Landscaping the Forest in the Eighteenth century

View of Shell House across the lake at Hatfield Forest

The Houblon family acquired Hatfield Forest in 1729. They undertook a series of major landscape improvements to the central area of the Forest including the creation of a lake and building the Shell House.  The noted landscape designer Lancelot "Capability" Brown was involved in some of the later improvements.

The Houblon family buy Hatfield Forest 

Hatfield Forest came into the ownership of the Houblon family in 1729. as part of the much larger Hallingbury Place estate. They began working on landscape improvements, creating a detached pleasure ground in the central area of  the Forest. 

Creating the lake 

The first major alteration to the Forest was the creation in 1746 of a lake on the marshland fed by the Shermore Brook. The brook was straightened and a dam built at the far end. The lake was approximately 3.2 hectares (8 acres) and possibly larger than it is today.  It was well stocked with fish. 

In 1757, Lancelot Capability Brown provided a plan for modifying the lake, with the introduction of a fashionable curving arms at the northern and south western ends, with islands at the far end.

In the end, only one am was built, at the south western end , by the dam.  This was cut off from the main lake when the dam was rebuilt to a greater height in 1979 and is now known as the Decoy Lake.  

The Shell House 

A cottage was  built by the side of the lake.  It was occupied by a housekeeper, who kept not only chickens, but also peacocks, also intended for the pot.  The cottage was finally demolished in the 1940's.

By 1757 a shelter which became known as the Shell House, was added to the end of the cottage. It was constructed of a timber frame, with laths and mortar render to the outside. The outer wall was mostly flint. 

The Shell House was built for picnics and summer parties for friends and family, overlooking their new lake in the heart of the forest.  The designer of the building is unknown but the classical temple-like form, at the edge of a lake, was a popular feature of mid-eighteenth century landscape gardens. 

Decorating the Shell House 

Jacob’s fifteen year old daughter Laetitia is thought to have designed the decoration of  the interior and exterior with exotic and colourful shells, split flints, blue glass, coral and sands.   These exotic shells are believed to have come from the West Indies and would have arrived in the UK mixed in with ballast in the holds of ships.  The ships were used to transport slaves from West Africa to the sugar plantations in the West Indies, and then to  carry sugar back to the UK (to ports such as London, Bristol, Liverpool or Glasgow).

Above the door of the Shell House is a peacock, the breast of which is made from the fossil of an Inoceramus, a bi-valved mollusc from the Cretaceous period (145 to 65 million years ago).  The exterior is mostly decorated with flint and blue iridescent glass. On either side is a sunburst design.

On the keystone above the door is a bird formed out of shells, with oyster shells used in the wings. The interior is resplendent with an ornate ceiling and fireplace decorated in shells and coral.  The two pictures with shell covered frames are thought to be original. 

A very Georgian fashion

Shell houses and grottoes were the height of fashion in the 1700's.  A further example can be found at Goodwood Park in Sussex, where the Duchess of Richmond and her daughters built a shell grotto along similar lines in the 1740's.  This fascination with Shell Houses continued into the 19th century with richly-decorated, small size houses as ornaments. 

The 1757 map of the Forest has an illustration of the front of the Shell House. 

The Shell House was extensively renovated in the recent past, and then reopened in 2005. 

For further information on Shell Houses, see "Shell Houses and Grottoes"; Shire Library 398; Jackson, Hazelle; Shire, 2001. 

Planting exotic trees 

As part of the landscape improvements, exotic trees were planted to enhance the area, mostly around the lake and Shell House.  Trees were also planted in nearby Table Coppice which was within view of the Shell House.

The planting of exotic trees was very fashionable at this time and yew, cedar, black pine, horse chestnut, copper beech and stone pine were introduced to the forest. 

Drainage in the forest 

The Houblons loved Hatfield Forest, although their perception of conservation was quite different to ours.

Forest woodland is often waterlogged with small ponds and marshy land. Forest trees adapt to this, rooting down to only approximately three feet of soil.

The Houblons unfortunately dug deep ditches draining much of the wetlands in the forest and building brick drains in some coppices, thus upsetting the balance of the soil. 


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.