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Hidden behind a high-street bank - Lord Nelson's secret garden; Work starts to restore historic summer house.

Byline: Darren Devine

TUCKED away behind a Georgian town house that now functions as a branch of Lloyds TSB, its once carefully manicured lawns and rustic summer house provided a brief backdrop to a romance that scandalised Victorian Britain.

But despite its town-centre location and association with Britain's most famous Admiral, Monmouth's historic Nelson Garden has lain derelict and unused for the past four years.

Now a team of archaeologists and conservationists are restoring the overgrown and dilapidated Grade II*-listed garden to reopen it to the public.

Four years into his affair with Lady Emma Hamilton, Horatio Nelson visited the garden with his mistress and her husband, Sir William, during a trip to the nearby Kymin naval college.

The controversial trio, who in 1798 fled an anticipated French invasion of Naples, when it is thought the affair blossomed, enjoyed tea in the grounds of the town garden before moving on to the college.

Ever since, the walled garden has been named after the Admiral and a blue plaque on a classical pavilion built to commemorate the visit recalls the connection.

Helen Bosanquet, of the Nelson Garden Preservation Trust, said because the space is hidden from view behind the bank many locals are unaware their town boasts such a horticultural treasure.

She said: "It's a green oasis right in the heart of Monmouth and, because it's walled all around, lots of people simply don't know it's there."

The 61-year-old retired teacher, who for many years helped manage her husband Anthony's rural estate Dingestow Court, said the Nelson Garden has a number of fascinating features that have given it its listed status.

These include a hypocaust, or heated, south-facing wall to help cultivate fruit trees.

The restoration project, involving volunteers from self-help organisation the University of the Third Age, will see these fruit trees reinstated.

The garden is entered through a 10ft-long tunnel leading to the base of the old town wall, which formed the perimeter of medieval Monmouth and now serves the same function within the green space.

This boundary wall faced Chippenham and effectively acted as a viewing platform for the garden's visitors to take in events at a nearby racecourse.

Though known primarily for its association with Nelson's salacious love affair, the green space predates the Admiral's visit on August 19, 1802, by at least 100 years.

It was the site of an indoor tennis court in the 17th century and a bowling green by 1718.

Further Roman and Norman remains are thought to be buried deep beneath the lawn.

Conservationist John Thorneycroft, who was responsible for preserving royal palaces and castles for English Heritage, said work is focusing on excavating original Victorian pathways around the garden.

It's hoped these can be uncovered and re-established in time for the summer opening.

Mr Thorneycroft, 70, who was persuaded to get involved in the restoration following his retirement, said: "There's a survey map of Monmouth dated 1881 which very clearly shows all sorts of details of the big gardens behind a row of houses.

"In Nelson Garden it shows a meandering pattern of paths, which was obviously a walk which would take you round the perimeter of the garden.

"There's a superficial dig to reorganise the garden as it was in the 19th century."

CAPTION(S):

SCANDAL: Lord Nelson visited the garden with his mistress GOOD VIEW: John Thorneycroft, chair of Nelson''s Garden Preservation Trust, in the garden in Monmouth
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Mar 31, 2010
Words:570
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