The Pondyards, Gorhambury
- Heritage Category:
- Scheduled Monument
- List Entry Number:
- Date first listed:
- Location Description:
- Statutory Address:
- West of Redbourn Road, Gorhambury, St Albans, AL3 6RD
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- Statutory Address:
- West of Redbourn Road, Gorhambury, St Albans, AL3 6RD
The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.
- Location Description:
- St. Albans (District Authority)
- St. Michael
- National Grid Reference:
The remains of an early C17 water garden laid out in 1608 for Sir Francis Bacon.
Reasons for Designation
The Pondyards at Gorhambury, Hertfordshire, laid out in 1608 for Sir Francis Bacon, is scheduled for the following principal reasons:
Period: * courtiers of Renaissance England developed the water garden as a landscape art form that has had a lasting impact on landscape design.
Potential: * there is a high level of potential for archaeological deposits to survive within and beneath the earthen banks surrounding the ponds, in the silty deposits in the base of the ponds and ditches, and beneath the surface of the moated platforms.
Survival: * the earthworks survive in good condition and the form Sir Francis Bacon's water gardens can still clearly be determined.
Documentation: * detailed understanding of the Pondyards origins, history, and later influence is supported by a range of historic documentation including drawings, written descriptions, and Bacon's own essay on the subject of garden design.
Group value: * with the Old Pondyards (listed Grade II), the house and landscape of Gorhambury (listed Grade II* and registered Grade II respectively), and the ruins of Old Gorhambury (scheduled and Grade I listed).
Water gardens became popular in courtly circles in the later C16 and early C17 and formed part of a wider group of allegorical gardens and landscapes created in the decades around 1600. They could be found close to the house; around orchards; or as at Tackley (Oxfordshire), and even more so at Gorhambury, at some remove from the house. They were newly created or were recast from pre-existing moats or fishponds. Some, like Tackley, featured highly geometric arrangements of ponds and terraces where fishing and wildfowling could take place. They could be associated with additional structures such as boundary walls, gateways, fishing pavilions and ‘supping’ (eating) rooms.
Documentary sources suggest that the water gardens at Gorhambury’s Pondyards are likely to have been created from an existing set of ponds. Letters from 1608 refer to the presence of a house and a hornbeam tree at a pre-existing site already known as the ‘Pondyards’. From 1557 the estate was in the ownership of Sir Nicholas Bacon whose house was supplied by a water source a mile distant. It is possible that the Pondyards could have been that water source, or a feature connected to it. The Pondyards may also have formed part of the pre-Baconian estate, either as reservoirs, fishponds or stew ponds.
Sir Nicholas Bacon (1510-1579) played an important role in the first generation of the court of Elizabeth I. He began his life in obscurity but rose to public prominence as one of the most senior advisers to the Queen and as her longstanding Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. He built a new house at Gorhambury between 1563 and 1568 (surviving today only as a ruin which is both scheduled and Grade I listed: entries 1003525 and 1175197). The Queen visited twice in the 1570s. In 1579 Gorhambury passed to Bacon’s fourth son, Anthony, and the house and estate entered a period of decline until Anthony’s death in 1601. It passed then to Anthony’s brother, Francis, whose first task was the restoration of the destroyed water supply, which may relate to the Pondyards.
Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) has many claims to historical significance: as a lawyer and legal theorist; as an influential philosopher and writer on many subjects, including garden design; as a politician in the parliaments of Elizabeth I and as an important courtier in the reign of James I, rising to the position of Lord Chancellor; and for his lasting contribution to the establishment of, what would later be termed, induction and the ‘scientific method’ as a mode of inquiry. Francis spent much of his childhood at Gorhambury where he was schooled by his highly educated mother before going up to Trinity College, Cambridge, at the age of 12. He was admitted to Gray’s Inn aged 15 in 1576 and began a career in legal and diplomatic work that took him professionally into the court circles inhabited by his father. He was first elected MP at the age of 19. Knighted in 1603, he prospered under James I as Solictor General (1607), Attorney General (1613), Privy Councillor (1616), and Lord Keeper (1617). He was made Lord Chancellor in 1618 and ennobled as Baron Verulam. In 1621 he was given the title Viscount St Albans, but fell from grace in the same year being impeached for bribery and corruption. He never again held high office but continued to publish significant works until his death in 1626.
In 1608, shortly after Bacon had finally achieved a crown office and become a clerk of Star Chamber, Sir Francis began work to convert the Pondyards at Gorhambury into a water garden befitting a rising courtier of Renaissance England. He wrote to his powerful cousin, Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, describing the project. Cecil’s fashionable estate at nearby Hatfield featured a walled water garden laid out in the same year to a similar geometric plan as Bacon originally envisaged. The Pondyards would be a ‘place of pleasure’ and were intended to feature a high wall around the perimeter, ringed with birch and lime trees around the outside, and espaliered fruit trees within. There would be terraces, little streams over gravel and fine pebbles, and eight islands each with a unique attraction: a rock, a tree house, a grotto, a mound with flowers, mosaics, a musk rose arbour, statues of nymphs or Triton. The largest island was intended to be 100 feet wide with a two storey house upon it, featuring a supping room, a dining room, a bed chamber, a cabinet, a music room, an upper terrace and a garden of its own. This island was to be reached by a great bridge, with the others accessed only by boat. Drawings suggest that it was originally envisaged as a set of concentric squares, appealing to Classical geometry, but the form of the new Pondyards evidently underwent alteration by the time work began on the project.
As constructed the water gardens featured instead two large square ponds at the eastern end, each with a small island at its centre. To the west was a run of three flat rectangular pieces of land connected to each other across moat-like canals by bridges and earth banks. At the centre of the three was a paved banqueting house described by John Aubrey in 1656 as being of ‘Roman’ architecture and paved with black and white marble, covered with Cornish slate and wainscoted. The ponds, according to Aubrey, were paved with coloured pebbles, some of which displayed fishes or similar subjects, and Sir Francis was reported to have paid local people who brought him coloured stones for this purpose.
Directly south of the banqueting house, separate from the Pondyards but designed to view them, was a summer house constructed in around 1621 and, after a period of dilapidation, demolished in 1665-1666. Called Verulam House, it was a three-storey brick building with a lantern on the roof. It had a rooftop terrace overlooking the Pondyards to the north and St Albans to the south. Inside there was comfortable wainscoted accommodation and playful features such as a mirrored door. To the north of the Pondyards is a building called ‘Old Pondyards’. It is a Grade II listed two-storey mid-late C17 lodge and storehouse (List entry 1308348), possibly constructed reusing material from Verulam House.
The Pondyards are likely to have presented problems of maintenance from their inception. Bacon’s highly influential essay on garden design (‘Of Gardens’ published in its final form in 1625) suggests some of the problems he may have encountered. He recommended the use of fountains rather than pools, which he found unwholesome, ‘full of flies and frogs’. He likewise thought the presence of fish necessitated a great deal of cleaning and maintenance to keep the water clear. Pools were certainly present at the Pondyards and they are likely to have been stocked with fish so we may speculate that his advice drew from experience at Gorhambury. Bacon may also have struggled in his efforts to keep them in an unblemished condition as his finances were under serious strain after 1621.
The history of the Pondyards after the mid-C17 is obscure for a while. The Bacon family house at the heart of the estate fell into ruin after a new house was constructed to the east between 1777 and 1784. In 1821 it was recorded that efforts had been made twenty years earlier to excavate the decorative paving of the ponds. Though this proved unsuccessful, traces of the foundations of the central banqueting house had been found.
Diary entries from 1934 by Violet, 4th Countess of Verulam, describe the hiring of a local man to dig out the ponds which had become dry. Reaching as far down as the clay bed, he reportedly uncovered Bacon’s pebbles and discarded them. Found at the same time was an oak plug near the sluice gates which helped to drain the ponds, and small brick-lined conduits carrying water between the ponds.
The Pondyards sustained their function as a ‘place of pleasure’ into the C19 and C20. The 1883 OS map of Hertfordshire indicates that the ponds were stocked with fish and that all of them were filled with water. The 1883 and 1897 OS maps show a boat house on the south side of the largest pond. Bathing was known to take place there into the mid-C20.
In 1958 the Luton Water Company constructed a pumping station immediately to the north of the Pondyards which, until recently decommissioned, seriously reduced the water levels in the ponds, sometimes drying them completely. By the late C20 the whole area was significantly overgrown. The ponds lie at the north-east corner of the landscape park at Gorhambury, which was Registered Grade II in June 1987 (List entry 1000417).
The remains of a water garden begun in 1608 for Sir Francis Bacon. The site comprises a group of ponds and ditches contained within linear banks, forming a series of moated platforms linked by terraced walkways and earthen causeways. The site lies at the north-east corner of the landscape park at Gorhambury, Hertfordshire (Registered Grade II, List entry 1000417).
The site connects to the rest of the estate via a formal long walk through an avenue of trees that passes the crest of a hill and leads to ‘Old Gorhambury’ (the Baconian house). Neither the new or old house is visible from here. The Pondyards are at the centre of a gently sloping valley that leads to the River Ver less than 100m east from the largest pond.
The eastern boundary of the site is formed by an earth bank around 10m wide that runs parallel to a Roman road. This is the broadest and most substantive perimeter bank and runs along the edge of the north-east and south-east pond. The two large ponds are separated by a narrow terraced walkway.
The south-east pond is a slightly irregular square-shape and has a mounded-earth island in an approximately central position with a tree growing from it. Lidar imagery shows the island to sit within square perimeter ditches. To the south of this pond the perimeter bank is less well defined, possibly due to the cutting of a narrow drainage channel discernible as a slight depression parallel to the south of the pond’s edge. There is no evidence of the C19 boat house which stood on this edge.
The north-east pond is slightly smaller and is a more irregular square defined by the linear bank to the east and terraced walkways to the west and south. Here too an island stands in the middle of the pond with a square perimeter shown on LIDAR. There is no visible evidence of a bank on the northern side of this pond although there is suggestion that there has been some levelling of the ground here, which may have resulted from the construction of three C20 buildings adjacent to the north. A single straight ditch, approximately 0.5m deep, runs roughly parallel to the western edge of the north-east pond. At the time of the site visit (13 January 2020) this was the only ditch without standing water and appears to have been partially in-filled, possibly as a result of dumping of cleared vegetation.
Running west from the south-east pond are three moated platforms, the larger western two being approximately 40m in width. These are separated by water-filled ditches measuring between 7m and 12m in width. The platforms are between 0.25m to 0.5m higher than the outer banks. The eastern platform is small and rectangular with a large L-shaped ditch around its south and east side, and a small straight ditch across the northern end. Further to the west, the central moated platform is square with a shallow hollow of around 0.4m depth at its centre suggesting the remains of a possible structure beneath the ground surface. It is bounded by two U-shaped water-filled ditches, one to the north and the other to the south. Centrally aligned terraced causeways connect the platform to those at the east and west. The eastern platform is large and square with a single mature tree in the north-west corner. The platform is defined by water-filled, L-shaped ditches to the north and south, again with a centrally aligned terrace causeway. In the level ground to the north of the moated platforms Lidar imagery shows a smaller L-shaped depression that resembles the rectilinear form of the more substantial surviving ditches.
At the western end of the Pondyards is a large, narrow, water-filled ditch in a U-shape with small pools at each end, resembling an inverted double-crochet. Lidar indicates a curving perimeter feature and a C-shaped depression to the north of this.
A straight, narrow ditch likely to have functioned as a water-management feature runs from west to east parallel to the southern boundary of the site, beginning with a small pond south-west of the moated platforms and discharging beyond the large ponds towards the River Ver. Most of the feature is barely visible as a depression on the surface but can be clearly seen in Lidar images.
A line of mature trees follow the linear bank along the eastern and southern edge of the ponds with some young saplings rooted between these. Within the water-filled ditches and at the edges of the ponds reeds and grasses have established, areas of more open ground have long grasses with some brambles but the terraced grass walkways are kept clear. On the whole, the site is very clearly defined and well maintained.
EXTENT OF SCHEDULING
The scheduling boundary follows the field boundary to the west and south. It extends approximately 12 metres from the eastern edge of the large ponds. The northern edge is polygonal and follows the line of surface and buried features but avoids the domestic property boundaries at the north-east. From the south-west corner of the Old Pondyards it runs south-east and kinks half way to protect buried features indicated by Lidar imaging before connecting with the eastern boundary.
Any fences and fence posts are excluded from the scheduling, although the ground beneath them is included.
Books and journals
Pevsner, N, The Buildings of England: Hertfordshire, (2002), 147-148
Strong, Roy, The Renaissance Garden in England, (1998), 127
Henderson, P, 'Sir Francis Bacon's Water Gardens at Gorhambury' in Garden History, , Vol. Volume 20, No. 2, (Autumn, 1992), 116-131
"Of Gardens", Francis Bacon's 1625 essay, digitised, accessed 28/04/2020 from https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Of_Gardens/Of_Gardens
'Bacon, Francis, Viscount St Alban (1561-1626)', by Markku Peltonen, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (published online 04 October 2007), accessed 28/04/2020 from https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/990
'Bacon, Sir Nicholas (1510-1579)' by Robert Tittler, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (published online 23 September 2004), accessed 28/04/2020 from https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/1002
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