, wanting to make a television series about traditional methods of vegetable gardening, promised the investment needed to restore the walled gardens, at least in part. The television series 'The Victorian Kitchen Garden' (1987) followed the transformation of the nursery into a working kitchen garden of the Victorian era. After this and three further series, the gardens continued to be used by Dodson to grow vegetables until his health failed in the early 2000s. Subsequent attempts by the owner of the estate to find sustainable long term uses for the gardens were unsuccessful, and they were returned to grass for some years. In 2010 the smaller west garden was let with the rebuilt Garden House (formerly the Dodsons' cottage) and the larger east garden was partially returned to cultivation by a local florist. As at March 2018, this business continued to thrive under new management.
Source: Chilton Estate website: http://www.chiltonestate.org; obituary, 'Daily Telegraph', 9 Aug 2005
Harry Dodson (1919-2005) was the son of a gardener. His father died when he was six, and his mother took him to live with her parents on the Selborne Estate in Hampshire where her brother, Fred Norris, was head gardener to the Earl of Selborne. Norris took his nephew under his wing, instilling in him a thorough grounding in and love of horticulture. He left school at 14 and over the next few years worked in a number of gardens in the south of England, including at Stansted Park, at Rowlands Castle, for the Earl of Bessborough, and at Ashburnham Place in Sussex. War broke out while he was at Ashburnham Place, and he joined the army. He served for a short time in France but was invalided out in 1941.
Once recovered Dodson resumed his horticultural career, initially as foreman supervising the growing of produce for a large canteen at Leigh Park house, near Havant, which had been requisitioned for wartime use by the Admiralty. He was appointed general garden foreman at Nuneham Park, Oxfordshire, where he met his future wife Kathleen (whom he called 'Jane'). In 1947, at the age of 28, he was appointed head gardener at the Chilton Estate, near Hungerford, working first for the Honourable Lady Ward, then for her son, Colonel E.J.S. Ward MC. In 1956 Dodson joined the RHS Fruit and Vegetable Committee, for which he acted as judge for nearly half a century, and in 1961 he was made an RHS Associate of Honour.
When Dodson retired in 1981 Colonel Ward and his son Gerald Ward CBE gave him a life tenancy of the walled gardens, potting sheds and glasshouses, which Dodson ran as a commercial nursery. At the age of 68 Dodson became a television personality as the down-to-earth presenter of the BBC television series 'The Victorian Kitchen Garden' (1987). The series' success spawned three sequels: 'The Victorian Kitchen' in 1989, 'The Victorian Flower Garden' in 1991 and 'The Wartime Kitchen and Garden' in 1993. In all, Dodson made 45 television programmes. He contributed to the accompanying books published by the BBC and in 1992 produced his own, 'Harry Dodson's Practical Kitchen Garden'. He continued living in Gardener's Cottage on the Chilton Estate and supplied local families with vegetables until his health failed in the early 2000s. Harry Dodson died on 25 Jul 2005.
Source: Chilton Estate website: http://www.chiltonestate.org; obituary, 'Daily Telegraph', 9 Aug 2005; obituary, 'Independent', 19 Sep 2005; 'Victorian Kitchen Garden' TV Series blog: http://victoriankitchengardenseries.blogspot.co.uk