The Hanwell Park Project


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Every piece of research begins with a cunning plan, here is mine, a little sketchy in places but this is where it all begins...

Voyages to the House of Diversion: Hanwell Castle and the Jacobean Water Garden.

A proposal for a programme of Ph. D. / D. Phil. Research

By Stephen Wass B. Ed. (hons.), M.A.

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In the seventeenth century the grounds of Hanwell Castle in Oxfordshire were the setting for an extraordinary garden which featured a series of devices powered by water. Some were decorative or for the purposes of leisure, such as the House of Diversion, whilst others demonstrated aspects of contemporary technology such as a cannon-boring mill (Plot 1677: 240). The Cope family and their estate were subject to four royal visitations. Whilst remarkable the gardens were by no means unique. The Enstone Marvel built between 1628 and 1635 by Thomas Bushell demonstrated similar special effects (Strange 1998: 130) whilst the water gardens at Tackley echoed something of the topography of contemporary fortifications (Whittle and Taylor 1994). Although such gardens have been studied from an art historical perspective the fact that virtually none have survived intact means that the technical aspects of their construction and operation can best be studied through a programme of archaeological investigation and, as Deetz reminds us, time after time, the materiality of the past opens up new understanding of wider historical issues (Deetz 1996).

Research Issues

The proposed programme of research begins with the setting of Hanwell Castle and a consideration of a preliminary time line indicates three main areas for study.

1.    The first of these will examine the building of the quadrangular brick castle in the late fifteenth century, its relationship to the earlier medieval manor and its park, and to what extent a new symbolic landscape was created to reflect elite concerns with power, status and display (Creighton 2002: 65). This defines the backdrop to what is to come.

2.    A century or so later we have what must have been a garden of considerable merit and architectural and technological innovation as it gained royal approval in the course of three visits by James I (Beesley 1841: 240) and one by Charles I. We may assume that this garden was in the ‘mannerist’ tradition (Strong 1998: 73) and featured many of the water powered mechanisms that were still operational in the 1670s. 

3.    The Civil War must have brought enormous dislocation to the castle and grounds as it was garrisoned for nine weeks in 1645 (Lobel and Crossley 1969: 114) and played a part in a number of local skirmishes (Tennant 1992: 176). Nevertheless by the time of Plot’s visit enough reconstruction and new building must have been undertaken for him to be able to describe the then landowner, Sir Anthony Cope, as ‘ingenious’ and a ‘virtuoso’ (Plot 1677: 270) and to describe in detail the workings of the great water clock.

In the grand historical sense landscape design and construction at Hanwell Parallels a number of key developments in the political and social transition from the medieval to the early modern period namely the arrival of the Tudors, the change to Stuart rule and the aftermath of the Civil War and Restoration. As well as these political events we might expect developments at Hanwell to reflect technological change and in particularly for it to have been one of the locations where expression was given to the relationship between artistry on the one hand and science and technology on the other, a relationship in many ways central to the period which saw the birth of modern science.

Whilst the historical dimension will be vital in establishing contexts and preparing the ground for explanations the core of the project will be concerned with the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the technology and will initially focus on discovering and recording whatever traces remain of the pumps and pipes, cisterns and conduits and related infra-structure that supported the various mechanisms featured in the garden. Future work on other sites would be primarily directed towards building up a body of evidence so that one could begin to characterize seventeenth-century approaches to hydraulic engineering and relate it to general developments in science and technology for the period. A number of contemporary manuals on garden design and hydraulics survive (for example  de Caus 1615 and  Bockler 1662 ) and an important element of the study will be relating their advice to what was actually done on the ground.


Discussion with the landowners at Hanwell has established their commitment to and enthusiasm for the project. As academics themselves they appreciate the need for extended access to the site and are prepared for a programme of both survey work and excavation lasting several years. Negotiations for access to other sites are on-going. Although opportunities will be sought for appropriate grants essentially the research will be self-funded.

The gardens at Hanwell survive today as an extensive series of earthworks, which exist on several levels and are quite densely wooded. There are also a number of water filled pools, indeed the site of the House of Diversion is on an island within the upper pool. This raises some interesting logistic problems and will impose important seasonal and environmental limitations on aspects of the work, surveying for example will need to be undertaken in the winter when the vegetation has died down but we will still need to tread carefully to avoid the drifts of snowdrops for which the gardens are well known locally

The programme of investigations will be based on the model set up during my two year project for the National Trust at Farnborough Hall whereby a team of local volunteers were recruited from heritage groups to aid in survey work and digging. The element of community involvement is an important one and the work will be publicized through meetings and talks to societies in the area. This builds on work already being done at Hanwell where the owners have set up a community observatory, a curious echo of earlier scientific preoccupations.

Techniques used will reflect both the local topography, a limited budget and the skills and interests of the volunteers who will be supporting us. Having employed a commercial survey team to set up a series of fixed points around the park most survey work will be undertaken using traditional tape based methods although a laser range finder and an optical level will be employed for some measuring tasks. As well as creating a detailed plan of all earthworks the initial phases of activity will also see the recording of a variety of standing stone work through plan and elevation drawing. In addition a stone catalogue will be drawn up to register the many fragments or architectural stonework distributed around the site. Geophysics will be employed as necessary although it may be of limited use given the nature of the terrain.
The later stages of the project will see several examples of small scale problem focused excavation which in some cases will need to go no further than the clearance of vegetation and the removal of turf and topsoil, as in the case of King James’s Bath. In other instances, particularly on the possible mill sites, if identified, we will instigate more extensive open area excavations to recover the plan and sequential development of larger structures.  I have some considerable prior experience with this aspect of the work (Astill 1993). In association with the National Trust, over the past two years, we have not only built up a body of volunteers but have also assembled the resources to support a programme of digging much of which will be transferable to Hanwell.
Comparative archaeological material will be examined at a number of sites in the South Midlands. Enstone and Tackley have already been mentioned and will be subject to detailed study. Chesterton, Packwood and Wormleighton, in Warwickshire (Mowl and James 2011), Chastleton, Ascott and Wroxton, in Oxfordshire (Mowl 2007) and the gardens at New College and Wadham College (Strong 1998: 116) all offer additional local perspectives. Ultimately, depending on how discoveries at Hanwell shape the pattern of investigation, aspects of the study will be broadened to include other English examples and their continental progenerators. The archaeological explorations will be supported not only by appropriate post–excavation activities but also by documentary research. As well as the kind of contemporary engineering texts already mentioned there is an extensive Cope family archive held at the Hampshire County Record Office. A preliminary reading of the catalogue suggests ample scope for developing an understanding of the family history with potential access to valuable sources such as account books and inventories.


This provisional timetable has been developed on the basis of undertaking a part-time Ph.D. / D. Phil. over five years. My circumstances are such that I am able to devote much of my working week to the project but wish to retain some flexibility in order to complete publication of material from Farnborough and undertake some small scale commercial work.

Initial earthwork survey for overall site map, setting up access and clearing of vegetation on House of Diversion and recording, start of stone catalogue, initial visits to HCRO to assess range of Cope family papers.
Recording of the sunken garden, terrace walling, possible site of grotto, programme of visits to local sites.

Completion of detailed elements Hanwell earthwork survey and stone catalogue, three week study visit to Italian Renaissance gardens with appropriate reading.
Programme of test-pitting to identify archaeological potential of individual locations at Hanwell.

Survey work at Enstone and Tackley, detailed work on archives.
Major excavations on identified sites at Hanwell.

Post-excavation work, survey work on lesser sites, general reading around seventeenth-century science and art.
Possible evaluation excavations at Enstone, completion of other excavation and survey work.

Commencement of writing up.
Completion of writing up.

Literature Review

The best general survey remains Strong’s ‘The Renaissance Garden in England’ although as he says in the preface to the 1998 edition, ‘at some stage I intend to rework the whole subject’ (Strong 1998 ). Hunt, also using primarily literary sources, charts the effects of the Italian Renaissance on English gardens (Hunt 1994) whilst more detailed studies include Baridon’s exploration of some of the links between scientific endeavor and seventeenth-century garden design but again he confines his sources to contemporary documents and his sites to the continent (Baridon 1998). Similarly an early study of seventeenth and eighteenth-century fountains concentrates on illustrative materials from publications of the period rather than examining surviving remains (Thacker 1970). In short there are no studies which set out to examine systematically and in detail the ‘hardware’ of the English water garden of the seventeenth century from an archaeological perspective.

Key Questions

In conclusion the key questions which present themselves at the outset of this study are as follows.
♦    What remains of the seventeenth-century gardens of Hanwell?
♦    How were they built and maintained?
♦    What can we tell about the ways in which they were used?
♦    How do they compare with other gardens of the period?
♦    What do they tell us about the progress of garden design?
♦    How do they reflect contemporary interests and especially the relationship between art and science?


Astill, G. G. 1993. A Medieval Industrial Complex and its Landscape: The Metalworking Watermills and Workshops of Bordesley Abbey, York: Council for British Archaeology

Baridon, M. 1998. The scientific imagination and the Baroque garden, Studies in the History of Gardens & Designed Landscapes: An International Quarterly, 18:1, pp. 5-19

Beesley, A. 1841. A History of Banbury, London: Nichols and Son

Bockler, G. A. 1662. Theatrum Machinarum Novum, Cologne: Sumptibus Pauli Principis

Creighton, O.H. 2002. Castles and Landscapes, Power, Community and Fortification in Medieval England, London: Equinox Publishing

de Caus, I.  1659. New and rare inventions of water-works shewing the easiest waies to raise water higher than the spring : by which invention the perpetual motion is proposed : many hard labours performed : and varieties of notions and sounds produced : a work both usefull profitable and delightfull for all sorts of people, London: Joseph Moxon

de Caus, S. 1615. Les Raisons des Forces Mouvantes, Frankfurt: John Norton

Deetz, J. 1996. In Small Things Forgotten: The Archaeology of Early American Life (Revised Edition), New York: Anchor Books

Hunt, J.D. 1996. Garden and Grove: The Italian Renaissance Garden in the English Imagination, 1600-1750, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press

Lobell, M. D. and Crossley, A. (Eds.) 1969.  A History of the County of Oxford, Volume IX, Bloxham Hundred, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Mowl, T. 2007. Historic Gardens of England, Oxfordshire, Stroud: Tempus

Mowl, T. and James, D. 2011. Historic Gardens of Warwickshire, Bristol: Redcliffe

Plot, R. 1677. The Natural History of Oxfordshire, Oxford: The Theatre

Strong, R. 1998. The Renaissance Garden in England, London: Thames and Hudson

Tchikine, A.  2010. Giochi d'acqua: water effects in Renaissance and Baroque Italy , Studies in the History of Gardens & Designed Landscapes: An International Quarterly, 30:1, pp. 57-76

Tennant, P. 1992. Edgehill and Beyond, The People’s war in the South Midlands 1642 – 1645, Stroud: Alan Sutton

Thacker, C. 1970. Fountains: Theory and Practice in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, Occasional Paper (Garden History Society), No. 2 , pp. 19-26

Whittle, E. and Taylor, C. 1994. The Early Seventeenth-Century Gardens of Tackley, Oxfordshire, Garden History, Vol. 22, No. 1 pp. 37-63