Category Archives: Historic sites

Larmer Tree Gardens


Having spent a lovely sunny September weekend at the End of the Road Festival a few weeks back, I thought I’d find out more about the Larmer Tree Gardens, where the festival is held.

The gardens were created in 1880 as pleasure ground for ‘public enlightenment and entertainment’ by Lieutenant-General Augustus Henry Lane Fox. He inherited the Rushmore Estate rather unexpectedly from a relative, with the condition being that he added Pitt Rivers to his already long name. After a long and distinguished military career, Pitt Rivers had become a pioneering archaeologist, the first to develop scientific techniques of excavation and the first Inspector of Ancient Monuments, appointed in 1882.

The Rushmore Estate, part of Cranbourne Chase, surrounded Rushmore House, which was built in the early 19th century. It was extended and remodelled for Pitt Rivers by Peter Webb, and is today a school. With his keen interest in archaeology, Pitt Rivers was an ideal custodian of this landscape, which contained many important prehistoric monuments.

The Roman Temple

The Roman Temple

On inheriting Rushmore, Pitt Rivers set about creating the pleasure gardens with typical Victorian vision and extravagance. The gardens were planned as a collection of ornate buildings, majestic trees and intimate arbours. Work began in 1880, and the gardens opened to the public in 1885. One of the first buildings to be built was an octagonal temple, beside a small pool and with an inscription reading ‘Augustus Pitt Rivers/ erexit/ MDCCCLXXX’ (1880). The interior has a marble and mosaic floor.

Next six ‘quarters’ or separate buildings of Indian style were constructed. These were designed for picnics, set around areas of lawn, hedged with laurel. Four of these buildings were pavilions imported from North India for the Colonial and Indian Exhibition, held in London in 1886. They were acquired by Pitt Rivers and re-erected.

The Singing Theatre

The Singing Theatre

In 1895, Pitt Rivers had the Singing Theatre built and designed by his estate workers, based on ones he’d seen on his travels. Its backdrop is painted with The Funeral of Phocion, a 1648 painting by Nicholas Poussin and painted by the scenery department at the Welsh National Opera.

By 1899, the gardens were attracting 44,000 visitors a year. Plays and poetry recitals took place, and in the field adjoining the gardens there was a racecourse, lawn tennis courts and a golf course. In the evening the gardens were lit with thousands of lights and there was dancing in the open air. Thomas Hardy, after dancing there in 1895, said it was “quite the prettiest sight I ever saw in my life”.

Following the General’s death in 1900 the gardens closed, opening only for special occasions.  Some of the buildings collapsed and fell into disrepair. In 1991 Michael Pitt Rivers, his great grandson, set about restoring the gardens and in 1995 they were re-opened to the public. Today they are recognised as gardens of national importance and are used for various festivals and events.

And what of the name? What was ‘The Larmer Tree’? Apparently it was an ancient tree, which stood as early as the 10th century and which represented an ancient boundary between Dorset and Wiltshire. Tradition holds that King John hunted in this area and met with his huntsmen under the branches of the Larmer Tree.


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The Gardens of Old Gorhambury

The porch leading into the great hall

The porch leading into the great hall

The ruins of Old Gorhambury, Hertfordshire are intriguing and rather hidden in the countryside near St. Alban’s. The house was once at the centre of Elizabethan society – it was home to the famous and influential Bacon family.

The large windows of the great hall

The large windows of the great hall

Built by Sir Nicholas Bacon between 1563 and 1568, the house was his country retreat from London. Sir Nicholas was Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal and one of Queen Elizabeth’s most important officials. The house was arranged around a courtyard, in typical Elizabethan fashion. Today, only the elaborate classical porch, part of the great hall, a small section of the chapel and the foundations of a bell tower remain.

In addition to a luxurious house Sir Nicholas laid out and planted extensive gardens. Unfortunately nothing is left of these today but they are known from a surviving estate map and later descriptions.

In front of the house was a large enclosure, where visitors in their carriages would have disembarked and been greeted by their host. Queen Elizabeth visited the house at least four times – a costly but honorable visit for her subject. The enclosure was turfed, with a gravel drive and with bended trees lining walks around three of the sides. From here, two stone gateways led through the wall and into the house. Immediately surrounding the house were intricate walks, trees, arbours and flower gardens. At the rear was an orchard with a banqueting house and from here a gateway led to the Oakwood, a mature woodland. Beyond this was the ‘desert’, a wilderness with shrubs, fruit trees and windy paths. At each corner of the ‘desert’ was a mount with a summerhouse.

After Sir Nicholas died in 1579, his widow Anne lived at the house for many years. The estate eventually passed to his youngest son, the famous writer, philosopher and scientist Sir Francis Bacon. It was after his political downfall and corruption trial in the later years of his life that Francis found refuge at Gorhambury. Here he wrote his most famous works and conducted scientific experiments. He liked to spend time in the woods and gardens surrounding his house, walking with his secretary, who was ready to jot down his thoughts. His essay ‘Of Gardens’ can be seen to directly relate to the gardens built by his father at Gorhambury. As well as embellishing and upkeeping his father’s gardens, Francis also built an elaborate water garden – the Pondyards – on the edge of his estate, complete with a grand and decorative second house, Verulam House.

After Francis Bacon’s death, Old Gorhambury came into the possession of the

View of the new Gorhambury House

View of the new Gorhambury House

Grimston family who lived in the Tudor house for several generations. By the late 18th century, the old house was in serious need of repairs, and the decision was made to build a new house on the estate. This is the neo-classical Gorhambury House that stands today, still home to the Grimstons.

The ruins of the old house became part of another designed landscape – the elaborate porch became an eyecatcher in the parkland surrounding the new house.

You can visit Old Gorhambury House free of charge. A permissive footpath runs through the estate past the ruins from the Roman theatre at Verulamium. The new house is open to visitors on Thursday afternoons 2-5pm, May-October, for guided tours.

To find out more about the history of Old Gorhambury House, the Victoria County History provides lots of detail. The gardens have been thoroughly researched in two articles by Paula Henderson: 1992 ‘Sir Francis Bacon’s water gardens at Gorhambury’. Garden History 20(2): 116-131 and 2008 ‘Sir Francis Bacon’s essay ‘Of Gardens’ in context’. Garden History, 36(1): 59-84.


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Defences at Waverley Abbey


Distant view of the abbey ruins

Distant view of the abbey ruins

Tucked away off a corner of the busy B3001, just south of Farnham in leafy Surrey, lie the ruins of Waverley Abbey. The fragmentary and rough flint walls may not look very impressive today, but the abbey holds a key place in history. It was the very first Cistercian monastery to be founded in England.

But that’s not what today’s post is about. Maybe I’ll come back to the romantic medieval ruins on another day. Waverley Abbey holds another secret, and it relates to the anti-invasion defences of Britain during World War II. Remarkably, the large open space formed by the curve of the River Wey within which the abbey ruins sit, was prepared to be used as a tank ‘killing ground’ in the event of an invasion of Britain by enemy forces.

In 1940, troops dug an enormous set of anti-tank ditches across these grassy fields. These defence lines, many miles long, were constructed all across England. They were designed to compartmentalise the country and delay the Germans long enough for more mobile forces to launch counter-attacks.

The ditches at Waverley were part of the GHQ (General Headquarters) line, the longest and most important, as it would have protected London and the industrial heart of England. It ran from Somerset to Reading, around the south of London to Essex, and then up to Yorkshire.

The concrete dragon's teeth on the banks of the River Wey
Dragon’s teeth on the banks of the River Wey

Although the ditches themselves are today only obvious on aerial photographs, there are other clues this area saw intense activity during WWII. Close to the abbey ruins, in two groups on either side of the river, are some ‘dragon’s teeth‘.

These odd-looking pyramidal concrete blocks were obstacles to prevent German tanks from crossing the river. Near the abbey car park is a brick anti-tank gun emplacement, where guns would have been located to fire across the river floodplain. Several other gun emplacements and pillboxes can be seen in the nearby fields.

Wandering around the peaceful abbey ruins today, it is hard to imagine the country preparing itself for an imminent invasion. Luckily for us, and for the abbey ruins, these defences were never put to the test.

To find out more about the anti-invasion defences of England, I recommend William Foot’s 2006 book Beaches, fields, streets and hills: the anti-invasion landscapes of England, 1940, published by the Council for British Archaeology.

To find out more about Waverley Abbey, really the only place to look is Harold Brakspear’s excavation report, Waverley Abbey, published in 1905.

Waverley Abbey is in the guardianship of English Heritage and is free to visit.


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