Cassiobury Park. Now, and then

Cassiobury Park. (Now and then).


Cassiobury Park. (Now and then).


“Cassiobury Park” and its surrounds has had quite a large part to play in my earlier life, But many things have changed in the interim, including my non-attendance.

Having been raised within walking distance of “The Park Gates”; and not having at that time to consider the numerous hazards; real or imagined, that would appear to currently impinge on the freedom to “enjoy oneself”, I will first attempt to examine what we have to enjoy currently. This exercise is for latter comparison, and is not a travelogue. If you wish to confirm or correct my assessment then you are probably in a better position / condition to do so than am I.

The park covers an area of around 190 acres, and consists of grass and woodlands with the “River Gade” at the bottom of its sloping terrain, and beyond that the “Grand Union Canal”, with a handy lock view from the second bridge. It has “Green Flags” and the like, and all sorts of organised events.

Entering from Rickmansworth Road; a divided path leads all the way to the various features. Close to a third pathway; that dissects the area from side to side, is the “Band Stand”. Once determined obsolete, but now refurbished and reinstated, after a period in disgrace at the side of the Public Library. It is incorporated into a formal layout and concerts and other events throughout the year are centred around it. At the Shepherd’s Road side is a Cafe called the “Cha Cha”, and just beyond this are Tennis hard courts and an outdoor bowling green. Down the hill towards the river is an extensive car park, and football pitches, situated on the largest open section in the park. Further down still, and towards the centre is a children’s play area: with swings, zip wires, trampolines, a stone maze, and a toy train, next to a paddling pool come picnic area. This latter is of Clover leaf lay out and sticks out like a sore thumb. And popular with it! I believe the essential snack outlet is also available.

How much of the river is considered now a-days to be free from potentially lethal hazards I do not know, and how many of the older children are allowed over the bridges and eventually into Whippendell Woods is also an unknown factor. Not many of them, unaccompanied, I would suggest.

I regret I am only able to view these current facilities from the car park; so cannot be more detailed. I had considered the use of binoculars, but fear all kinds of modern legal processes might result with me finishing up “inside”.

Let me now try to recall the area as I remember it from around the late thirties through to the early fifties.

The first point of conflict is the entrance from Ricky Road. It was guarded by two stone towers and a large set of ornate gates. The “Park Gates” also provided a home for the “Park Keeper” and his family. His rooms must have been a funny shape, which possibly explained his disposition. He was not to be ignored. This man rode a large bike, the only one allowed to so do at that time. If we could afford a bike; and mostly we couldn’t, we “scooted”; with on foot on a pedal and the other providing the motive power. We must have been right on the edge of legality as far as the Park Keeper was concerned. He only blew his whistle, or shouted at us if we had exceeded what he considered was the speed limit.  There were few other rules, but those that did exist we obeyed, or were very, very careful not to get caught. (These iconic gates were to succumb to progress (?) and were pulled down in 1970. Their original site is now covered in Tarmac and forms part of the widened Rickmansworth Road). The affection felt, and outrage vented at their destruction is perhaps indicated by the masses of framed etchings and Christmas and Birthday cards still in demand.

As the paths diverged just inside the gates a narrow strip of grass, with a low wire ornamental metal fence enclosed a nicely laid out area of bedding plants.

On the left, just beyond the ‘gates was a Public Toilet, (demolished in 1964) and behind these was a short cut; over or through the fence, to Ricky Road. On this space during the war was a large, metal, static water tank, (In case of fire). To us youngsters, it was irresistible! In addition to hosting most of the West Watford’s Mosquito larvae population, its narrow edge could be walked along; carefully, and anything that was not attached could be thrown in; with its accompanying pleasing splash and resulting threatening clouds of Mossies.

It was also the proving ground for Gas Mask floatability trials. Here it was determined; that providing the home produced case, that covered the rather vulnerable cardboard box in which they were issued, was made of a waterproof material, such as mine, (Rexin), they made a perfectly suitable vehicle for racing between the canal locks. See later. One problem we did not overcome was their tendency to drift on to the far side of the water and result in a long walk to get them back!

Beyond the Lavatory were the tall fences at the rear of Cassiobury Park Avenue.  A row of Evergreen shrubs allowed access between them and the fence, and a means to sneak down the side without being seen. As this area was particularly popular with the “Yanks” during the war; where they carried out their “local female residents liaison” functions, it was fairly popular with us lads too. It looked like a laundry with all the jackets and such hung on the bushes. We never saw the Park keeper in this area. Beyond his remit perhaps!

Hard Court tennis facilities then stretched down towards the Pavilion at the Shepperd’s Road entrance, with a “Crochet Lawn” and club house on the corner. Right on the crossroads was the only means of refreshment that we could afford. It consisted of a water fountain that produced a very measly jet, and had to be sucked at times!

In the centre of the area at this level; between the two descending paths, was the previously mentioned Band Stand in its original incarnation. It stood inside a circular iron open fence with concentric shrubs providing a seating area, they were Deck chairs I believe. Here you could pay to sit, hear, and watch “The Watford Silver Prize Band”, or a visiting military outfit, whilst the family music lovers sat on the grass on the ‘gates side and could only hear the musicians. Dressed in their Sunday best, the men in trilby hats, jacket and tie, and the ladies in summer dresses; complete with woollies, (in case it got chilly when the sun went down). The kids, “Us”, were in pushchairs, or on a blanket, and “not” charging about all over the show! Other visitors were the Mosquitoes. Nearly all the men smoked at that time and I recall on a still night it looked like low cloud had settled over the area. This is possibly the only proven beneficial value of smoking.

If we continued along the path that led to Parkside Drive, on the corner were two enormous; or so they seemed to us, “Cedars of Lebanon”. These were somehow mysterious, maybe because few people, including us, knew where Lebanon actually was. Only one tree has survived to this date and it is not in good health. It has been decided that it will be fenced rather than cut down. It was in this area; that during the war, earth works took place. I have as yet to determine what part they played in the War effort; defensive or aggressive, but after the war I was personally involved when throwing half house bricks at a heart on a tree. I went round the back to get some more ammo, and was hit on the head for my troubles. With blood everywhere I ran to the a fore mentioned drinking fountain where I used my handkerchief to remove some of the blood. I soon heard the Ambulance bell and enjoyed a trip through the Park Gates to hospital. Fame at last!

Whilst on the subject of trees. On the Parkside Drive side of the right-hand path was an enormous Oak tree. In the Autumn we would collect bushels of Acorns to feed to the pigs. They loved them. Other trees in the park of interest to us budding Dendrophiles were the Horse and Sweet Chestnuts. Both of these species took a lot of punishment from us in order to get our supply of “Conkers” with which to lacerate and bruise our mates knuckles, and “Chestnuts” to roast on an open fire, with their likely resulting explosions of very hot particles all over the room. Add to these hazards the inevitability that someone would be hit; as on the way down, the not inconsiderable chunks of timber thrown up to knock the nuts out of the trees, fell on their heads.

The area of grass stretching from the previously mentioned Pavilion down toward the river was the site for some interesting events. Flanagan’s Fair was one of them. It would seem that from nothing in sight, an enormous collection of large vehicles, tents, circular stalls, Dodgem Cars, gigantic swings and a noisy steam driven Roundabout; all gaudily painted, would appear. As if by magic. There would not be enough “Health and Safety Officials” in the country to put “Prohibition Notices” on all the potential; and real, hazards. I am not sure, but there possibly were no such officials at that time. You paid your money, and made your choice. If you did not fancy the risk then you stayed back and watched others take their lives in their hands. We soon discovered that one of the most lucrative spots to hang out was adjacent to the canoe shaped multi swings, where the riders pulled on ropes to go higher and higher, to the accompanying screams from their female passengers. Virtually upside down, the contents of their pockets emptied, and we helped to clear up the mess! With the proceeds we bought “Candy Floss” and paid a penny to throw hoops onto prizes that all seemed to be millimeter larger than the hoops. Just as amazing as its sudden appearance was the way in which the whole caboodle disappeared over night, with only the marks in the grass from stalls and the occasional patch of oil left to suggest the mayhem of the previous few days. Other events in this area: were the regular “Gymkhanas and Show Jumping” meetings, plus the “Bonfire Night” firework display which was always well attended. What the wild life must have thought of this last event will never be known. “Motorcycle grass track racing” was also a regular feature , and left quite a scar on the area. These events of course did not take place during the wartime.

Down by the river; in fact in much the same area as the current one, was the Paddling Pool. It was square in shape, and the only other feature was a wooden shed with a bench seat along the closed sides. The open side gave a view of what could be considered today as a health risk of frightening proportions. The pool had two shallow ends, one nearest to the river, and the other opposite the open shed. These were a matter of only inches deep, the centre being approximately; by memory, about a foot deep. With the sun on the surface all day, the temperature must have been at just about the optimum for breeding the algae; or whatever the biological mixture was, to turn the whole lot a bright green colour. It also seemed to give the water an added buoyancy, and was where; kitted out in my knitted trunks, I did my first swimming strokes.  Lying in the “deep end”, or rather middle, I was able to do; at first, a few breast strokes before sinking to again lie on the bottom. By the time I eventually went to the swimming pool I could actually swim, although it was strange being able to see my feet below the water.

An added hazard was the broken glass under the water. Impossible to see, but fortunately missed by me. Not everyone was as lucky.I suspect the water may have come from the river, it certainly went back there when the pool was emptied. I don’t recall suffering any ill effects, so it can’t have contained any really deadly pathogens; but it looked like it did!

Just below the pool was a weir and a narrow wooden bridge. We fished for Perch in the turbulent waters of the weir fall, and Roach in the calmer pool above it. Maggots below and Bread paste above were very successful baits at times. We also paddled; and sometimes fell over, whilst crossing under the tumbling water. Although in all honesty the tumble was not all that dramatic. As accompanied toddlers, we would be assisted to net “Stickle Backs” and “Minnows” in the upper pool to take home in a jam jar. They went into our small pond and were never seen again.  Across the bridge; and to the left were the “Water Cress beds”. A series of beds; built with narrow, grassed, paths that formed the levee’s containing the cress beds and forming the supply channels. Wooden weirs were used to direct the river water in at the top and out at the bottom. It was fascinating to see in the crystal clear water all the aquatic life. “Frogs” were the most numerous; with “Tadpoles” in season in their thousands. “Water Snails” were plentiful, and what we called “Crawly Bobs”; a sort of scorpion shaped “Crayfish”, and the subject of all sorts of dire warnings as to their deadliness. (I believe the then current species has since been wiped out by an American version).  The Cress was pulled, had its roots cut off. washed in the clear water and loaded onto a horse drawn cart that crossed the ford by the railway bridge next to “Swiss Cottage” at the lower end of Rickmansworth Road. It was possibly harvested on the same day that it was sold in Watford Market. I recall it being very nice and peppery in cheese sandwiches, and if you were really lucky you could still find a snail or two amongst the cheese.

Continuing along the riverside path, it met the descending right path from the Park Gates. Here was a more substantial bridge. The view up river was of a derelict mill beyond another narrow bridge. (Demolished in 1957) A weir on its right provided the required mill pool, and on its left was one of the many channels that linked the canal to the river and enabled the former to maintain its level. These water ways gave the impression that the mill stood on an island. With the graceful “Weeping Willows” It made for a very pretty picture.

Further on still was the humped canal bridge. In this day and age it was a working transport route, and carried both the wide open barges pulled from the towpath by a horse via a long rope and the “Narrow Boats” which operated in pairs. The front one had the phut phut engine and towed its partner. From the bridge was the perfect view of the barges entering the lock and rising or falling several feet as water surged through the vents in the gates and lock walls. The “Narrow Boats” had to manoeuvre side by side to get in. We would both swim and dive; in and around the lock, when nobody was about. Not a very safe thing to do. I had a policeman’s visit at home on one occasion for throwing stones in this lock. Not guilty! But I had been swimming. Below the lock we fished for “Gudgeon”. Not with float and line, or even a net, but with a one pound jam jar. With string tied round its neck, and a wad of bread paste stuck inside on the bottom, the jar would be lowered vertically onto the bottom. After a couple of minutes, it would be pulled swiftly to the surface, before the fish realised what was going on. We sometime caught three at a time. These went home to keep the “Stickle Backs” company in the pond.

A walk along the towpath, to the left to Croxley, or to the right and Grove Mill, would show the Iron posts built into the bridge supports where over the years the tow ropes from many “draught horses” has worn a deep groove since in 1796 the “Grand Junction” canal was excavated across the grounds of the then “Forth Earl of  Essex”. Further reference to the  their Lordships will appear later in this history.

Crossing the canal bridge to the left were a number of very productive “Sweet Chestnut” trees. It was these examples that received the harvesting punishment mentioned earlier. They seemed no worse off for their assault.

Directly over the bridge, and up the hill, the path crosses “West Herts Golf Club. Beyond this hill and into the woods was the best sledging spot in Watford. It ran between the trees and ended at Rousebarn Lane; or across the lane and into a field if you were lucky. It warranted the considerable effort in the snow to actually get there. We called it “Jackets Hill”, but it was probably Jacotts Hill”. A thrill a minute, and somewhat hazardous, whatever it was called.

To the right is an avenue of “Lime Trees”, skirting the Golf Course, and leading into Whippendell Woods. Much of our time would be spent following its many tracks and watching for the wild life. In the spring an amazing display of Bluebells carpeted the ground under the trees in the woods. People would walk out of the Park Gates with armfuls of these flowers. Not something that would be allowed these days I’m sure.

Much of our free time as children and youths was spent in the park and Whippendell Woods, with no thought as to how it got there, and what was there beforehand. I will attempt to note the development in the area from the 11th Century on, but not in great historical detail. Your reference for this information is in the Library, or if you are really interested, in “Watford Museum”, who have made a special study of the growth associated with the “Earls of Essex”, and in particular “The Big House”

My previous histories have been my own experiences; or via firsthand interviews, and I can vouch for their integrity as true reports. This next effort has involved selecting what I think probably happened from several different sources and views.  The fact that many circumstances are differently interpreted in different reports already makes this an even more “best guess” effort. I must say I have enjoyed attempting to match Cassiobury Park; where I grew up, with such titles and events as “The Doomsday Book”, “The Civil War; complete with Cavaliers and Roundheads”, and buildings such as the “Bedford Alms Houses”, with the occasional beheading thrown in for good measure.  Despite having rewired the “Alms Houses” many years ago I, at the time, had no idea who built them, why, and where the name came from.

The area of the old estate was once part of the vast mass of land belonging to the “Abbey of St Albans”. The “Doomsday Book” of 1086 recognises “Cassio”. The  derived “Cassiobury” as a name is thought by many; more informed than myself, to have been originally from a man’s name, possibly a then current tenant. The ‘bury suffix suggested there was a Manor House on the site at that time.

Henry VIII. in his “Reformation” of the Church in England removed The “Manor of Cassiobury”  in 1539 from the control of “St Albans”, and in 1545 “Sir Richard Morison” controlled it. He was apparently a favourite of Henry and a  supporter of both him and his successor Edward V. With friends in high and influential places he prospered, but like many others found enemies too. Despite money problems he started what should be considered the first “Cassiobury House”.  He was still in favour with both “Lady Jane Grey” and “Mary Tudor”. “But Mary I” was his downfall, and he was forced to flee into exile. He died in 1556.

The son “Charles” continued to work on the house when he came of age. His mother “Bridget”, who married the “Duke of Rutland” and the “Duke of Bedford” following her first husbands loss, built the “Essex Chapel” in “St Mary’s Church” where she and her son’s family were interred, and also, in 1580, “The Bedford Alms Houses”, as willed by her son “Charles”.

Charles son “Charles” continued to expand the family house and also built lodges on the estate. Everybody who was somebody had an estate at that time, and a deer park soon became essential. Around this time there were many family changes and not a few remarriages. Suffice to say that when Charles died the only inheritor was daughter “Elizabeth” who had married “Arthur Capel” of Hadham Hall. Her husband was made a Baron by “Charles I”. and the Capels had arrived in Cassiobury history.

The Civil War upset Capel’s plans and ended with his being “beheaded” in 1649 in the “Tower of London”. His eldest son “Arthur”, who had been a hostage of the “Roundheads” against the release of prisoners by the “Cavaliers” and therefore had a traumatic upbringing, but was nobly rewarded for his devotion and loyalty to the monarchy. Needing an imposing base for his new status as “Lord Lieutenant of Ireland” he moved into Cassiobury in 1668 as “Arthur Capel, The First Earl of Essex”. Thus the introduction of the Essex’s to Cassiobury was by marriage, not inheritance.

The house was virtually rebuilt by the Royally appointed surveyor “Hugh May”; charged with rebuilding London following the Great Fire of 1666. Extensive landscaping works were also carried  out following the design of the Head Gardener from the “‘Tuilleries” in Paris. It would appear that this was the time where some of the “Avenues” of trees through the woods were established. Some drawings of the site; on its completion, show an extremely impressive formal layout. Here again, no two artist’s appear to have visited the same site. Even the house is sometime shown as an “H” configuration, which, apparently, it never was.

The 1st Earl had his plans interrupted; when in 1683 he found himself; allegedly, in the same cell in the Tower that had held his father. Treason was suspected, “The Rye House” plot to assassinate King Charles the aim. He never came to trial, but was found in his cell with his throat cut. Suicide or murder? He is interred in the Crypt of our Parish Church.

Cassiobury, and his title was inherited by Arthur’s son “Algernon” at age 13. Later, following a successful army career and much more work on the estate, the Second Earl died in 1710

Son “William” aged 13 was the inheritor. The family soon included the daughter of the “Earl of Clarendon”, and later “Elizabeth Russell”. Two more families that live on in local history. He also built “Little Cassiobury” which still exists, as a dower house, possibly for his mother Elizabeth. The Third Earl died in 1743.

“The Fourth Earl, William Capel”. like several of his predecessors was “Lord of the Royal Bedchamber”, seemingly a family speciality. Work continued on the estate and in 1796 The Earl allowed the digging of “The Grand Junction Canal” across the estate.

The “Fifth Earl, George Capel”, inherited in 1799 from his father. He broke the ‘Bedchamber line but in 1808 was selling some of his other properties to pay for further improvements on the estate at Watford. A patron of the Arts saw him use famous architects to remodel Cassiobury in the Gothic style. Old wings were removed and an enclosed courtyard formed. Turrets, pinnacles, Gothic styled windows were added. A chapel inspired dining room and an eight sided kitchen was also built. This latest remodelling was complete by 1805 and appeared to mark the start of the Earls invitation to paint and draw his latest incarnation. As an art patron of some standing he appeared to have no shortage of artisans.  Many examples are to be found at Watford Museum and illustrate many books on the subject of the estate. George Capel died in 1839 and leaving no direct heirs, his estate went to nephew “Arthur Algernon Capel”. The new “6th Earl”, like most of his predecessors, he was not satisfied with the gardens, and together with input from his wife added and made many changes. During this period the public were allowed access to the grounds for the first time. 1892 saw the death of Arthur.

The title passed to his grandson “George Devereux”. The “Seventh Earl of Essex”. In the year of his accession he sold pictures from the house by Lanseer and Turner; plus furniture and porcelain to the approx value of £40,000. Was the writing on the wall? He served in the Boer war and married twice, the first marriage providing him with a son and heir; “Algernon George de Vere Capel”. The second; to a wealthy American lady, was celebrated with a carriage ride from Watford Junction which passed through a triumphal arch in the high Street. Her husband gave clothing to the poor of Watford to celebrate the occasion. This second wife, enjoying the estate with her dogs, gardening and riding and also supporting her husband financially. She appeared to do so in a flamboyant manner with masses of flowers, and little care for other costs, so it was surprising that the mansion and grounds were advertised “To let”, for terms from months to years. Several notables took advantage of the offer. The current Earl was busy during his tenure selling off several properties; and by the turn of the century: Callowland, Harwoods and Cassiobridge were all in the hands of Messrs Ashby and Brightman, and we all know what they did with them! In 1911 an area of the estate known as “High Park” was leased to “The West Herts Golf Club”, and land adjoining Rickmansworth Road, below the Park Gates was again sold to the same developers for” Better class housing”. (Cassiobury Park Avenue and its environs).

Here marks the crux of this whole section. Following an offer of part of the estate for use as a public park, a poll of the Watford residents in 1908 rejected the offer on the basis of cost. Following a year’s debate the Council went ahead with the purchase anyway; and paid £24,500 for 65 acres. A further 25 acres was added for £7,000. With Cassiobury Estates Ltd. virtually winding up in a further sale to the now “Borough of Watford”, of 33 acres this time, for £15,000, followed by Whippendell Woods in 1935. The land leased to “West Herts Golf Course” was also sold to them later. Here was our park, or at least its embryo.

“The Seventh Earl. George Devereux” died in 1916; run over by a Taxi. With the financial situation being severely exacerbated by his large death duties, it was only a matter of waiting for a rental lease to expire and the house was empty, and soon itself  up for a sale, overseen by the new “Eighth Earl Algernon” and his step mother. The sale included the mansion, Little Cassiobury” and “The West Herts Golf Links”. The total area was in around 870 acres. As the family had been patrons and collectors of art in its various forms the contents were both diverse and very valuable. The works of; Turner, Landseer and Wilkie, fittings and furniture, and the magnificent six stained glass windows from the cloister were sought and bought by the “Victoria and Albert Museum”. The house was not sold, and demolished for its materials in 1927. Oak, Tudor bricks and “Grinling Gibbons” carvings. The Grand staircase was removed to “The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, in New York. It may be pertinent to describe roughly where the house was situated. Across the current park, above the bandstand, and out of the gate into Parkside drive. Look left, and into the current estate and there you have it. The current Cassiobury Estate, from Parkside Drive, and extending to Hempstead Road, was the result of the land cleared by the demolition and its subsequent sale.

Following the brief and abbreviated description I have provided of its growth to give some idea of both the scale and content of the estate and house over several centuries, it is chastening to show that in a period of less than 30 years, it can all be lost, and for most of the people currently using it, forgotten. I will end by describing the perimeter and extent of the estate using modern landmarks, and the few ancient survivors,

We will start at a site behind the current leisure centre in Hempstead Road, Here is the Grade II listed  Dower House, “Little Cassiobury”. A rather splendid two storey building sharing its proximity with a Leisure Centre and a Technical College.   Continuing along the same road to its junction with Ridge Lane is, on the left, “Ridge Lane Cottage” once a lodge guarding one of the access drives to the Big House.

Continuing along Hempstead Road we turn left down Grove Mill Lane, past the mill and over the canal and River Gade then up the hill to where, again on the left, once stood a Keepers Lodge known as “Sparrowpot Lodge”. This has also been demolished and replaced with a barrier and car park. It sat at the end of one of the many “Rides” in Whippendell Woods.

Circling these same woods, beyond Chandlers Cross, and crossing West Herts. Golf Course we reach the “Iron Bridge Lock” on the “Grand Union Canal”.

Following the route of the River Gade along the bottom of the present park; past the Paddling Pool, we reach Gade Avenue. Under the railway bridge is the original site of a  lodge. “Swiss Cottage” was burned down in 1940. Close to this site is another Grade II. timbered building called Cassiobury Lodge. This served as a gardeners accommodation and now has an unenviable view of a busy road and is not in great condition.

Returning towards the Town Hall along Rickmansworth Road we pass Shepherds Road where another entrance lodge “Shepherds Cottage” stood. Demolished some time ago.

Continue to the site of the old Peace Memorial Hospital, passing the “Park Gate” site on your left, and cross behind the Town Hall site, and we are back at “Little Cassiobury”.

It will be seen that this estate, and its neighbour, owned by the “Clarendons”, together with the areas such as the North and West Watford developments already mentioned, covered a fair proportion of West Hertfordshire. Watford Town, until relatively late in the Cassiobury Estate’s life time, was no more than one long road from the crossroads by the pond to Bushey Arches and was dwarfed in comparison. The distribution of wealth was pretty obvious too. That the “Essex’s” generous share should apparently dissolve so quickly is a surprise.

We have inherited a nice park though. No herds of Deer, or Trout in the Gade, but bags of room for the towns dogs to run, and the kids to tread carefully. That the site should eventually succumb to the fate of many other green spaces in the area does not bare thinking of.


Alan Orchard.

February 2019

These are my interpretations of the facts as I see them and I am not the spokesman for the KRA or anyone else. Please do not publish this effort in part or as a whole without permission.