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.
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
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.