Cassiobury Park

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Cassiobury Park
Cassiobury Park 012.jpg
Cassiobury Park
Type Public park
Location Watford, Hertfordshire, England
Area 190 acres (0.77 km2)
Operated by Watford Borough Council

Coordinates: 51°39′35″N 0°25′0″W / 51.65972°N 0.41667°W / 51.65972; -0.41667 Cassiobury Park is the principal public park in Watford, Hertfordshire, in England. It was created in 1909 from the purchase by Watford Borough Council of part of the estate of the Earls of Essex. It comprises over 190 acres (0.77 km2) and extends from the A412 Rickmansworth Road in the east to the Grand Union Canal in the west. It is a local nature reserve.[1]

The estate that was the basis for the park was owned by Sir Richard Morrison who started building Cassiobury House in 1546.[2] On the marriage of his granddaughter the house and park passed into the ownership of the Capel family, who later became the Earls of Essex.[2] In 1909 and 1930 parts of the estate were sold to the council who created the public park. The house was demolished in 1927.[3]


14th to 19th century[edit]

St Albans Abbey claimed rights to the manor of Cashio (then called "Albanestou"), which included Watford, dating from a grant by King Offa in AD 793.[4] When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1539, Watford was divided from Cashio and Henry made himself lord of the manor of Cassiobury. In 1546 he granted the manor to Sir Richard Morrison, who started to build Cassiobury House in the extensive gardens, but had not made much progress by 1553 when he went into exile abroad. The estate grounds were much larger than they are today, reaching as far as North Watford and southwards almost to Moor Park. After the death of his father in 1556, Sir Charles Morrison continued building and completed the mansion, which had 56 rooms, a long gallery, stables, a dairy and a brewhouse.

A map by John Cary showing the grounds of the park in 1800

In 1627 Sir Charles Morrison's daughter, Elizabeth (the heir to Cassiobury), married Arthur Capel (1610–1649) and the estate passed into the Capel family. The Capels were settled at Hadham, in Essex, but after the marriage they became closely associated with Cassiobury. Capell's son, Arthur Capell, 1st Earl of Essex, commissioned Hugh May to rebuild the Tudor house, incorporating the original north-west wing. The new house was laid out on an "H" ground-plan, popular during that period. He is also believed to have been the person who commissioned the building of Little Cassiobury (the dower house which still exists in Hempstead Road, Watford). The Earl also commissioned development of the park, importing many exotic trees.

The Capels were patrons of the arts and engaged Grinling Gibbons, the Dutch-English sculptor and wood-carver. Moses Cook laid out the grounds for the 2nd earl; he devised many woodland walks and avenues. Between 1672 and 1720 an avenue of 296 lime trees was planted, linking the gardens to Whippendell Wood. Remnants of this can still be seen today. George London and the royal gardener Charles Bridgeman also worked at Cassiobury.

On 16 April 1680, John Evelyn accompanied Gibbons there.

"On the earnest invitation of the Earl of Essex, I went with him to his house at Cassioberie in Hertfordshire. The house is new, a plaine fabric built by my friend Mr. Hugh May, there are divers faire and good rooms and excellent carvings by Grinling Gibbons, especially the chimney piece of the library ... [but] the soil is stony, churlish and uneven, nor is the water near enough to the house though a very swift and clear stream runs within a flight shot of it. The valley which may fitly be called Colnbrook, it being indeed excessive cold, yet producing fair trouts ... it is a pity that the house was not situated to more advantage, but it seems it was built just where the old one was."

By 1683 André Le Nôtre, the French architect and ornamental gardener to Louis XIV, was engaged on planting trees on the estate.

A chromolithograph of Cassiobury House, published around 1880

The Grand Union Canal dates from the late eighteenth century. The 4th earl was one of the noblemen on the board of the canal company; at his insistence the canal was widened and landscaped where it passed through his property. The 5th earl of Essex arrived at Cassiobury in 1799 and commissioned James Wyatt to remodel the house. Wyatt specialized in the Romantic Gothic style. Most of the rebuilding was finished by 1805. The new house comprised a large number of rooms, the main ones being the Winter Drawing Room, with family portraits by Peter Lely and Van Dyck; the Crimson Drawing Room, with Canaletto, Gainsborough, Morland, and Reynolds; the Inner Library, which also had portraits by Reynolds; and the Great Library, in which were busts of the Duke of Bedford, the Duke of Wellington, Napoleon and Charles I. The furniture of the Best Drawing Room was said to be "of the latest fashion and displays superior taste". Another spectacular room was the State Bedroom, with blue and white furnishings, a Gobelin tapestry (The Village Feast), and a ceiling in blue and gilt. Frances Calvert, in An Irish Beauty of the Regency (1816), commented that the house was "full of comforts, curiosities and pretty things", and the flower gardens were the "most complete in England".[5]

Humphry Repton was commissioned to landscape the park. A number of lodges and other buildings for the estate were constructed. These were designed by Wyatt's nephew, Sir Jeffrey Wyattville (1766–1840). Only one now survives: Cassiobury Lodge, in Gade Avenue, "... the most elaborate in execution — its whole exterior being covered or cased with sticks of various sizes split in two", wrote a Victorian visitor. At this time the park comprised 693 acres (2.80 km2), the Home Park and the Upper Park being separated by the River Gade. The Upper Park became the West Herts Golf Course.

In 1841 a fire destroyed the orangery, which was filled with newly collected plants and fine orange trees, some of which had been presented to the 6th earl by Louis XVII. Herds of deer roamed the park. Parties were a regular feature at the weekends. The public were allowed to ride and walk through the grounds, but had to apply for a ticket in advance.

20th century[edit]

The parties and entertainments at Cassiobury House continued into the new century: in 1902 it was visited by the young Winston Churchill and King Edward VII. But at about this time the Essex family planned to let the house and live in London. The upkeep was becoming increasingly expensive.

In 1909, 184 acres (0.74 km2) of parkland were sold by the 8th earl, most to Watford Borough Council for housing and the public park. More land for the park was purchased in 1930.

Construction of the residential Cassiobury Estate began. The land was made subject to restrictive covenants stipulating that only good quality detached or semi-detached houses would be allowed. Most activity was in the 1930s, though building still continues, mostly of "infill" housing on former back gardens. The park is bounded by Parkside Drive and Coningsby Drive on the north, and Cassiobury Park Avenue on the south.

On Thursday 8 June 1922, at 2.30 p.m. at 20 Hanover Square, "By direction of the Right Honourable Adèle, Countess Dowager of Essex", "Cassiobury Park estate including the historical family mansion, Little Cassiobury, and the West Herts Golf Links, embracing in all an Area of about 870 acres (3.5 km2)" was auctioned by Humbert & Flint, in conjunction with Knight, Frank & Rutley.

Having remained unoccupied and unsold, the house itself was demolished in 1927. Only the stable block remains: this has been converted to Cassiobury Court, an old people's home, still extant in Richmond Drive. The grand staircase (said to be designed by Gibbons but since attributed to Edmund Pearce) was removed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Other materials from the house were used to restore Monmouth House in Watford High Street. Posters advertised "To lovers of the antique, architects, builders, etc., 300 tons of old oak: 100 very fine old oak beams and 10,000 Tudor period bricks".

"English country house in New York" in Country Life (magazine) on Tuesday, 21 July 2009, by Arabella Youens says that salvaged material from the old mansion was used to build a new Cassiobury House in the US:-

"When Cassiobury House in Hertfordshire, home to the Earls of Essex for more than 250 years, was dismantled in 1927 much of the masonry was used in the construction of a new house of the same name in Bedford, New York."

In 1967, even the quaint, castellated entrance gates on the Rickmansworth Road were demolished to make way for a new traffic system.

Little Cassiobury (Grade II* listed), the Cassiobury Estate dower house, still exists in Hempstead Road, Watford. It was sold separately from the rest of the estate. While it was in private ownership it was extended and renovated, in 1937, by the Portmeirion architect Clough Williams-Ellis. Soon after that it was compulsorily purchased by Hertfordshire County Council, who built Watford College (latterly West Herts College) on part of the site. Herts County Council used Little Cassiobury as an education office for most of the 20th century.


The name "Caegesho" referred to a larger area of land granted by Offa to the Abbey of St Albans in 793. "Caeg" (Old English cæg) may have been a man's name, while Old English ho means "a spur of land" (see Hoo). It was spelled "Caissou" or "Chaissou" in the 11th century and gradually evolved into "Cassio".[6][7] The suffix "-bury" occurs in many English place names. It comes from the Old English word for a fortified place, burh, whose dative, byrig, means "by the fort", or "by the manor".

Lay out[edit]

The "Carved Bridge" with the River Gade flowing under

Much of the park is covered by mown grass and scattered trees. There are notable specimens of American oaks such as the Pin Oak Quercus palustris Muenchh. and the Scarlet Oak Q. coccinea Muenchh. The Cedar of Lebanon Cedrus libani A. Richard is a prominent feature, though some of the older and unsafe specimens have been removed. Many more recent plantings of exotics have been made, such as Swamp Cypress Taxodium distichum (L.) Richards and various Asian rowans Sorbus spp.

The park slopes generally downhill from east to west, into the alluvial valley of the River Gade. The broadly meandering river and its bridges add much charm; the canal takes a more direct route. The direction of flow is north to south. The Gade is a tributary of the Colne, which ultimately flows into the Thames at Staines.

A stream near the River Gade

The valley is partly wooded. Some of the woodland is rather wet and gloomy, but very beautiful; alder Alnus glutinosa (L.) Gaertn. is frequent beside the streams. Here also may be found the remains of beds and ditches for growing watercress Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum (L.) Hayek. These are largely silted up and overgrown, but the original springs are still flowing. Beyond the river and canal the ground rises quite steeply to the West Herts Golf Course, beyond which lies Whippendell Wood. The whole area is freely accessible and surprisingly unspoilt, given its proximity to London, about 20 miles away.

Man-made structures in the park include a complex of paddling-pools and an adjacent miniature railway near the Gade, tennis-courts, a bowling green, a system of all-weather asphalt paths, and a number of shelters. The Watford Miniature Railway has a gauge of 1014" and runs for 1010 yards around part of the park. Steam and Diesel locomotives are used on passenger trains.

Fauna and flora[edit]

The bird-life of the formal areas is typical of parkland in southern England. Nuthatches like the old timber; spotted flycatchers the more open ground; and redwings and fieldfares the more open ground yet. Common and black-headed, and sometimes lesser black-backed and herring, gulls form loose flocks on the lower reaches towards the Gade.

The canal, the river and its associated streams provide more interest for the bird-watcher. Teal Anas crecca, Water Rail Rallus aquaticus, Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea, Grey Heron Ardea cinerea and Kingfisher Alcedo atthis are regular visitors or resident. Especially in freezing weather, the disused cress-beds can yield waders: most often Snipe Gallinago gallinago, but also Redshank Tringa totanus and Green Sandpiper Tringa ochropus and, more rarely, Jack Snipe Lymnocryptes minimus and Dunlin Calidris alpina. Water Pipit Anthus spinoletta may also be found here in winter, and in January 1965, on some cress-ditches which have now been filled in, up to four spotted crakes Porzana porzana were present. The valley is a good place to see Willow Tit Parus montanus, Reed Bunting Emberiza schoeniclus, and Sedge Warbler Acrocephalus schoenobaenus. The alders attract flocks of Siskin Carduelis spinus and Redpoll C. flammea. Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos minor is frequent.[8]

Some of the old ditches and surrounding woodland have been made into a local nature reserve. Marsh Marigold Caltha palustris L. grows here, and there is a fairly large bed of Great Reed-mace Typha latifolia L.

An obvious feature of the riverside flora are three species of balsams: Small Balsam Impatiens parviflora DC, Jewel-weed I. capensis Meerburgh, and Policeman's Helmet I. glandulifera Royle. These are said to be escapes from the canal-wharves, where they arrived with consignments of imported timber.

Filming location[edit]

Cassiobury Park has been used as a filming location in a number of cinema films and television programmes due to its proximity to several major film studios such as Elstree studios. In 1997 Whippendell Woods served as a Star Wars filming location when it provided the backdrop of a forest on the planet Naboo which featured in the scene in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, in which Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his Jedi apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) first meet Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best).[9][10]


  1. ^ "Cassiobury Park". Local Nature Reserves. Natural England. Retrieved 4 August 2013. 
  2. ^ a b "'Watford: Manors', A History of the County of Hertford: volume 2 (1908), pp. 451-464.". Retrieved 11 March 2012. 
  3. ^ Lost Heritage
  4. ^ William Page (editor) (1908). "The hundred of Cashio - Introduction | A History of the County of Hertford: volume 2 (pp. 319-322)". Retrieved 29 January 2013. 
  5. ^ Frances Calvert (1911). An Irish beauty of the regency. John Lane. 
  6. ^ W.R. Saunders (1931). History of Watford. Watford: Peacock. p. 2. 
  7. ^ William Page (ed.) (1908). "Watford: Manors". A History of the County of Hertford: volume 2. Victoria County History. pp. 451–464. Retrieved 13 May 2010. 
  8. ^ Hertfordshire Bird Report.
  9. ^ "The Park on TV". Cassiobury Park website. Retrieved 15 March 2012. 
  10. ^ "Star Wars trek: Whippendell Woods — November 2001". Star Wars Locations. Retrieved 15 March 2012. 

External links[edit]