Chapter Three of Life Along the River by Kathryn Shreeve
Local historian and writer Kathryn Shreeve has been with Friends of the Rib & Quin from the very beginning. She has published several books on the area through the ages and in ‘Life Along the River’ tells the story of our river valleys through history, serialised into chapters on our website.
In the third chapter, the story of our valleys turns to the estates that have defined our landscape and its boundaries and the great villas and houses that were built here
A shelter from the storm
From time immemorial the elite members of society have had to have estates befitting their status – be it a Roman villa, a Norman castle or a Georgian mansion. For the very rich of Norman society these could include a deer park, and, for those less fortunate, just a ‘bury’ (or manor house) with a good few acres sufficed. Hertfordshire, with its close proximity to London, abounds in these estates, and the Quin and Rib valleys can lay claim to a fair few of their own. Some of them are still with us today, and, as will be seen, much of the land through which the rivers pass is still owned by these estates.
The word ‘bury’ comes from the Old English meaning a sort of fortified place, but mostly they equate to manor houses that were the central hub of medieval feudal life. They are particularly common in the east of the county, as witnessed by those on our rivers. Of the ‘burys’ on the Quin, the names of some are preserved in Dassels Bury, Quinbury Farm and Braughing Bury. And on the Rib, we once had, or still have, Mardleybury (not far from the source of the river), Corney Bury, Westmill Bury, Gatesbury, Youngsbury and Thundridgebury (also moated).
Of those of the seriously rich that included deer parks we had just two: Standon Lordship and Ware Park. Whereas Standon’s park is rather lost to history, Ware Park house and farm are reminders in the landscape today. The earliest of these was Ware Park, which was recorded in the Domesday survey as a ‘park for woodland beasts’. By this time (1086) the land was owned by Hugh de Grandmesnil, one of William the Conqueror’s most trusted companions who had fought alongside him at Hastings. He may even have had a residence in Ware. Standon’s park was another owned by a noble Norman family – the de Clares, whose ancestors had also fought at Hastings, and whose ‘other’ residence (apart from that at Clare in Suffolk) was in Standon. The first written reference to this park comes in the first half of the 13th century, and the present-day Standon Lodge Farm, east of the Rib marks the site of the park lodge which was occupied by generations of Standon’s parkers. If Ware’s park was older, Standon’s was bigger: c.560 acres as opposed to Ware’s c.325 acres (although it did increase in size in later centuries). Not only was a good deal of hunting done in these parks, especially when medieval royalty visited, they also served as a source of venison for the high tables of the aristocracy.
Water was of course essential for the herds of deer, but there would undoubtedly have been ponds and troughs throughout the park as well. Nor would the river have been any sort of barrier to the animals, which are notorious for their powers of escape! Fences, or pales, were necessary as a boundary for any park, and ‘park pales’ are frequently referred to in documents. And not only did the Normans bring their passion for hunting to this country, they also introduced fallow deer, which were thought to be better at living in these enclosed areas than our own native red and roe deer.
Most of the western boundary of Ware’s park seems to have been the Rib, and, [as can be seen from the map], it was only a short distance from there to the Lea. Standon’s boundary with the Rib is less certain, and either crossed the river to include the original manor house (replaced by Standon Lordship in Tudor times), or it stopped at the river. The whole of its northern boundary, however, is fixed by a bourne that flows into the river.
Both parks seem to have survived until the early 18th century, but then parts began to be enclosed and, over time, ploughed up. This was not at all unusual once hunting fell out of favour and estates needed the revenue that agriculture could bring. Both parks have survived (with some minor alterations) in that state ever since, although Standon’s park succumbed to the afore-mentioned branch of the Great Eastern Railway which was forced through the western part in the Victorian era.
As for these two mansion houses, both are re-builds: Standon’s being 16th century and Ware’s 19th century, so the latter would never have seen a deer-hunt in its own park. Standon Lordship, however, most certainly did, as the small parts of the Tudor house of Sir Ralph Sadleir that still remain today could have seen Elizabeth I galloping across the parkland in the summers of 1561 and 1578. She may not have been the last royal to do so, as James I also stayed two nights at the Lordship in 1603 on the way to London for his coronation. James was a bit of a hunting addict, but whether he had time to fit in a quick gallop through the park, not to mention the surrounding countryside, is unknown! In the second half of that same century, a descendant of Sir Ralph, Lord Aston, lived there: “Every evening between five and seven o’clock, Lord Aston would ‘stroll about the park’ in his chariot.” He also had a buck killed every day except Sunday for the table!
In their day, many of the ‘burys’ that line the rivers would also have played host to great owners and great guests. Corneybury, for example, was owned in the 17th century by one John Crouch who had five sons and five daughters. These girls, between them, managed to get through twelve husbands – two of which were Lord Mayors of London and another the Earl of Manchester! Corneybury has a magnificent park which has been the site of many recent Buntingford events, with the Rib running through it. In the second half of the 18th century, Youngsbury was home to David Barclay, head of the banking and brewing family. He was a Quaker who was notable for freeing an estate of Jamaican slaves and moving them to Pennsylvania – in which endeavour he would probably have known William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson, whose ‘epiphany’ occurred on Wadesmill Hill.
Barclay’s house, originally just called Youngs, may have been ‘only’ a bury, but this did not stop him from employing the great landscape designer, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, to improve his estate “after remarking that Nature had do[ne] so much that little was wanting, but enlarging the River”. Apart from a few minor adjustments, Brown’s river-widening and straightening was indeed undertaken during David Barclay’s tenure, so that it was visible from the mansion windows – the part of the river affected being to the south-west of the house. This would also have had the effect of speeding up the flow before it arrived at Wadesmill. Youngsbury is now considered to be one of the best-surviving Brown landscapes in the county.
By 1796 the estate was in the ownership of the Governor of the Bank of England, Daniel Giles, but he died four years later leaving the house to his son, also Daniel, who later became MP for St. Albans and Sheriff of Hertfordshire. This Daniel bought the Thundridgebury manor house in 1806, but then, despite protestations, proceeded to demolish it five years later, leaving just the chimney stack remaining! Apart from being a tragedy in itself, this ultimately led to the dilapidation of the church to such an extent that a new church was built and consecrated in 1853 – the same year that the roof of the old church fell in and the Saxon nave and tiled chancel were demolished. Only the tower still stands today, for which there are strenuous efforts in progress to save what is left.
Another Grade II listed house that should be mentioned is Little Court, Buntingford. Originally this was a brick house built in 1598, but it was demolished in 1819 and the bricks re-used to build what stands today on the east bank of the river, with its own 18th century bridge! The original house was a four-storeyed Jacobean-style mansion, with formal gardens and elegant grounds. A drawing of it, published in 1700, shows ducks on the water in the foreground and men fishing from a Rib with a very high water level! [photo?] Dr. John Addenbrooke, who lived in Buntingford for the last few years of his life, died whilst staying at Little Court in 1719 at the age of just 39. It was his legacy that, following the death of his wife, he instructed was to be used for the founding of the Cambridge hospital that now bears his name. In 1790 the owner, Richard Spurrier, called in the services of that other great garden designer, Humphry Repton, to advise on the gardens of that time. Sadly, no drawings that Repton may have produced survive today, and as Spurrier only survived for another couple of years it is unknown what, if anything, was ever carried out.
Another major estate, this one hosting the source of the River Quin itself, was Cokenach. This is mentioned in the Domesday Book, spelt Cochenae, and is thought to have an Old English derivation meaning Cocca’s hatch or gate. If true, then undoubtedly Cocca would have jealously guarded the source of the river as well! Prior to the Dissolution, it was owned by Royston Priory, following which it had a number of eminent owners through the centuries who constructed enclosed formal gardens as well as an imaginative canal system and large areas of parkland that can still be seen today, including the village cricket ground.
1 See FORQ website for more on the geology of the area
2 Natural History article – see ‘Sources’
3 High/Nokes, memory of Lillian Allen
Blowers, Emma: Around Cold Christmas – 4th edition, 2020
Gover, Mawer & Stenton: The Place-Names of Hertfordshire, 1938
High, Val. and Nokes, Mary, ed.: No Washing Machines Then: Braughing People Remember, 2004
Partridge, Clive: Skeleton Green: a Late Iron Age and Romano-British Site, 1981
Perowne, Christopher: A History of the Parish of Standon, 1967
Plumb, Philip W., compiled by: The Archive Photographs Series: Buntingford, 1995
Rowe, Anne: Medieval Parks of Hertfordshire, 2009
Short, David, ed.: An Historical Atlas of Hertfordshire, 2011
Tott, Victor: A Braughing Countryman’s Diary, 2010
The Braughing of Victor Tott, 2010
The Way It Was: A Collection of Memories of Country Life in and around Standon and Puckeridge over the last 100 years, 1999
Hertfordshire Mercury, 26.6.1880: article entitled: “Hertfordshire Natural History and Field Club”