Hunsdon Brook Fishponds


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Location Description:
A series of four ponds each created and defined by earthwork dams crossing the valley of the Hunsdon Brook east and south of Lord's Wood and 500m south-west of Hunsdon House and Church of St Dunstan.


Ordnance survey map of Hunsdon Brook Fishponds
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Location Description:
A series of four ponds each created and defined by earthwork dams crossing the valley of the Hunsdon Brook east and south of Lord's Wood and 500m south-west of Hunsdon House and Church of St Dunstan.
East Hertfordshire (District Authority)
National Grid Reference:


A group of four Tudor fishponds, created for Henry VIII between 1525 and 1534. Defined by four large earthwork dams, with quarries, building platform and hollow way, they lie approximately 490m south-west of Hunsdon House.

Reasons for Designation

Hunsdon Brook fishponds, created for Henry VIII between 1525 and 1534, are scheduled for the following principal reasons:

* Survival: as a very well preserved example of Tudor fishponds, created and used by Henry VIII for recreational fishing and/or as an expression of wealth and status over a period of 25-30 years; * Rarity: as a very early example of fishponds built for aesthetic and/or recreational purposes; * Potential: for the high level of archaeological potential in the waterlogged deposits, ideal for the preservation of organic remains, in the structural material and buried land surfaces beneath all four dams and in the building platform south of the southern dam; * Diversity: for the diverse range of features including the dams, quarries, building platform, and holloway all of which contribute to our understanding of the use, construction, and evolution of the ponds and the place they held in the wider post medieval landscape; * Historic Documentation: for the comprehensive references to the ponds in various historic documents, which record the creation, use, maintenance and the subsequence disuse of the ponds; * Group value: for the significant group value with Hunsdon House and the Parish Church of St Dunstan both of which are listed at Grade I.


Fishponds were widely scattered throughout England with the majority found in central, eastern and southern parts, and in areas with heavy clay soils. Fewer fishponds are found in coastal areas and in those parts of the country where natural lakes and streams make freshwater fish readily available. Although C17 manuals suggest that areas of waste ground were suitable for fishponds, in practice it appears that most fishponds were located close to habitation or within parks where a watch could be kept to prevent poaching. There is considerable documentary evidence to suggest that some ponds also had a recreational use, and were possibly created for that purpose at least from C16. The earliest English essay on recreational fishing was published in 1496 but popularity in the sport grew in the C17 with many books and essays on the subject published after the Civil War.

Although around 2,000 examples of ponds are recorded nationally, this is thought to be only a small proportion of those in existence in medieval times. Despite being relatively common, fishponds are important for their associations with other classes of medieval and post-medieval monuments and in providing evidence of site economy, landscape design and recreation.

Whilst examples of Roman fishponds have been recorded, the majority date from the medieval period, and were associated with high status sites, particularly royal, monastic, and manorial contexts. This relationship with high status contexts continued into the post-medieval period although the creation of new ponds became less common after the C17, in part due to a reduced emphasis on fish in the diet, with the abolition of fish days, and also due to the greater focus on ornamental rather than utilitarian ponds in landscape design. It is interesting that the recreational sport of fishing expanded in the C17 but possibly making use of existing ponds or natural freshwater rivers and lakes.

The first emparkment at Hunsdon occurred after 1253 when Henry Engayne, lord of the manor of Hunsdon, received a grant of free warren in the demesne lands of the manor. In the C15, both the park and house at Hunsdon saw considerable expansion under the ownership of Richard Duke of York, who in 1445 was able to expand the park, and from 1447 began building a substantial embattled house. Hunsdon House and park were in the ownership of Henry VIII by 1525 when he began a substantial programme of works on the house and parks.

In 1529 there were three royal parks at Hunsdon: the 'old park’ to the north of the house, the 'new park' and 'Goodmanneshyde', an area first noted with the fieldname ‘Godmundeshyde’ in the C13. It is in this latter park that the ponds were constructed, and by 1556 it was referred to as ‘The Ponde Parke’. The Hunsdon building accounts show that the fishponds were constructed between 1525-1534, and were at least partially functional by September 1530, when privy purse expenses show payments to keepers for ‘watchyng the fisshe’. Henry VIII appears to have used Hunsdon less frequently after 1536, when it became a principle home for Princess Mary. The final documentary reference to the ponds is in 1556, when the fishponds were noted in a survey of Hunsdon as being in ‘greate decaie’, with trees felled for their repair. Hunsdon House and Park was granted to Henry Carey along with the title of Lord Hunsdon by Elizabeth I in 1559, and it is possible that the fishponds fell out of use around this time. The parks were disparked by 1684, and the site of the fishponds became a mixture of meadowland and secondary woodland.

The Hunsdon Building accounts of 1525-1534 distinguish between the four ‘greate pondis’ and ‘the lytell pondis’. It is likely that these other ponds are the pair of smaller ponds at NGR TL4156812824, which conform to C16 and C17 advice for servatoria or holding ponds, in being constructed within view of the house, and with a surrounding earthwork bank. The distinct geometric shape of this earthwork may suggest that it was reworked in the later C16 or C17, when similar geometric ‘pond yards’ were created elsewhere in Hertfordshire (for example at Gorhambury). The site appears to have been used as the site of a clump of trees in C18 parkland landscaping, and requires further survey work to confirm forms.

Clear evidence of park features created for aesthetic reasons starts to appear in Hertfordshire in the C16 at Theobolds, Cheshunt but it is possible that Henry VIII created an elaboarate ‘water garden’ in the Pond Park close at Hunsdon some 40 years earlier. Covering 12 acres in 1556, the impressive scale, together with the high cost of their construction, suggests their purpose was more than simply functional and raises the possibility that the King wished to emulate Italian Renaissance gardens of the period (Rowe, forthcoming). It appears aesthetics and recreation went hand in hand at Hunsdon. Henry VIII is known to have enjoyed fishing and several accounts make reference to this; in October 1531 Henry was hunting in Waltham Forest and may well have visited Hunsdon because accounts record payments to the keeper of Hunsdon and to others who ‘helped to fish there’. This suggests that the King had been fishing in one of Hunsdon’s parks, something he also enjoyed at More Park, Rickmansworth where prior to a visit in 1534, the park pale had been repaired and, in preparation for his summer visit, the ponds were renovated with ‘mowing and clensyng of gresse and weeds in and about the pownds and in the moote for the kyng’s grace to fysche’.


PRINCIPAL ELEMENTS: the well-preserved remains of four Tudor fishponds consisting of four substantial earthen dams with the sides defined by varying degrees of excavation, along with the remains of an overflow leat on the western edge of the ponds. There are several associated features, including two well preserved quarries dating from the construction of the ponds to the west of the two uppermost dams, the remains of ridge and furrow in the southernmost pond, a rectangular building platform adjacent to eastern end of southernmost dam, and a well preserved section of holloway adjacent to the southernmost dam.

DESCRIPTION: the southernmost dam is about 115m long and approximately 2.5m high, and is orientated west-north-west. The dam has historically been used as a track, and has had some gravel material introduced to create a road surface. The Hunsdon brook passes through a C19 or early C20 brick culvert in this dam.

The lower three ponds all have steep eastern banks that appear to have been artificially profiled. Material removed from the banks in the southernmost pond is likely to have been used to construct the dam, accounting for the absence of construction quarries. In the interior of the pond are the remains of ridge and furrow ploughing parallel to the dam. Whilst this may post-date the abandonment of the fishponds, several C17 manuals (see sources, Taverner, 1600) recommend draining and ploughing fishponds at regular intervals to improve water quality, and these may therefore be coeval with the fishponds. The meadowland vegetation with clumps of rushes indicates that the soil here is partly waterlogged.

The second most southerly dam is 3-3.5m at its highest point, is 90m long and is orientated north-west. The top of this dam is a narrower than the other three, and does not appear to have been used as a routeway at any point. It also has a C19 brick culvert. LiDAR imagery (see sources) shows the outline of a quarry apparently for construction material adjacent to the east terminus of the dam, but it has been severely eroded as a result of repeated ploughing. The interior of this pond shows evidence of clay rich soils on the western bank, which may be evidence of the clay lining noted in the Hunsdon building accounts. There are C20 attempts at drainage visible on LiDAR, a shallow channel, cut across the surface of the pond, serving as a field drain to the agricultural land to the east, can be seen. Also, the overflow leat in this pond appears to have been reworked as part of this, with a linear gully on the west bank of the pond, turning sharply against the bottom of the dam, returning to the brook next to the culvert. The soil remains waterlogged with some established secondary woodland.

The second most northerly dam is around 3m at its highest point and 110m long, and is oriented north-north-west. Adjacent to its western terminus is a substantial and well preserved oval-shaped quarry, measuring approximately 50m by 25m, that shows at least two phases of use. A small C20 dam, constructed of concrete rubble topped with brick, and with ceramic pipe outflow, occupies 10m gap in the dam. This first appears on the 1923 OS 1:10560 map, along with the re-flooding of the second northernmost pond, although the stream is now diverted immediately to the west of this structure. The pond remains waterlogged with some areas of standing water, and vegetation including willows. A narrow terrace has been recorded running along the east side of this pond although the vegetation growth meant this wasn't accessible at the time of the field visit (31 May 2018)

The northernmost dam is 2.5m-3m at its highest point, about 12m wide and is 100m long, and is oriented west-south-west. A track leads to this dam from the west, and this dam may have been used as a crossing point historically. It has a C19 brick culvert. Immediately adjacent to the western terminus of the dam is a sub-circular quarry of approximately 30m diameter, dating to the construction of the dam. A tree lined trackway extends for about 190m along the east bank of the pond, with large mature oaks on the defined edge of the pond. Where this meets Bury Plantation, the edges of the pond are less clearly defined. In similar examples of fishponds constructed by damming watercourses, (as at Harrington, Northamptonshire, List entry reference 1003875), the upper ponds tend to be of a triangular shape defined by the topography, and are often shallower. Roberts (1988) suggests that this part of valley pond systems may have been used for rearing beds.

The remains of the overflow leat on the western bank of the ponds are very clear on LiDAR images. These were common features of valley ponds, both to drain the valley during dam construction, but also to divert floodwaters from damaging dams or fish stocks. It appears to divert from the brook at NGR TL 41219 12540, suggesting a limit for the upper pond. It is unclear where it returns to the brook, although there is broad shallow gully immediately in front of the southernmost dam and parallel to it. Adjacent to the southernmost pond, the leat is somewhat eroded but is visible as a slight gully with a ridge against the pond.

Adjacent related features include a rectangular building platform that is perpendicular to the southernmost dam, and appears to be coeval to the ponds. It extends 20m by 12m, and rises up to 1.5m from the valley floor. The southern end of this platform has a slight ridge of less than 0.5m. This building may have served a utilitarian function, comparable to the smokehouse at Oldstead Grange, North Yorkshire, or else a domestic function comparable to the C16 fishing pavilion at Hatfield House, Hertfordshire (the Park and Garden is registered at Grade I). LiDAR imaging for the building platform and the east terminus of the dam show a bottleneck pattern of erosion consistent with livestock accessing the brook from the east.

The holloway leading north-north-west from the southernmost dam aligns with a field boundary and cropmark noted on aerial photographs, which forms the parish boundary and may therefore represent a pre-enclosure track contemporary with the park. The use of fishpond dams as trackways is fairly common in extant examples (for example at the sites of Harrington, and Aston le Walls, Northamptonshire.).

With regards to archaeological potential, each of the four ponds have waterlogged, rich organic soils that would allow for the preservation of environmental remains. Archaeological investigation of other fishponds suggest that they rarely contain fish bones or other data for fish stocks, presumably reflecting the fact they were regularly cleaned out as part of management (indeed, the Hunsdon building accounts show expenditure for ‘two botis..for the clensing…of the great pondis’). However, fishponds have been used as good sources of wider environmental data. The Hunsdon fishponds therefore have the potential for good environmental data for a late medieval royal park landscape and its environs.

Each of the four ponds are waterlogged, providing an idea anaerobic environment for the preservation of organic remains. These have a very high archaeological potential for the retention of wider environmental data which, when analysed, could provide information on the contemporary physical landscape of the post-medieval royal park and the socio-economic context in which it functioned.

EXTENT OF SCHEDULING: the scheduling aims to protect the fishponds, dams, leats, quarries, building platform and a section of the hollow way leading from the southernmost dam. Along the north eastern and south eastern edge the constraint line follows a field boundary hedge, across the southern end the line follows the base of the southern slope on the southern dam and then continues on the south western edge of the hollow way before crossing it then turning south eastwards to the western edge of the pond and overflow leat. The line then follows the western edge of the leat, ponds, dams and quarries northwards curving to a point at the northern extent of the ponds. The line south of the southernmost dam, and that running up the west side of the monument includes a 3m buffer from the edge of the ponds and quarries, considered necessary for the support and preservation of the monument.


Books and journals
, Bonow M, OlsenH, Svanberg I, (Editors), Historical Aquaculture in Northern Europe, (2016), 43-44
, RCHME, Inventory of the Historical Monuments in the County of Northamptonshire, Vol 2, (1979), IXV
, Taverner J, (Author), Certaine Experiments Concerning Fish and Fruite (1600)12-14
Aston, Mick, Medieval Fish, Fisheries and Fishponds, (1988), 27-38
Whittle, E, Taylor, C, 'The Early seventeenth-century gardens of Tackley, Oxfordshire' in Garden History, Vol.22, No.1 (Summer, 1994), , Vol. 22, (1994), 52-53
Environment Agency Composite Digital Terrain Model 50cm, accessed 7th June 2018 from
Hunsdon Building Accounts TNA A 101/465/20
Nicholas, N, The Privy Purse Expences of King Henry the Eighth from November MDXXIX, to December MDXXXII with introductory remarks and illustratory notes (1827), p72
Rowe, A, Tudor and Early Stuart Parks in Hertfordshire (forthcoming)


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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