Hatfield Forest Capability Brown Trail, Takeley, Essex
Follow this trail along a series of sites associated with landscaping Hatfield Forest in the Georgian era, including the legacy left by Capability Brown, plus later Victorian embellishments.
Landscaping the Forest
Hatfield Forest was acquired by the Houblon family in 1729. They set about modifying the medieval forest they had acquired by developing the central area as a so-called "pleasure ground". They would ride through the Forest to this from their main residence at nearby Hallingbury Place. The initial landscaping included the creation of a lake and the provision of a lakeside picnic shelter, the Shell House. In 1757, the renowned landscape architect, Lancelot Capability Brown, provided a plan for modifying the lake, part of which was implemented. The range of tree species was extended beyond native types such as oak and hornbeam, to include planes, conifers and chestnuts, planted in prominent positions. In the late 17th century, the original coppices had been modified by the introduction of 'rides', intersecting at a central point, following Continental influences. Trails in the forest can become very muddy during the winter months, so this route is best enjoyed from April to October.
Lakeside Café TL 538198
Starting from the hard standing area in front of the café, head off diagonally across the grass towards a wooden platform on the the edge of the lake (1). If you look further along the lake shore, towards your left, you can see a London Plane. Almost directly opposite, on the other side of the lake, is a clump of Scots Pines rising above the general tree line.
Landscape designers liked to add variety to the tree-scape of native species such as oak and hornbeam, by including non-native specimen trees, either on their own or in small clumps. You will see several examples on this trail, including the London Plane and Scots Pines already noted, as well as Yew, Sweet Chestnut and Horse Chestnut. London planes were a favourite non-native specimen tree and are considered by many to be the Brown signature tree. This particular tree is however considered to date from the mid-nineteenth century, based on the measurement of its girth. The Scots Pines date from the 1860's, when the then owner, John Archer Houblon, carried out some extensive planting of specimen trees across the whole of the Forest.
Walk to your right, along the edge of the lake towards the dam, for about 250m, admiring the view across towards the dam, until you come in front of the Shell House (2).
This was created in the 1740's, by the then owner, Jacob Houblon III, by building a dam across Shermore Brook, which ran through the centre of the Forest, thereby flooding an area of marshy ground. The original lake was about 7 acres and well-stocked with fish. Houblon was following the contemporary fashion of creating a pleasure ground, away from the main house at Hallingbury Place.
After pausing to admire the Shell House, continue along the lake side and then turn left to head across the dam to the further side of the lake (3). As you cross, there should be views to the right across open country-side, dipping away towards Hatfield Broad Oak. These views are however often obscured by trees, especially in summer. At the end of the path across the dam, just before the trees, turn round and look back across the lake towards the Shell House.
The Shell House
The Shell House was built at the same time as the lake, to provide a picnic shelter for those enjoying the delights of a trip to the pleasure ground, the centre of the Forest. The Shell House is so-called because of the shell decorations, designed by Laetetia Houblon, then aged 17, and the daughter of Jacob Houblon III. Note the peacock above entrance door and the sun ray motifs on either side. The inside of the Shell House also has shell decorations. The wings on either side of the central building are 20th century additions. The Shell House was also intended to be admired from a distance, providing a focal point for a view from across the lake. Originally it would have had trees on either side.
Start by walking along the board walk. After about 50 m, take the left-hand branch towards the jetty, and then, after 20 m, turn right and head along a trail through the trees, a little way in from the lake side. This section can get quite muddy after wet weather. The trail emerges into a small open space, with the clump of Scots pines previously noted from across the lake, on the right. Continue through the five-bar wooden gate and follow the track to the left, gently rising out of the trees, and then turn more sharply left towards a small fir tree on the right. Keep following the path, passing by a small plantation of sweet chestnuts on your right, to open ground, where the path is marked by wooden posts, towards the main access road where it crosses the Shermore Brook (4). This area of open ground was the site of gravel workings in the 18th century.
The soft eastern shoreline
In the 1700's, the Shermore Brook formed the border between land to the west owned by the Houblons of Hallingbury Place, and land to the east owned by the Barringtons of Barrington Hall. Whilst Jacob Houblon gained agreement for the creation of the original lake in the 1740's, the two families appear to have fallen out 10 years later by the time of the Brown plan. Whilst this showed further modification of the Houblon bank, softening the original straight lines, the Barrington bank, in front of the gravel pits, was left unchanged.
Having crossed the road at the bridge, follow the grass track across the hill, rising gently to the right towards the open plain, passing through a gap between two small clumps of trees. Keep on heading south, past a water trough on your left and then following an unmade road, passing a plantation of mature horse chestnut trees on your left. Then turn left into broad side ride (Cedar Ride) with a lone cedar dominating the skyline at the end. Continue along this ride towards the cedar (5).
The 1757 plan of the Forest
The whole of the Forest was surveyed for Jacob Houblon in 1757, in the same year as, but before, the survey by Capability Brown. This shows the recently created lake, and a vignette of the Shell House. Beside the lake is an enclosed coppice, Warren Coppice. A prominent feature of this are two rides which intersect not quite at right angles, to form a slightly lopsided cross. The side ride, along which you have just walked towards the cedar, Cedar Ride, formed the western arm of the cross and was originally lined with oak standards. These were lost in 1923 when the Forest was sold and before it was bequeathed to the National Trust
Continue along Cedar Ride towards the cedar and then pass into the main car park area. Walk across the grassy area, keeping the large oak to the right and then cross the estate road to a small grassy area with a wide five-bar gate to the right and a horse hitching bar to the rear. Turn right, head along the road towards the car park and then diagonally across to the far side, to a small metal gate (6).
The small open area by the five-bar gate roughly coincides with the intersection of the rides in the 1757 plan. As you walk by the road, you can see a run of cast iron fence fences. These are of Victorian origin and were relocated to their present position during conservation work in the forest.
Go through the metal gate and follow the path through the trees, emerging by a wooden bench, with water to the left. Follow the path back into the trees, across a trickle of water, and then take a left fork. Look out for a "NO FISHING " sign and note the fine Oriental Plane tree behind it. This is the less common cousin of the London Plane seen at the beginning of the trail, by the edge of the lake. The path now follows along the eastern bank of the Decoy Lake, towards the main lake, in front of the Shell House. This can get muddy after wet weather. You will pass by two yew trees, more or less at each end, the first much larger than the second and standing in the middle of the path. A small island can be seen at the beginning of the lake, the original Brown island, now dwarfed by the more recent and larger island dating from about 1979. (Please note, the attached map is now out of date, showing the situation before the Decoy Lake was created in its present form). The plantation to the right of the path also contains some specimen trees. On reaching the main lakeside area, walk in front of the Shell House and return to the starting point in front of the café, for some well-earned refreshments.
The Decoy Lake
In 1757, Capability Brown provided a plan for altering the original lake. The main features were the provision of arms to each end of the lake, with a small island at each end, to make the lake appear more sinuous. Subsequently only one arm was added. This became the Decoy Lake in 1979, when work to raise the height of the dam meant this arm had to be cut off from the main lake. The area of the lake was also increased by the excavation of a channel behind the northern bank, creating the larger island. The plantation (12) is named "America" on early maps and was originally used for specimen trees from North America.
Lakeside Café TL 538198
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