A Georgian Pleasure Ground

Hatfield Forest was purchased by the Houblon family in 1729, for their heir, Jacob Houblon III, as part of the larger Hallingbury estate. They were interested in using the Forest for more than just hunting. Within 15 years, a "detached pleasure ground" had been created. The family and their guests would undertake expeditions from the main house, to enjoy picnics by the lake.

A detached pleasure ground

Following the fashion of the time, Jacob Houblon III set about creating a detached pleasure ground in the central area of the Forest.  This included, by 1746, a triangular shaped lake, formed by daming Shermore Brook, and adding two formal rides, interesecting in a circualr area, in Warren Coppice, on the western bank. Non-native specimen trees such as cedar of Lebanon were planted. 


A cottage was built beside the lake, with the housekeeper keeping not only poultry but also peacocks, also intended for the table.  Their successors were still to be found in the Forest 150 years later.

The Shell House

A picnic shelter was constructed at the end of the lakeside cottage, by about 1757.  This was decorated both inside and out in accordance with the contemporary craze for grottoes, with shell motifs, designed by Jacob’s daughter Laetitia who was then about 17 years old.  

Afternoon tea in the Forest

The Forest was regarded as an extension of the adjacent Hallingbury Park and the family and their guests would ride out to enjoy afternoon tea in the Shell House and dance by the lakeside.  It allowed the Houblons to show off the size of their estate, with the added bonus of being set in a medieval forest.

Jacob’s son, Jacob Houblon IV, spent from1758 to 1761 completing his education on the the Grand Tour.  Writing home to his “Honoured Mother” from Turin, Italy, he recalls expeditions to the Forest:

" I should be much more pleased to see the procession (from old Hallingbury Park to the cottage) of the pair of blacks drawing the coach brim full, the little cart with provisions following it under the escort of my brother Jack in the old fustin frock of his attendants and Phillis and Fanny."
- Jacob Houblon IV Feb 1759

(Phillis and Fanny were dogs)

His Father wrote in reply that “ We have had our house full of company this 3 weeks, and spent several fine days at the Cottage with neighbours”

Further reflections

Lady Alice Archer Houblon, in her account of the Houblon family, published in 1907, notes, in relation to the Shell House and lakeside area:

“The love of this place has held six generations of the Houblon family in their turn, though the associations attending it have partaken much more frequently of happy light-heartedness than of sentimental musings over its charm of beauty.

For on the smooth turf outside or in the room built in 1759, its members have had many a merry meal.  Two huge oaks stand on either side of the stone steps, and deep grown into their rugged bark are the wrought-iron stanchions that formerly held the lanterns, which show the family and their guests to have been in no hurry to go home after dining by the lake in the summer.” (p110-11)

Shell House Visitors Book

The Visitors Book on display in the Shell House covers the period 1892 to 1924 and provides an insight into the range of visitors entertained there.  Notable names include Francis Bowes-Lyon and his wife Annie, (uncle and aunt of late Queen Elizabeth, the Queens Mother), in Dec 1892, the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, and Frances Evelyn Brooke (later the Countess of Warwick), from nearby Easton Lodge, on 1 April 1893,and John Ireland, the composer, in May 1895.

1923 Auction Catalogue

The lakeside area and Shell House are described thus in the catalogue:

“There are other particularly fine oaks by the lake, two of which carry old lamp-holders which provide illumination for dancing on the green.  The old cottage by the lake is an 18th Century Tea Room, decorated with shells by a former member of the family.”  

The Ghost Path

The hot dry summer of 2018 revealed the presence of a road and turning circle close to the Shell House which would probably have been used by carriages coming from Hallingbury Place.  A limited excavation by our archaelogists  exposed a road structure, with a gravel layer. This was most likely excavated from the small gravel working on the other side of the lake.

the Ghost Path revealed
a shallow trench reveals the road structure
the Ghost Path revealed

The Ghost Path

Find out more about the unexpected discovery of a historic approach to the Shell House when a recent dry summer revealed its hidden presence.

The Detached Pleasure Ground

Detached pleasure grounds started to appear in the early 18th century and continued through until the 19th century.  They were usually contained within the landowners estate, an easy carriage or horse ride away from the main residence, through attractive countryside.  Water was a common feature, to provide a focal point, as well as garden buildings for shelter and refreshment.