A few months ago we visited Hatfield Forest, which is a rare survival of a medieval royal hunting forest. I love woods and forests because they so often have a real sense of history; the ancient trees like living sculptures, the sense of timelessness that you get when you walk between them.
Hatfield Forest was in existence at the time of the Domesday Book in 1086. It belonged to King Harold and passed to William of Normandy at the time of the Conquest. A forest in those days was a mixture of woodland and open spaces for grazing. Fallow deer were introduced in 1100 from Sicily and their descendants still roam the woods today. Rabbits were another “foreign” introduction and a warren was set up in the woods to provide meat and fur. In keeping with may other medieval hunting grounds, including Ashdown Park, Hatfield had a lodge that was the residence of the Head Keeper. The current lodge, dating from 1570, is still standing and originally had a tower at one end from which spectators could watch the progress of the hunt.
In the 18th century the forest was sold to the Houblon family, wealthy merchants and financiers from the City of London. In keeping with the fashions of the day, Jacob Houblon had a part of the forest landscaped. He built the Georgian Shell House and the lake, surrounding it with exotic, non-native trees. Capability Brown landscaped the grounds around this sublimely pretty spot. It was known as "detached pleasure ground" separate from the Houblon's grand house at Hallingbury Hall. Part of the fun of owning the forest was riding or driving out to enjoy these grounds. There was a cottage beside the lake where the poulterer lived. She kept chicken and peacocks for the table. Hatfield Forest has wild peacocks to this day.
The Shell House is now the exhibition centre for the estate. It was originally built as a picnic house overlooking the lake and was decorated with flints and with British and tropical shells. Most of the shells were from the West Indies as these were used as ballast in the holds of slave ships. The decoration includes a bird sculpted out of oyster shells and blue glass, coral and coloured sands.
At this time there was a craze for collecting and purchasing shells and using them to decorate grottoes and garden features. The building of a picnic house was also a part of the 18th century fashion for elaborate buildings in the landscape whether they were fishing temples, cold plunge baths, pavilions or grand arches. In the summer the Shell House provided a wonderful place for the family to picnic, fish and go boating. Grand parties were also held there with dancing beside the lake in the lantern-light. It offers an insight into the leisured lifestyle of the Georgian upper classes. It is rumoured that the ghost of Laeticia Houblon, who decorated the Shell House, can sometimes be seen in and around the property!
There isn't really space in my garden for a shell house or grotto and although we have a couple of small ponds, a plunge pool would probably be out of the question. However I do like decorating the flowerbeds and rockery with unusual rocks and stones collected on our travels or the huge sarsen rocks that you find in the fields around here, and illuminating them at night with little solar-powered battery lights! Now that spring is finally on the way here it does look very pretty! That is my contribution to garden decoration; what about you?