Restoring the historic lakeside parkland at Hatfield Forest

The Shell House set in lawns overlooking the lake, about 1900

The Shell House was built in the 1750's, to provide a shelter for parties visiting the forest from nearby Hallingbury Place. Evidence from the late nineteenth century suggests that the area in front of the Shell House was laid to lawn and that the eastern bank was planted with a few specimen trees, more parkland than coppice, allowing fine views across the lake. The new programme of work aims to restore this area to something approaching its former glory.

The Lake and the Shell House

The lake and the Shell House were built by Jacob Houblon III around 1750, as a "pleasure ground" detached from the main residence, Hallingbury Place, about 2 km to the west.  House parties would travel to the forest, to admire the ancient woodland, and then retreat to the Shell House for refreshment and further entertainment.

" 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 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 summer. "
- Lady Alice Archer Houblon, The Houblon Family: Its life and time, 1907.

Capability Brown plan

In 1757, Capability Brown provided a plan for improving the lake itself, and the eastern bank of the lake.  This clearly shows a much larger area of grassland with a few selected specimen trees left to grow naturally.

A copy of the Capability Brown plan
Plan for alterting the original lake in Hatfield Forest
A copy of the Capability Brown plan

The intersection of the two rides shown in the plan is about where the horse hitching bar now stands, on the left of the access, just before entering the main car park.

At this time, pollarded trees began to be seen as unrefined and ugly.  Instead, the romantic ideal of leaving a tree to grow naturally was in vogue. Also, the traditional uses for pollard materials, such as heating for baking ovens, domestic firewood and leaf fodder for overwintering livestock, declined as coal and hay took over.  

Fin de Siecle - 1900

The Visitors book from the end of the nineteenth century shows several illustrious guests, including Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (who became Edward VII in 1901), Frances Evelyn Brooke (later better known as Daisy, Countess of Warwick), her husband (Lord) Brooke, two of their children (Guy and Marjorie Greville) and three friends..

We have an image which shows the area in front of the Shell House going to the lake to be laid to lawn.  This was probably maintained by sheep grazing, rather than cut with a lawn mower.  There are two old oak trees outside the front entrance, the stump of one being still visible today.  Looking north, along the eastern bank, the grassed area continues and there a scattering of specimen trees, more parkland than coppice.

The Ordnance Survey map, surveyed in 1871, shows the Shell House in a small enclosure, with limited tree planting to the north.  Note that the cruciform tree lined rides of the Brown paln are no more.

note the parkland surrounding the Shell House in this OS map from 1874
extract from Ordnanace Survey map, 1874, showing lake
note the parkland surrounding the Shell House in this OS map from 1874

Fin de Siecle  - 2000

Fast forward to the end of the twentieth century.  Whilst the area immediately around the Shell House and lakeside cafe was still surrounded by an approximation to lawn, the area further north had reverted to a wilder state.

Lack of grazing cattle during the military occupation of the forest in World War II had allowed the area to become overgrown with scrub hawthorn, followed in later years by trees, so that the area became more like a woodland.

In the recent past, a programme of work has seen the restoration of wood pasture in the northern section.  Scrub and trees have been cleared, so the area is now more open.  Grass growth is returning and our summer visitors, the red poll cattle, now graze this area. 

A fine view across restored wood pasture
Looking across restored wood pasture to the lake
A fine view across restored wood pasture

The central section of 1.8 hectare (about 2.5 football pitches), immediately next to the cafe area, and by the side of the approach road, remains as unattractive woodland, with low value as a natural habitiat.

In addition, there is no proper lake side path, and views across the lake are obscured by trees and bushes.

The final phase

The new programme of work starting in October 2019 intends to restore this area to its historic glory, at the end of the nineteenth century.

A small number of specimen trees have been identifed and marked up, for saving.  These will be allowed to grow naturally, rather than being pollarded.  The remaining trees will be felled and the scrub cleared.

Henry Bexley, Operations Manager, explains further...

"Once the scrub has been cleared, a variety of specimen trees will be planted including oak, hornbeam and field maple from the Hatfield Forest nursery, using seeds collected on site. The grass will be allowed to reseed naturally and will be maintained by a dedicated team of volunteers.  

By restoring this area, not only will we be reinstating the historic Capability Brown landscape, but we will be replanting native trees and creating a variety of new habitats for wildlife to flourish. Visitors will also be able to enjoy the newly restored views across the lake and we will extend the picnic area once the new grass has established. Long term, we hope to restore more areas of the Capability Brown landscape including restoring the lake itself.” 

Timeline

10 Oct 19

Tree felling

After two days busy work with chain saws, all the trees marked for felling had been taken down. Although there were felled trunks and brash all over the forest floor, the canopy had been dramatically opened up. New views had appeared. The iconic cedar of lebanon was now visible from the lakeside, holding great promise for when the clearance was completed.

felled trees from the lakeside regeneration project

17 Oct 19

Ground clearance

Much of the understorey and ground cover has been cleared, using a special machine, to leave the ground clear and with a mulch covering which will help with regrowth.

Clearing the ground

21 Oct 19

New views opening up

With most of the clearance work completed, new views have opened up and it is possible to gain an idea of how the parkland will appear. The vista across the lake is particularly pleasing.

View across the lake through cleared area