On 31 March I climbed onto the back of a truck, in a high wind, to deliver a speech to the assembled crowd of over 100 people. My message was that it was time that Panshanger Park, between Welwyn Garden City and Hertford in Hertfordshire, was returned to the people.
The 900-acre grade II*-listed park and garden should by now be largely open to the public. A legal agreement for delivery of a country park was signed in January 1979: this allowed the owner, Lafarge Tarmac, to take minerals in exchange for a country park to be opened progressively from 1989. But so far only about a third is accessible, and that only occurred a year ago. Hertfordshire County Council is responsible for holding the company to account, but has allowed it to procrastinate.
The energetic Friends of Panshanger Park are lobbying for the full opening of the park. They organised the event on 31 March to mark the anniversary of the opening of the first third of the park and to call for the job to be completed.
Walkers entered the park from all sides, converging at Riverside Cottage in the centre.
The WI was there selling cakes. Gary O’Leary, chairman of the friends, described the campaign so far. I told the crowd how the Open Spaces Society was founded 150 years ago to campaign for public parks and spaces and this particular battle was a continuation of that tradition. You can see a video of part of my speech here. I said that the park was Hertfordshire’s best-kept secret and it must be reclaimed for the people.
After this we walked over the prohibited land. The Panshanger estate has a fascinating history. In 1797 the fifth Earl Cowper began improvements and he employed landscape designer Humphry Repton who produced before-and-after designs (known as a red book) in 1799. These included suggestions for the house and lake on the river Mimram, a lovely chalk stream (of which there are, apparently, only 180 in the world).
The house was demolished in 1953-4 but Pevsner writes in The buildings of England: ‘The views from the N of the valley past the trees down to the series of lakes created by a widening of the river Mimram are still superb, one of Repton’s most perfect schemes’—high praise indeed.
Pevsner also writes favourably of the house: ‘For those who had an eye for the Romantic Gothick the house was of great interest.’ It was begun in 1806, ‘a demonstrative reaction against earlier Georgian ideals, not a square and solid symmetrically composed block, keeping proudly in opposition to the surrounding scenery, but a long and low, completely freely grouped front, 350 ft long, with battlements and turrets and occasional bay-windows, and cemented to conceal its bricks’. It is sad that there is no longer a trace of it.
The orangery still stands albeit a ruin, and is now being worked on with the possibility of becoming a café or visitor centre.
But the centrepiece of our walk was the 600-year-old Panshanger Great Oak, an immensely fine tree in a wood strewn with daffodils.
It is certainly time all this was returned to the people.