Voyages to the House of Diversion
Seventeenth-Century Water Gardens and the Birth of Modern Science
The Pondyards - Gorhambury
PLEASE NOTE THAT THE PONDYARDS ARE ON PRIVATE PROPERTY AND ARE NOT OPEN TO VISITORS
The gardens at the Bacon family estate at Gorhambury near St.
Albans were always going to be of interest, especially as it was
reported, and indeed shown on the Ordnance Survey map, that the remains
of Sir Francis Bacon's water gardens, known as the Pondyards, survived
as earthworks. The word was, from a number of researchers who had tried
to examine the site, that access was difficult as the area was
heavily overgrown with brambles and sported other undergrowth making it
not suited to easy exploration. We were therefore delighted when, upon
contacting a representative of the team who help manage the estate, we
discovered that considerable clearance had been undertaken and we would
be permitted to make a visit. That was the good news, the bad news was
that the day chosen was one of near continuous rain and although the
ground had been cleared some time ago a new generation of weeds had
grown up nearly to waist height in places which was of course all
saturated. After an initial meeting with the agent we spent an hour or
so on site then retreated to the Chequers Inn just down the road for a
warming lunch before returning with umbrella, ranging rods and camera
to make a preliminary record of the site.
To get started here is a sketch plan after one published in an article in Country Life
from 1933 by J.C. Rogers
and here's a more complex view copied under licence from Bluesky EA LiDAR - © Environment Agency
During the morning visit I put a new iPad to the test secure,
hopefully, in it's military grade casing, it passed the waterproof test.
This is a view of the southern most of the two rectangular ponds
looking south westish, unfortunately it couldn't quite work out where
it was... oh well..
bank along the east side of the complex looking
Looking west along the bank between the two rectangular ponds.
Looking south east across the southern most rectangular pond plus
island in the middle
The eastern most of the 'C' moats, north east corner looking south west,
The northern causewayed approach to the easternmost 'C' moat with
Centre of central moat with rectangular depression, possible site of
causeway to the central moat to the right, looking
view looking west.
South west corner of central moat looking south
Lump of brickwork looking fairly recent but situated on the southern
causeway of the westernmost 'C' moat, looking south
The western arm of the westernmost moat looking
Looking East North East across the whole site with trackway and
possible stream course in the foreground.
... and here are Sir Francis's plans in his own words:
28, 1608. " To give directions of a plott to be made to turn ye pond
yard into a place of pleasure, and to speak of them ton my L of
Salisbury. The ground to be enclosed square w a bricke wall, and frute
trees plashed upon it, on the owt side of it to sett fayre straite
byrches on 2 sides and lyme trees on 2 sides, some x foote distante
from the wall, so that the wall may hide most of the shaft and onely
the tufts appear above. From ye wall to have a waulk of some 25 foote
on a higher levell. Under that waulke some 4 foote to have a fyne
litell stream rune upon gravell and fyne peppell to be putt into ye
bottome, and of a yard and a half over, wch shall make the whole
residue of the ground an Iland; the banque to be turfed and kept cutt;
the banq I mean of the ascent to ye upper waulk : no hedg hear but some
fyne standards well kept. Within that stream upon a levell to make
another waulk of 25 foote, the border to be sett wth flagges of all
sortes of flower de Luces and lylyes. All the ground within this waulk
to be cast into a laque, wth a fayre raile wth Images gilt round about
it and some low flowers specially violetts and strawberies along qu.
Then a fayre hedg of Tymber woorke till it touch the water, wth some
glasses coloured hear and there for the ey. In ye middle of the laque
where the howse now stands to make an Iland of 100 broad : an in the
middle thereof to build a howse for freshnes with an upper galery open
upon the water, a terace above that, and a supping roome open under
that; a dynyng roome, a bedd chamber, a cabanett, and a roome for
musike, a gar-den; In this Ground to make one waulke between trees; The
galeries to cast Northwards; Nothing to be planted hear but of choyse."
I think it's fair to say that it didn't quite work out in that way
although a number reconstructions have been attempted on the basis of
this description they are quite hard to reconcile with what's on the
ground today. What is clear from the opening line is that this is an
adaptation of an existing site. John Aubrey was impressed when he
visited the site in 1656 and noted:
|The figures of the Ponds were thus: they were pitched at the bottomes
with pebbles of severall colours, which were work't in to severall
figures, as of Fishes, etc., which in his Lordship's time were plainly
to be seen through the cleare water, now over-grown with flagges and
rushes. If a poore bodie had brought his Lordship half a dozen pebbles
of a curious colour, he would give them a shilling, so curious was he
in perfecting his Fish-ponds, which I guesse doe containe four acres.
In the middle of the middlemost pond, in the Island is a curious
banquetting-house of Roman architecture, paved with black and white
marble; covered with Cornish slatt, and neatly wainscotted
He even attempted a plan....
... well you can sort of see where he was coming from.
An initial and indeed superficial examination makes a number of points clear:
- This is a multi-period site with medieval antecedents, a
flush of development in the seventeenth century and possibly some
- There will certainly be remains of the central building
described as a banqueting house, some of the walling may be quite close
to the surface.
- Other structures, probably to do with water management, are
hinted at amongst the humps and bumps detectable below the vegetation.
- The various causeways seen on the ground and shown on the
early s estate maps are puzzling in that they dip significantly below
the surrounding levels, could they have been built structures now
partially collapsed rather than solid earthworks?
- There are other associated features which show up on LIDAR which merit investigation
In short the whole site is ripe for a detailed large
archaeological survey, the first requirement being an accurate large
scale plan with associated measured profiles. We will be back.