The house dates back to early 18th century times and was built on land granted to James Gage by the Archbishop of Canterbury, with the permission of Henry VIII. The family of Lord Gage was linked with Bentley from that time until 1904.
Gerald Askew, who was determined to take up farming, discovered the Bentley Estate in 1937. Having completed the purchase of the property, the Askews set about adding to the original farm until the landholding was considerable. Once the war was finally over, they set about improving the estate.
The house had lost a great deal of its original character through unattractive improvements over the years before the Askew’s purchased the estate in 1937. They cleverly engaged the services of Raymond Erith to completely revamp and extend the house. His work consisted of adding two large Palladian rooms, namely the Chinese Drawing-Room at the east end of the house and the Bird Room featuring the Askew’s collection of wildfowl paintings to the west end.
Equally important as the restoration work, was the furnishing of the rooms. The Chinese Drawing Room was decorated with 18-th century wallpaper bought by London antique dealer, Jack Wilson. There was not quite enough wallpaper for the room, so smoke mirrors were made for between the windows and Jean Hornak artfully completed the room with paint. The luxuriant colour required similar stately furniture – French Louis XVI chairs, English Rococo wallscones and swags and an early 18-th century gilt sidetable.
The Formal Gardens
After starting the house renovations, the Askew’s set about improving the garden. They inherited two species of trees, Ginkgo Biloba and Swamp Cypress, which stand in front of the house. A series of rooms with yew hedges were created as a reflection of the house. The imaginative gardener Jim Russell, suggested the use of rare trees and plants, especially old roses including Bourbons, the Gallicas and the Damasks to complete and enhance the magnitude of the house.
The Waterfowl Collection
The Waterfowl collection was started by the Askew’s in the 1960's, becoming the largest private collection in the United Kingdom. It all began when they met Philip Rickman, the Sussex born artist who had been studying and painting wildfowl his entire life. Having purchased 20 pairs of wildfowl, the Askews excavated a pond in one of the poorer fields, fortunately uncovering a spring. With its water supply assured, the Duckery was established.
Some of the first birds to arrive were the Mandarins and Carolinas, Emperor Geese and pair of Black-necked Swans. There are 147 species of wildfowl in the world and almost 125 species can be seen at Bentley. There are over 1000 swans, geese and ducks from all over the world which roam freely in the beautiful 23-acre parkland setting.
Conservation and breeding of endangered species are why the birds are kept in captivity; Bentley has 11 of the 17 species that are currently under threat of extinction.
The Motor Museum
The vehicles in the classic collection at Bentley span over 100 years, lent by many individual owners who wish them to be more widely seen and enjoyed.
This means the collection is liable to change and there are often new, exciting or unusual cars to be seen. Most of the vehicles are in running order and used on the roads.