Baroque garden in Grotto Wood


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:


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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

East Hertfordshire (District Authority)
National Grid Reference:
TL 30092 10554

Reasons for Designation

Post-medieval formal gardens are garden arrangements dating between the early 16th and mid-18th centuries, their most characteristic feature being a core of geometric layout, typically located and orientated in relation to the major residences of which they formed the settings. Garden designs of this period are numerous and varied, although most contain a number of recognisable components. For the 16th and 17th centuries, the most common features are flat-topped banks or terraces (actually raised walkways), waterways, closely set ponds and multi-walled enclosures. Late 17th and 18th century gardens often reflect the development of these ideas and contain multiple terraces and extensive water features, as well as rigidly geometrical arrangements of embankments. Other features fashionable across the period include: earthen mounds (or mounts) used as vantage points to view the house and gardens, or as the sites of ornate structures; `moats' surrounding areas of planting; walled closes of stone or brick (sometimes serving as the forecourt of the main house); and garden buildings such as banqueting houses and pavilions. Planted areas were commonly arranged in geometric beds, or parterres, in patterns which incorporated hedges, paths and sometimes ponds, fountains and statuary. By contrast, other areas were sometimes set aside as romantic wildernesses. Formal gardens were created throughout the period by the royal court, the aristocracy and county gentry, as a routine accompaniment of the country seats of the landed elite. Formal gardens of all sizes were once therefore commonplace, and their numbers may have comfortably exceeded 2000. The radical redesign of many gardens to match later fashions has dramatically reduced this total, and little more than 250 examples are currently known in England. Although one of many post-medieval monument types, formal gardens have a particular importance reflecting the social expectations and aspirations of the period. They represent a significant and illuminating aspect of the architectural and artistic tastes of the time, and illustrate the skills which developed to realise the ambitions of their owners. Surviving evidence may take many forms, including standing structures, earthworks and buried remains; the latter may include details of the planting patterns, and even environmental material from which to identify the species employed. Examples of formal gardens will normally be considered to be of national importance, where the principal features remain visible, or where significant buried remains survive; of these, parts of whole garden no longer in use will be considered for scheduling.

The baroque garden in Grotto Wood is a compact and well-preserved example of this monument class, uncommon in that it was independent of its parent residence. The earthworks, undisturbed by subsequent redesign or changes in land use, will retain buried evidence relating to the former garden buildings, the water management system and the planting scheme, and may provide additional information concerning its period of construction and use. Contemporary documents confirm the functions of the various earthwork features and give a clear and vivid impression of the former structures and ornamentation of the established garden, and chart its abandonment and subsequent descent into obscurity. This garden is unusual in that it belonged to members of a disadvantaged religious minority of the merchant class rather than the landed gentry. As such it provides important contrasts with bigger, more famous gardens and allows significant insights into different levels of 18th century society.


The monument includes a garden in Grotto Wood located 250m north west of Roxford Farm on a gentle, south east facing slope above the River Lea. The earthwork and buried remains are those of a small but elaborate baroque garden thought to have been constructed in the late 17th or early 18th century. The remains include a boundary ditch, raised walkways, a garden canal, prospect mound, three ornamental ponds and the sites of a cave, a summer house, two aviaries, a cascade, a grotto and a cold bath. The garden was abandoned in the last quarter of the 18th century when the structures and ornamental items were removed and sold. The garden was laid out on land belonging to an estate based on Roxford Farm. Roxford was formerly a small manor which is known to predate the Norman Conquest. In 1485 it was divided between the three sisters of Robert de Louth, becoming a single land unit again in about 1651 when it was owned by Thomas Fanshawe. This was probably Thomas, first Viscount Fanshawe of Dromore (1596-1665) who was remembrancer of the Exchequer in 1616 and MP for Hertfordshire in 1661. By about 1660 the estate was owned by George Chalncombe whose widow sold it to John Brassey in 1700. The Brasseys, a London-based Quaker banking family, maintained the property as their country retreat until 1801, when it was sold to William Baker and absorbed into his Bayfordbury estate. Two descriptions of the garden have survived from the 18th century. The first is a diary fragment recording a visit made by Richard Dick and dated to between 1739 and 1765. The second is contained in a poem entitled `Hertford and its Environs', written in about 1775 by Thomas Green, organist of All Saints' Church, Hertford. Dick's diary allows a close comparison to be made between his eye witness account and the surviving earthworks, and supplies information concerning the structures and adornments associated with these earthworks. Thomas Green's poem provides corroboration of Dick's description together with some additional detail. No pictorial representation of the garden has been traced, but Drury and Andrews' Topographical Map of Hertfordshire of 1766 includes a depiction of the overall layout and some internal features. The garden is roughly trapezoidal in plan, broadening to the south. It is up to 190m by 148m overall, and is aligned north west to south east. The eastern and western sides are straight, while the northern side is convex and that to the south apsidal. Its situation at a distance from its parent residence suggests that reciprocal views of the house and garden were not principal factors of location and design. A ditch up to 5m wide and 2m deep encloses the whole area of the garden. It was formerly broken at the eastern corner - the site of the original, gated, entrance - but now forms a complete circuit. Adjacent to, and parallel with the inner edges of this ditch on the eastern and western sides are broad, raised walkways. A similar walkway to the south is interrupted to accommodate the apsidal end of the garden. The walkways still retain the gravel surfaces mentioned in Dick's diary, and are thought to have been bordered by inner hedges of yew trees. The various internal earthwork features follow a north west to south east linear plan, occupying the whole of the central section of the garden. The garden was one of a number of local attractions visited by Dick and, as a tourist rather than a guest, he appears to have been conducted around by a gardener, proceeding northwards from the gates along the eastern walkway. The walkway's northern extent was then marked by a statue on a pedestal representing Fame. Here the visitor turned left (westwards), to the prospect mound or mount to the north of which lies the garden canal. The canal runs north west to south east, curving to follow the northern arc of the mount, extending at each end to within 2m of the outer ditch. The western section shows some signs of infilling. It has been suggested that the canal may originally have formed part of the boundary ditch system, a hypothesis supported by the 1766 map's depiction of the garden. In this case the outer, convex section of the ditch in this area may have been added to enclose a further planting scheme after that date. Alternatively, it may represent minor changes effected after the garden was abandoned, perhaps when the property was sold in 1801. The mount is a steep sided, flat topped circular mound about 30m in diameter and 3.7m high, with low banks extending from the east and west sides. Dick refers to a spiral path to the summit which was hedged on both sides by yews into which were cut alcove seats. Traces of the path are apparent to the north and west; the yews are known to have been removed in 1859. A trench in the southern flank indicates the site of an early 20th century amateur excavation. The summit of the mount is uneven and was the site of an octagonal summerhouse which is said to have afforded a view of the whole garden, and to have been `richly ornamented with fine Paintings'. Beneath or within the mount was a cave, the entrance to which is thought to have been on the eastern side. The cave was flint walled and lit by two windows. It contained, when Dick visited, a table supporting images of Death and Time. No evidence of the cave can now be seen but it is expected to survive as a buried feature. The upper oblong pond lies to the immediate south of the mount. The two aviaries mentioned by Dick are thought to have occupied sites on or close to the pond's northern corners, and an area of disturbance on the western bank may represent one of these sites. The remains of a water-filled brick tank at the north eastern corner marks the rising of the spring which feeds the ponds. The tank is not thought to be an original feature of the garden. It was probably constructed when the buildings and ornamentation were removed, and is included in the scheduling. Designed to hold fish, the upper pond is 35m long by 10m wide, narrowing to about 8m at the southern end, and is estimated to be up to 2.5m deep. Despite considerable silting it still retains water. The southern end of the pond was adorned with pieces of flint rockwork which may have disguised a sluice to the central pond. The central pond, which also retains some water, is about 18m in diameter, its original octagonal shape now obscured by silting and weathering. The small central island is roughly circular and formerly accommodated a statue of Neptune standing on the head of a dolphin. A display at this pond involving, according to Dick, more than a hundred fountains, was controlled by a stopcock concealed beneath shellwork nearby. Evidence for the system of supply to the fountains is expected to survive as a buried feature. The lower oblong pond, now only waterlogged, is approximately 32m long by 8m wide, tapering slightly to the south, and is up to 1.5m deep. It was fed from the octagonal pond via a cascade, the drop of which is still clearly visible, although the ornamental flint rockwork has been removed. To the south of the lower pond and occupying most of the apsidal projection at the southern perimeter is the site of the grotto and cold bath. This is a large, roughly crescent-shaped mount which curves around the southern end of the pond. It is up to 30m east to west and 16m north to south and stands to a maximum height of about 3m, although the centre has sunk by about 1m. A depression, similarly curving, between the pond and the mound, may be a sunken approach to the grotto entrance. The grotto, described by Dick as being down `a few steps' flanked by flint walls, lay beyond an iron door set in a wall decorated with shellwork. It was paved with pebbles from Black Heath, the walls embellished with shells and coloured flints, and contained a central `bason' or pool with seats around. A second concealed stopcock controlled multi-directional fountains which played into this pool over the heads of the observers. Thomas Green's poem suggests that unwelcome visitors were locked into the grotto to be soaked by the fountains. The adjoining cold bath, also semi-subterranean, was of marble and stone, and decorated with paintings. It was provided with a heated dressing room, the chimney for the fire projecting through the covering mound. Dick refers to a trompe d'oeil representation of a door and two windows painted on the bath's external wall. Although much disturbed, the site of the grotto and bath will retain evidence of these structures and the associated water system. Dick's account refers to a number of statues, small marble basins and further fountains but, apart from the yew hedging on the mount fails to mention any planted layout. The 1766 map which includes the garden does, however, show geometrically arranged blocks which are considered to depict parterres to the east and west of the ponds, and slight earthworks in these areas may represent these features. At present no exact date for the construction of the garden is known. Cartographic evidence suggests that it did not exist in 1605 when a map shows the site as a field called Moore Mead, and the first known depiction is that of Drury and Andrews in 1766. Dick's visit took place between 1739 and 1765, at which period the garden was established and flourishing. It is possible that the garden could have evolved piecemeal at any time after 1605, but the cohesive nature of the layout suggests that the design was conceived as a whole. The layout, the decorative style and, particularly, the various water features place the probable date of construction to between 1690 and 1710 when the fashion for cold baths in rococco settings was at its height. Construction of the garden would, therefore, have been at the instigation either of George Chalncombe or John Brassey. The abandonment of the garden is dated to between 1775 and 1789. Thomas Green's poem of 1775 carries a note to the effect that the garden `is now a mere wilderness', the various structures having been dismantled and the materials sold to a Mr Alderman Kirby who is known to have died in 1789. The reason for the abandonment is a matter for speculation, but the most likely explanation is that the garden had become a liability. The numerous and by now ageing water features would have required increasing maintenance and repair which would have been unjustifiably, costly given that the garden was anachronistic and, perhaps, little used. The site was allowed to revert to woodland and, apart from some coppicing and pheasant rearing, was not reused. By the first half of the 20th century the existence of the garden appears to have been forgotten. The aim of the excavation of the mount, carried out between 1915 and 1930, is said to have been the discovery of a medieval chapel, suggesting that the true nature of the earthworks was, by then, unknown. All fences, fence posts, the pheasant rearer's shed and feed bins are excluded from the scheduling, although the ground beneath them is included.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

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Books and journals
The Concise Dictionary of National Biography, (1992), 968
Baganel, P, Roxford's Forgotten Grotto, (1994), 16-17
Christopher, H, London: The Biography of a City, (1969)
Girouard, M, Life in the English Country House, (1979), 245-266
Mathias, P, The First Industrial Nation, (1969), 158-159
details of garden tour, Went C, Features of Heligan Gardens, (1996)
historical appendages to novel, Lake Deryn, Death in the Peerless Pool, (1999)
survey and report, Currie Christopher K, Assessment of a historic garden site at Grotto Wood Roxford, (2000)
Title: Topographical Map of Hertfordshire Source Date: 1776 Author: Publisher: Surveyor: Facsimile reproduction


This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

End of official listing

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