Summary

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Brief description of site

Hatfield Forest is a rare example of a surviving medieval Royal hunting Forest, characterized by coppices, woodland pasture and rides. In addition to the natural features, the central area contains landscape features mostly dating from the 18th century: an artificial lake, exotic, non-native specimen trees such as planes, yews, horse chestnuts and cedars of Lebanon, and a Shell House or Grotto on the lakeside. Capability Brown was responsible for a slightly later modification to the lake.

Brief history of site

Hatfield was declared a Royal Forest by Henry I in about 1100 and fallow deer were introduced from Sicily. The last Royal hunting rights were surrendered in 1446. The Forest then passed through a succession of owners, before being acquired by the Houblon family in 1729. By 1746, a lake of about 3.24 hectares had been created in the marshy central area of the Forest. A Shell House was built beside it. In 1757, Lancelot Capability Brown proposed a scheme for improvements, although only part of the plan was implemented. The National Trust acquired the Forest in 1924, as a result of a bequest made by the noted conservationist, Edward North Buxton.

Location information:

Address: Takeley, Bishop's Stortford, Essex, CM22 6NE

Locality: Bishop's Stortford

Local Authorities:

Essex; Uttlesford; Hatfield Broad

Historical County: Essex

OS Landranger Map Sheet Number: 167 Grid Ref: TL537203
Latitude: 51.8601 Longitude: 0.230588

Visitor facilities

Key information:

Form of site: landscape park

Purpose of site: Ornamental

Context or principal building: recreational

Site first created: After 1100

Main period of development: Mid 18th century

Survival: Extant

Site Size (Hectares): 400

Description

Hatfield Forest is a rare example of a surviving medieval Royal hunting Forest, characterized by coppices, woodland pasture and rides.

The coppices have been maintained over the centuries, each surrounded by a low earth bank. Within four of the coppices are so-called " pattes d'oie " radiating from the centre, added in the Georgian era to aid hunting with a gun. Ancient trees have been pollarded.

Fallow deer and muntjac deer still roam through the Forest. Cattle graze in the summer months. There is also a wide biodiversity, with over 3500 species of wildlife present.

In addition to the natural features, the central area contains landscape features mostly dating from the 18th century: an artificial lake, exotic, non-native specimen trees such as planes, yews, horse chestnuts and cedars of Lebanon, and a Shell House or Grotto on the lakeside. Capability Brown was responsible for a slightly later modification to the lake. This can still be seen.

The Forest also has some earthworks of uncertain origin, the Portingbury Hills, and a medieval rabbit warren, both of which are scheduled ancient monuments.

Detailed description added 8/6/2015  

Site designation(s)

Site of Special Scientific Interest

Environment

Terrain: Reasonably flat.

Soil type/s: London clay.

External web site link: http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/hatfield-forest

External web site link: http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/hatfield-forest/features/hatfield-forest-and-capability-brown

History

Hatfield Forest is mentioned in the Domesday Book, and was owned by William the Conqueror after the Battle of Hastings. It was declared a Royal Forest by Henry I in about 1100 and fallow deer were introduced from Sicily. The last Royal hunting rights were surrendered in 1446.

The Forest then passed through a succession of owners, before being acquired by the Houblon family in 1729, as part of the Hallingbury Park estate, for the heir to the family fortune, Jacob Houblon III. It was regarded as an extension of the home park, and the family would take carriage rides out to the Forest, to picnic.

Jacob followed the fashion for landscape improvement. By 1746, a lake of about 3.24 hectares had been created in the marshy central area of the Forest, by building a dam across the Shermore Brook. It was about twice the size of the present lake. This was in part a job creation programme, to help the local rural unemployed.

A cottage was also built beside the lake, to which was added a room for picnics, in the form of a Shell House. The exterior is flint clad, with inlaid phoenix and radiant sun motifs created using shells. A survey of the Forest in 1757 by Hollingworth and Landers for Jacob Houblon shows the recently created lake in its original form, and also contains a detailed drawing of the front elevation of the Shell House (but absent the later added shell motifs) (ref: Essex Records Office D/DB P37). The interior ceiling and walls were decorated with exotic shells by Jacob's young daughter, Laetitia. This was probably in 1759, when she was 17. (Lady Alice Archer Houblon, 1907). A letter survives from May 1759, written by Laetitia's brother Jacob, from Naples, Italy, where he was staying whilst completing the Grand Tour. He asks: "How does the cottage go on? What alterations are going on?" (Archer-Houblon family archive, held at the Berkshire Record Office,)

In 1757, Lancelot Capability Brown proposed a scheme entitled "A Plan for the Alteration of the Water Adjoining to Cottage Coppice for Jacob Houblon Esq 1757", by the addition of two arms each about 250m long, with a small island towards each end. This plan still exists (Archer-Houblon family archive, D/EAH/acc 6158.4). It appears to have been prepared by one of Brown's assistants, rather than Brown himself. The style is similar to that of the plans for Audley End which are attributed to Samuel Lapidge. Brown received payments of £100 in March 1758 (Capability Brown's Account at Drummonds Bank, Peter Willis) and £100 in April 1759, and a third and final payment of £50 in May 1762 (Archer-Houblon family archive D/EAH/acc6158.52). In addition, an earlier letter written by Jacob's son, in February 1759, asks: "How does Mr Brown's plan succeed?" (Archer-Houblon family archive, D/EAHacc/6073.39). (Jeremy Musson, 1998 and reference therein to research by Fiona Cowell).

In the end, only part of the plan was implemented, with one arm being added, by the western end of the dam. This is shown in the Chapman and Andre map of Essex, surveyed in 1773 and published in 1777. The arm still survives, albeit in modified form. It was cut off from the main lake when the height of the dam was raised in 1979, and now forms the Decoy Lake. It was further modified by excavation behind the inward facing bank, to create a long thin island, with the excavated area behind being flooded. The small island at the end can still be seen.

Interestingly, the Brown Plan shows an existing building by the side of the lake but its shape suggests it is only the cottage, without the building forming the Shell Room attached at the lake end. A simple explanation would be that the Brown survey was carried out earlier in 1757 and the Hollingworth Landers survey in later 1757. The Shell House was built in mid-1757, between the two surveys, and the shell decorations then added later, in 1759.

The Forest contains several non-native specimen trees, planted at various points. Notable are a London Plane by the side of the lake and an Oriental Plane by the outfall of the Decoy Lake. Whilst Planes are normally regarded as a Brown trademark planting, these two are thought to be mid Victorian, rather than Georgian. In addition, there are Yew trees around the Decoy Lake, and a significant Cedar of Lebanon on the edge of the central lake area.

In the Victorian age, the Forest was saved from conversion to agricultural use after the then owner, John Archer Houblon, consolidated ownership rights and, in 1857, promoted an Enclosure Act, to "enclose" the land and thereby protect it.

The Forest continued in the ownership of the Houblon family until 1923 when the Hallingbury estate was broken up and sold in lots at auction, the family retrenching to their other seat, at Welford House in Berkshire. The National Trust acquired the Forest in 1924, as a result of a bequest made by the noted conservationist, Edward North Buxton. At this time however, many of the great oaks of the Forest were felled for timber.

Detailed history added 8/6/2015

Site timeline

1729: Hatfield Forest purchased by Houblon family as part of Hallingbury Park estate.

Before 1746: Lake created in centre of Forest by damming Shermore Brook.

1757: Lancelot Capability Brown provides a plan for altering the lake, part of which is implemented.

1757: Shell House built and decorated.

Before 1857: Enclosure of Forest.

1923: Hallingbury Park estate, including Hatfield Forest, broken up and sold in lots at auction.

1924: Edward North Buxton bequeaths Hatfield Forest to National Trust.

1979: Height of dam raised and arm cut-off from main lake to form Decoy Lake.

People associated with this site

Designer: Lancelot Brown (born 1716 died 06/02/1783)

Features

shell house

Feature created: 1757 to 1759

Single room building on grass lawn beside lake. The exterior is clad with split flints, with radiant sun motifs on the side walls and a peacock motif in the keystone of the door created using shells. The interior ceiling and walls also contain shell decorations. The interior decoration is attributed to Laetitia Houblon, 17 year old daughter of owner of estate, Jacob Houblon III.

References

Organisations associated with this site

Essex Gardens Trust

The National Trust Role: Owner

Sources of information

'Capability Brown's Account with Drummonds Bank, 1753-1783'

Willis, Peter 'Capability Brown's Account with Drummonds Bank, 1753-1783' (Architectural History volume 27, 1984) 382-91

The Houblon Family: Its Story and Times (Volume 2)

Lady Alice Archer Houblon The Houblon Family: Its Story and Times (Volume 2) (London: Archibald Constable and Company, Ltd, 1907) 71, 103, 110

The Last Forest : The story of Hatfield Forest

Rackham, A. The Last Forest : The story of Hatfield Forest (London, JM Dent, 1989) 130, 237

The Shell House, Hatfield Forest

Musson, J. The Shell House, Hatfield Forest (London: Country Life, 1998) 48-50

Contributor or Recorder Dr. Christopher Connell

Images

  • Hatfield Forest, the Lake

    Hatfield Forest, the Lake

  • Hatfield Forest, the Lake

    Hatfield Forest, the Lake

  • Hatfield Forest, the Decoy Lake

    Hatfield Forest, the Decoy Lake

  • Hatfield Forest, the Shell House

    Hatfield Forest, the Shell House

  • Hatfield Forest, woodland coppice

    Hatfield Forest, woodland coppice

  • Hatfield Forest, woodland pasture

    Hatfield Forest, woodland pasture

  • Hatfield Forest, the Shell House

    Hatfield Forest, the Shell House

  • Hatfield Forest, the Shell House

    Hatfield Forest, the Shell House

  • Hatfield Forest, the Lake

    Hatfield Forest, the Lake

  • Hatfield Forest, London Plane

    Hatfield Forest, London Plane

  • Hatfield Forest, Jacob Houblon III

    Hatfield Forest, Jacob Houblon III

  • Hatfield Forest, Jacob Houblon IV

    Hatfield Forest, Jacob Houblon IV

  • Hatfield Forest, Laetitia Houblon

    Hatfield Forest, Laetitia Houblon

  • Hallingbury Park and Hatfield Forest, a map of 1777

    Hallingbury Park and Hatfield Forest, a map of 1777

  • Hallingbury Park and Hatfield Forest, a map of 1805

    Hallingbury Park and Hatfield Forest, a map of 1805

  • Hatfield Forest, an engraving of the Shell House

    Hatfield Forest, an engraving of the Shell House

  • Hatfield Forest, map showing the lake

    Hatfield Forest, map showing the lake

  • Hatfield Forest, 1766 survey

    Hatfield Forest, 1766 survey

  • Hatfield Forest, 1923 Ordnance Survey map

    Hatfield Forest, 1923 Ordnance Survey map

  • Hatfield Forest, 1923 Ordnance Survey map

    Hatfield Forest, 1923 Ordnance Survey map

  • Hatfield Forest, survey of 1757

    Hatfield Forest, survey of 1757

  • Hatfield Forest, Capability Brown accounts

    Hatfield Forest, Capability Brown accounts

  • Hatfield Forest, Capability Brown accounts

    Hatfield Forest, Capability Brown accounts

  • Hatfield Forest, Ordnance Survey map published in 1883

    Hatfield Forest, Ordnance Survey map published in 1883

  • Hatfield Forest, Ordnance Survey map published in 1951

    Hatfield Forest, Ordnance Survey map published in 1951