Heritage: When Hertfordshire was famous for its parklife

Library image.
Library image.
  • Deer parks were used by the privileged for hunting
  • Ashridge was protected for future generations when it was handed over to the National Trust in 1921
  • Tring Park survived the modern era for longer than most Hertfordshire parkland and is now managed by the Woodland Trust

Deer parks have been a feature of the landscape in Hertfordshire since early medieval times, in fact one source states that the county had more parks than any others: about 90.

From 11th century parks were created by wealthy aristocrats such as the Bishop of Ely whose park at Hatfield was the largest in area, and by rich religious houses as the Abbots of St Albans who had the most numerous.

A park is defined as an area enclosed by a pale or fence, and it generally contained woodland and fallow deer.

The lands were usually of little value for cultivation but were places where the privileged could chase and kill deer. Later medieval manors were the property of minor lords and the parks were smaller.

Instead of the manor houses being some distance away from the parkland, from around 15th century parks were being designed near the manor houses themselves.

Hertfordshire’s close proximity to London meant that it was popular for the rising ambitious men of the City to own prestigious parkland.

A local man, Henry Guy from Berkhamsted, is a good example. He made his fortune in the employment of King Charles II, as Groom to the Bedchamber, and in 1687 commissioned Christopher Wren to design a mansion for him very close to his deer park at Tring.

Around the turn of the 18th century the deer began to be augmented by elegantly designed gardens, and as leaf-grazing deer were incompatible with landscaped garden, sheep, cattle and horses began to dominate the views.

From 1750 there was an expansion of forestry because of the rising prices of timber, mainly for the Royal Navy. This income benefitted the large estates.

But in the early part of 19th century there was an agricultural depression.

In addition, thousands of military men were discharged from the army and navy and became a financial burden on the countryside. In desperation, poaching increased and fines were harsh, and included transportation. Although owners of large parks and estates continued to hold high offices of state, things were changing. These large estates became too expensive to maintain and by the end of the century the era of great private parks came to an end. Most were divided up, and sold.

This accelerated in the early 20th century. For instance the property at Moor Park became a country club, but Ashridge fared better when local people feared for the future of the 4000 acre estate, raised funds and saw it handed over to the National Trust in 1921. Other parks became golf courses, hospitals, homes for the elderly or private schools, and land was given over to development for housing. Occasionally the public benefitted as at Cashiobury, now Cassiobury which in 1909 was sold to Watford Borough Council for housing and a park for local people.

Tring Park, exceptionally, survived the modern era for longer than most Hertfordshire parkland. The Rothschild family continued to occupy it, and even retained deer, right up until just before World War Two. The Manor house was occupied by a school, and the park, after an uncertain period, became the property of Dacorum Borough Council and is now managed by the Woodland Trust.

For more about the history of Tring Park, see “A Surprising Walk in Tring Park” @ £3.50 available from both Tring Museums