Hidden within the school grounds lie the decaying remains of one of the finest English gardens, which at one time was said to boast the largest privately owned collection of trees and shrubs in the world.
Until the early years of this century, Aldenham House was the country seat of Henry Hucks Gibbs (Lord Aldenham), a former governor of the Bank of England. He was reputedly one of the four richest men in the country, with a fortune built upon the importation of guano from the beaches of South America. He inherited Aldenham House in the year 1843, but only moved in upon the completion of Elstree railway station in 1868. His first task was to shorten the journey to the station by the construction of a new carriage drive. This was lined by no less than 400 horse chestnuts, making it highly popular amongst the village children during the conker season. About halfway along the drive was placed a new eight-acre ornamental lake, a laborious task at a time when such lakes had to be hand dug.
Henry Hucks Gibbs next turned his attention to the house which he found in a "neglected and somewhat dilapidated state". The former Drawing Room, now masquerading as the school office, had deteriorated under its period of use as a storeroom for the farm produce, while the gilded 1640s panelling in the entrance hall had been obscured behind layers of thick white paint. The overall effect was made worse by the location of the kitchen in what is now the new chapel, throwing cooking smells right into the heart of the house. Such were hardly fit surroundings for a man of Henry Hucks Gibbs' esteemed position. With characteristic determination, he embarked upon a 30-year programme of restoration. This included moving entire staircases, opening new doorways, repanelling all the bedrooms and replacing rotting timbers - indeed, he practically rebuilt the entire house, throwing in a new 1,000 square foot library (the old refectory), the court room, new enlarged servants' quarters and, as Pevsner most aptly described it, the "incongruous clocktower".
Meanwhile, outside the house, the 58 gardeners were transforming the 150 acres of flat, water-logged Hertfordshire countryside into one of our greatest English gardens. Little remained of the original 17th Century garden, apart from a short avenue of elms on the lawn in front of the house. The avenue, thought to be the oldest in England, was tragically uprooted in 1961, to make way for the main cricket square. The formal gardens immediately behind the house have changed little in the past 80 years, though one can sadly no longer remark: "Aldenham has many rare plants but after a tour of the garden one always felt that a weed was the rarest". In contrast to the formal flower gardens, was the "Wilderness", an area of about 40 acres entered via the tennis court gates and interwoven by three miles of wide grassy walks and rides. Despite memories of those first-year biology department escapades into the overgrown woods, one should realise that this "wilderness" was originally an open area of trees and shrubs set in long meadow grass. To the north it merged into the older Aldenham Wood, which contained some 150 different varieties of oak and 700 types of hawthorn. Both collections were said to be the largest in the country.
Aldenham was undoubtedly most famous for its kitchen garden, which under the watchful eye of head gardener Edwin Beckett, dominated the horticultural shows. The short stretch of red brick wall next to the assembly hall, pitted by the cherries which were once trained against it, is all that remains of a kitchen garden which produced such exotic fruits as peaches and nectarines, grapes, figs, melons, bananas and pineapples. The reed-walled canoe but was in fact a fruit room, insulated against the winter frosts by a fine roof of Norfolk thatch. It is in fact an exact copy of the fruit room at Chilton featured in a recent BBC television series "The Victorian Kitchen Garden", where Beckett's brother was head gardener.
With the introduction of death duties, the family found it increasingly difficult to afford the upkeep of the estate. In September 1932, all the rare shrubs were sold off in an auction lasting seven days and attended by eminent horticulturalists from throughout Europe. The house was turned into a country club, catering for the wealthy actors working at Elstree film studios. With the onset of war, Aldenham was requisitioned by the BBC and equipped as an overseas broadcasting station, sending out allied propaganda to the Middle East and Latin America. After the war, the house remained empty until purchased by the school in 1959.