Woodhall Park Study Day

Woodhall Park Study Day

The Capability Men

Jenny Milledge and Kate Harwood organised a memorable Study Day in the elegant surroundings of Woodhall Park (Figure 1) as part of the CB300 celebrations and at the invitation of the current owner of Woodhall, Mr Ralph Abel Smith.  In devising the programme, the organisers intended this Study Day to set the work of Lancelot Brown in the context of the contributions of his many contemporaries, hence the title ‘The Capability Men’ and the choice of the garden history speakers, co-authors of the eponymous book.

Figure 1. Woodhall Park Interior

The deer park, first recorded in 1583 and shown on the Norden map of 1598, was extended to 355 acres and a formal avenue planted by 1720.  After a fire damaged an earlier courtyard house, Thomas Leverton designed the present mansion in 1777 for the estate’s new owner, Thomas Rumbold.  The mansion was built on higher ground nearby, and a magnificent new stable block replaced the courtyard house.  Rumbold further extended the park to the west and in the period 1782-1783 had the River Bean widened to form the Broadwater, employing   William Malcolm & Son of Stockwell ‘Surveyors, Nursery and Seedsmen’, who would also have supplied the material for extensive new planting .  By 1801 when Samuel Smith  bought the estate, this planting had matured with serpentine walks threading through the shrubbery, pleasure ground and plantations, and a substantial walled kitchen garden supplied the house with ordinary as well as luxury produce.  The turnpike road was moved in the period 1838-1843 by Smith’s son Abel Smith in order to extend the deer park eastwards.  The park was enclosed by a brick wall and held deer until the Second World War.  Since 1934 the mansion has been leased to Heath Mount School.

The day started with a welcome by Ralph Abel Smith, and an interesting backdrop account of how the role and fortunes of the landowner have changed over the centuries (Figure 2).  He gave a forthright insight into the financial challenges of balancing income and expenditure on the estate and hinted at future plans to illustrate how the estate must evolve in order to survive.

Figure 2. Ralph Abel Smith

Figure 3. David Brown








David Brown (Figure 3) developed a compelling argument for viewing the people who implemented the landscape style as the ‘Gentlemen Improvers’.  This term encapsulates two preoccupations of 18th Century society – social status and improvement of the land.  The men were gentlemen in that they sprang from the middle ranks and were educated, thanks to the teachings of John Locke, in useful skills such as survey drawing and accounting, as well as the classics.  The term was first applied to Nathaniel Richmond whose career David examined in some detail.  Richmond worked for Brown, appearing in his account books in the period 1754-59, and is a good example of how Brown employed  assistants who were already good at their job and soon left to set up on their own.  By the mid-18th Century there were about 100 Improvers and David concluded that Brown was perhaps ‘the best of the best’, but that his nickname (derived from land being ‘capable’ of improvement) had been around long before he arrived on the scene.

Tom Williamson followed with a detailed presentation showing that Brown had been very much of his time – neither ahead nor behind the curve.  By the late 1760s, the archetypical formula had become established, with a ‘polite’ lawn near the house, a lake in the middle ground taking the dangerous dampness away from the house, and a circuit drive.  The circuit drive mirrored changes in society, which had become more relaxed.  However, Tom pointed out using many examples that Brown did what he was asked, and so could and did supply Kitchen Gardens, Pleasure Grounds, Flower Gardens, and various buildings.  Tom’s presentation (Figure 4) was bedevilled towards the end by a contrary computer, but completely unfazed, he hilariously mimed his way through the last few slides and by common consent got his message across more efficiently than would any Powerpoint aid.

Figure 5. Tom Williamson’s presentation

Figure 6. Woodhall Park Print Room







During the break for a delicious lunch organised by Nikki Slowey and Alison Bowden of Heath Mount School, and prepared by chef Ben Willis, delegates were able to explore the beautiful interiors of the mansion and marvel at the Print Room (Figure 5).  In the afternoon, we explored the park, going into areas not normally accessible to the public.  The stars of the eastern park for most people were the surviving ‘champion’ oak trees in the former deer park (Figure 6), but it was interesting to see how each generation of the family had left a mark in the landscape in the form of tree planting.  Ralph Abel Smith with advice from John Phibbs the Brown expert,  had planted trees on the valley sides which descended in ‘teardrops’ but left the valley bottom clear in a manner Brown would have recognised.  In the western park, which is even more Brownian, the Broadwater had been breached by the recent floods (Figure 7) allowing a fascinating view of the engineering work involved and highlighting the fact that landscaping requires constant maintenance.

Figure 6. Oak tree in deer park

Figure 7. Broadwater breached by floods







Hot drinks and ‘Capabili-Tea Brownian’ goodies baked by some of the HGT members from recipes supplied by CBF (plus some from Hannah Glass) – rounded off a successful Study Day.





Hatfield Study Day

Hatfield Study Day

‘Not in My back Yard?’

A Collaborative Approach to Development

In the spacious surroundings of the Riding School 44 delegates were treated to talks on three very different aspects of conservation and development.

Kate Harwood’s first slide (Figure 1.) was a shocking collage of some of the many Hertfordshire houses that have been demolished – the trend, which was nationwide by the 1950s, started as early as the 1930s in Hertfordshire. She pointed out that the house was in reality just the biggest ‘garden building’ and so, once it disappears then the setting often does too.

Figure 1. Some of the lost Hertfordshire houses

Threats come in many different forms and for a variety of reasons. Ignorance can result in misguided restoration, such as at Panshanger where the back-filling of the gravel extraction pits bears no relationship to what was intended by Repton and a huge fence with slots for bird watchers totally obscures one of the most important views. Lack of money and/or care is a problem, along with relaxed planning laws allowing massive extensions to garden buildings, such as The Lodge at Julien’s. The major roads needed to move our increasing population often split estates and Kate cited the A10 at Youngsbury, the A41 at Tring and the A414 at Panshanger as just a few examples. Other threats examined were the massive house building programme, golf courses, fields of solar panels and inappropriately sited wind farms.

On the positive side, Kate highlighted the work of the HGT mobilising the Woodland Trust to restore the dramatic views and rondpoints at Tring Park; persuading the Local Authority to take responsibility for restoring the Flint Fishing Lodge at Brocket Park and, by education and persuasion of the multiple owners, preserving the Bridgeman landscape at Sacombe Park. Heritage assets are irreplaceable and the work of groups such as the HGT and various Friends organisation are vital to balance the power of rich developers by ensuring that Sustainable Development principles are followed.

Anthony Downs, who heads up the Planning and Development side of the Hatfield House estates, (Gascoyne Cecil Estates) presented a persuasive case for a Green Corridor (Figure 2). This would be made up from woodland, grassland, arable land, golf courses, orchards and wildlife reserves. Thus, not only would the free movement of wildlife be assured, but also – by joining existing access with new footpaths/bridleways/cycle tracks – the area would be an important civic amenity allowing easy east/west movement. However, Anthony pointed out that the proposal for Birchall, which has a central green space on land historically used as a dump for London’s rubbish, would block this corridor as the houses and roads are around the outside.

Figure 2. The Green Corridor from A Green Infrastructure Strategy for Central Hertfordshire. pp. 16

As in the post-war era, new houses are needed and two sites for development have been proposed. The Symondshyde development would be along the lines of an estate village using the principles of the Garden City movement with high quality housing, shops, a pub and a primary school. Since it would be developed by a single owner, who lives locally, there would be clear design guidelines – which would be followed. In answer to a question, Anthony contrasted this to a hypothetical situation in which the Cecils sold the land to developers to make a ‘quick buck’ and housing was erected with no thought for anything but the bottom line.

There would be a 1km protected gap between the new village and the proposed extension at Stanboroughbury, which it is hoped would feel as if it were part of Hatfield and not just another urban sprawl. The clear aspiration is to show it is possible to build something of beauty today.

The Danesbury Fernery project (Figure 3) is a shining example of what can be achieved with no money but a great deal of determination and enthusiasm. John Roper, who is leader of the Friends of Danesbury Park Volunteers, gave a beautifully illustrated talk on what had been achieved since September 2015 to restore what was described in 1881 as ‘the best fernery to be found in the Home Counties’. It was designed in 1859 by Anthony Parsons for Danesbury’s owner William John Blake and built by James Pulham & Son of Broxbourne. The chalk pit in which the fernery is situated was so overgrown in 2015 that it almost looked like level land, partly because about two feet of builders’ rubble had been tipped there. The local Council, glad to be spared a £30,000 bill for the restoration, helped by poisoning tree stumps and providing a mini JCB to excavate the worst of the rubble.

Figure 3. Danesbury display

Figure 4. Kate Harwood, John Roper and Anthony Downs

To date the dropping well, gorge, water cistern and basin for the cascade have been uncovered and work is well underway in restoration of the paths. In addition, a 1-metre diameter vase or urn has been recovered – probably Pulhamite. The current focus is to replant ferns to the planting holes and John explained this requires volunteers with a different skill set from the ‘scrub basher’! Research is underway to establish how the Victorians got water to this dry site and how they recirculated it to provide the correct environment for the ferns and atmosphere for the grotto. All speakers (Figure 4) then answered questions.

Figure 5. Andrew Turvey Head Gardener at Hatfield House

After a delicious lunch, we were then treated to a sunlit tour of thegardens with the new Head Gardener, Andrew Turvey (Figure 5). He has only been in post for 9 weeks but already achieved significant changes. This has been possible because the garden is privately owned – so decisions for major changes can happen over lunchtime rather than the weeks or months of due process needed for English Heritage, for whom Andrew previously worked. The late Dowager Countess focused on the formal gardens near the house, but the present Lady Salisbury is developing the informal, more distant gardens.

It was interesting to listen to Andrew’s vision for the development in the garden, which ranged from the small – gravelling unsustainable grass (Figure 6) through the medium sized – planting a Hornbeam avenue to the large scale. One example of the latter was the conversion of a swimming pool to a reflective Lily Pond (Figure 7). Andrew is a very ‘hands on’ Head Gardener and gave a most amusing account of his underwater tree felling activities to clear the island in the Lake! A great deal of manpower at this season is devoted to rose pruning and box hedge clipping, which makes his accomplishments in such a short time all the more impressive.

The Study Day provided a stimulating mix of viewpoints on the different aspects of development and was much enjoyed by the select band who attended.

Figures 6. Unsustainable grass

Figure 7. The new Lily Pond

Gobions Wood

The Research Group has undertaken surveys of Gobions Wood at Brookmans Park. Within this lovely wood lie the earthwork remains of a famous eighteenth-century garden designed by Charles Bridgeman for Jeremy Sambrooke and laid out in the 1720s. Visited by many notable people, including Queen Caroline, the garden was one of Bridgeman’s most significant designs, and was considered by Horace Walpole to represent an important stage in the development of the ‘landscape’ style.

Exciting new evidence about the layout of the garden came to light with the discovery of a plan in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. An article assessing the significance of the plan, written by Tom Williamson and Anne Rowe, was published in the journal Garden History in 2012. Here are some photographs of the Research Group hard at work in Gobions Wood on two gloriously sunny spring days in March 2012.


Bridgeman rond-point restored in Tring Park

Bridgeman rond-point restored in Tring Park

On 9 April 2014 the research team and guests enjoyed a great afternoon at Tring Park at the invitation of the Woodland Trust to celebrate the restoration of the Charles Bridgeman rond-point – ceremonially completed by the planting of the final tree by Lady Verulam. A lovely pair of spotted ponies pulling a small carriage was laid on for the VIPs: the HGT President, the HGT Chairman and the Mayor of Tring.

HGT President, Lady Verulam, plants a tree at the centre of the rond-point, ably assisted by Louise and Karen from the Woodland Trust.
[photographs by Jenny Milledge]

Clearance of trees and scrub from the rond-point and from the slopes below it has restored the magnificent view.

Hertfordshire: A Landscape History

Hertfordshire: A Landscape History

Hertfordshire: A Landscape History

More than three decades after the publication of Lionel Munby’s seminal work, The Hertfordshire Landscape, Anne Rowe and Tom Williamson have produced an authoritative new study based on their own extensive fieldwork and documentary investigations, as well as on the wealth of new research carried out over recent decades by others – both into Hertfordshire specifically, and into landscape history and archaeology more generally.

The authors examine in detail the historical processes that created the county’s modern physical environment, discussing such things as the form and location of settlements; the character of fields, woods and commons; and the distinctive local forms of churches, vernacular houses, and great mansions, along with their associated parks and gardens.

Both the rural landscape and that of Hertfordshire’s towns and suburbs have their particular stories to tell and the authors track Hertfordshire’s continuing evolution right through to the twenty-first century. Lavishly illustrated with maps and photographs, this authoritative work will be invaluable reading for all those with an interest in the history, archaeology, and natural history of this fascinating county.

A flyer giving further details about the book, together with information about ordering, can be seen and downloaded Here. To buy a copy online please go to this link Hertfordshire publications.

Good News! Yule Mausoleum

Good News! Yule Mausoleum

Following the HGT request for designation at Hanstead House, Bricket Wood in 2013, the Yule Mausoleum in the garden was given a Grade II Listing. The sculpture is particularly fine and following an article in 2013, in Mausolus, the magazine of the Monuments and Mausolea Society, a descendant of the sculptor has just contacted HGT with evidence of Philip Lindsay-Clark as sculptor. Lindsay-Clark did many fine memorial and church sculptures, including one in St Bonaventure, Parkway, Welwyn Garden City. Historic England are now adding this information to their description, which is currently:

Architectural interest: in a period in which most monuments were produced by commercial masons whose output was fairly routine and derivative, the highly individual character of this mausoleum is conspicuous in its originality, aesthetic quality and high quality execution.

The full listing entry can be seen at

Beach Huts in Hitchin?

Beach Huts in Hitchin?

The last remaining Detached Gardens in Hertfordshire – which have been called Inland Beach Huts – are threatened by proposals from HCC for housing on them.


This would be a disastrous loss of a unique piece of our garden heritage and HGT has already alerted Historic England, Herts HER and others who can help save them.. 


A local group, Gaping Lane Historic Gardens Association, successfully applied to have them Registered as a Community Asset. They invited  HGT to work with them to put the case for community garden use – as at Hill Close Gardens in Warwick – and  to save these gardens, NOT allotments, from the bulldozers. 75% of the gardens have already been gobbled up by Samuel Lucas School and its playing fields.


More details of Detached Gardens and the Park Piece (now Gaping Lane) ones can be found via the links below and details on the Hill Close Gardens here http://hillclosegardens.com/



Detached Gardens


Gaping Lane Detached Gardens


Statement of Signficance for Gaping Lane Detached Gardens

Panshanger Park needs you!

Panshanger Park needs you!

Stop Tarmac Destroying Repton’s Broadwater. Please Act Now.

Humphry Repton advised the 5th Earl Cowper on the design of his new Panshanger Park in 1799. The tree-covered valley sides and the sinuous Broadwater that winds its way through the western end of today’s park are the result of Repton’s vision for the park, set out in his Red Book for Panshanger which is now in the Hertfordshire Archives at County Hall. His plan (below) shows how the little river Mimram was to be diverted to the north side of the valley below the house and in the autumn of 1799 sixty labourers were hard at work digging
out the base of the new Broadwater to create a much wider river meandering through the meadow on the valley floor.

Immediately below Panshanger House (the red square marked C on his plan) Repton planned an island to hide the weir which separated the upper and lower reaches of his Broadwater. The island and weir are still there today. Repton described the view to the East with ‘the water going off in a long strait reach to a considerable distance, which is contrasted by the view towards the West where the great bend of the water is the leading feature’.

This next painting is Repton’s vision of the view across the ‘great bend of the water’ from the south side of the valley towards his proposed new mansion.

The above plan and this painting are taken from Repton’s Red Book for Panshangar [HALS DE/P/P21]

Tarmac and its predecessors have been extracting gravel from Panshanger Park for many years with permissions granted initially in the 1960s, then updated in the 1980s and, most recently, in 2003. The importance of the park as a beautiful landscape designed by Humphry Repton was recognised by English Heritage (now Historic England) in 1987 who awarded it Grade II* status for its ‘exceptional national historic interest’. This should have led to greater protection of the Repton design, but shamefully it did not.

This aerial photograph shows the large expanses of water that have been created in the valley as gravel has been extracted over recent years. Repton’s Broadwater at the western end of the park has been retained more or less intact but now Tarmac proposes to destroy the lower Broadwater by breaching the narrow strip of land between it and the lagoon they have already created to the south.Is it really worth destroying part of our national heritage in order to extract a few more tons of gravel?

The Hertfordshire Gardens Trust thinks not and is campaigning hard to protect what remains of Repton’s vision. Please join us and send your views to the Tarmac Estates Manager at mike.pendock@tarmac.com.

Progress at Panshangar

Tarmac issued a statement in January 2017 stating that their ‘key aim is to ensure that we maintain and conserve the historic Repton landscape’.

In 2016 the HGT instigated a campaign to save the Lower Broadwater – a key feature of the landscape designed by Humphry Repton in Panshanger Park near Hertford. An overwhelming response – from local people to national heritage bodies – caused Tarmac to first pause and then change their excavation plans. A key factor in their decision was the discovery – in the Panshanger estate accounts in the Hertfordshire Archives at County Hall – that Repton himself was on site in September 1800 to supervise the final levelling of the ground around the new lake.