1858 – Ponsbourne Manor, Newgate Street, Hertfordshire

SM 02 – Jul 11

This month’s Site of the Month is one of James 2’s earlier assignments.   One of the very first ferneries he constructed was built in 1858, in the basement of Ponsbourne House, in the village of Newgate Street, near Hertford, Hertfordshire – just a few miles away from his new manufactory in Broxbourne.   Ponsbourne was then the home of Mr J Levick, and became St Dominic’s Priory just after World War 2.   It then became a hotel, before being taken over by Tesco Plc as a Management Training Centre.   It is currently a hotel run by the de Vere Group.

James 2 published a promotional booklet c1877, entitled Picturesque Ferneries and Rock Garden Scenery, in which he appended a list of his ‘satisfied clients’ up to that date.   His descriptive notes were extremely cryptic, but, according to these, his work at Ponsbourne involved the construction of a:

‘Rocky pond, fernery’

This is barely sufficient to create much of an impression in the reader’s mind as to what was involved, the following notes written by a lady (name unknown) who knew the fernery during its time as St Monica’s Priory provides a much clearer picture:

‘When I was at school at Ponsbourne in 1945, the fernery was in what we knew as the ‘Winter Garden’, which was used as a Chapel for the pupils. In those days, there was a waterfall cascading down over the rocks into a pool that ran along most of the length of the base, and contained goldfish. The pockets in the rock face all contained plants of various kinds, and the whole thing was a source of wonder and delight to a small girl.

 Fig 07-3-01 Ponsbourne Fernery

 Fig 1 – What used to be the Fernery at Ponsbourne Hotel, Cheshunt (Photo by Kate Harwood)

‘There was a series of small pools and a waterfall in the gardens to the west of the terrace, and, deeper into the woodland were some rather larger pools constructed with large rocks, which we were allowed to ‘swim’ in during the summer.

‘Many years later, when Ponsbourne was a hotel, I used to look after the hotel flowers, and pick foliage in what were still beautiful gardens. I also volunteered to look after the fernery in what was then known as the ‘Garden Room’. This was an uphill task, as drinks were poured into the fish pools, killing the fish, and the lower plants also suffered from a surfeit of cigarette ends! The hotel owners had removed the glass dome in the garden room – fire regulations – and replaced it with a plastered ceiling. The loss of light was not helpful to the plants.

‘I left the hotel in 1986-87, when Tesco purchased it as a training centre . . (and) . . was very dismayed some time later to see the fernery standing very forlornly in the grounds of Capel Manor, and was very sad to hear that it has now disappeared altogether.’

Site 02 - Ponsbourne 2 - Capel Wall

Fig 2 – The Ponsbourne Fernery Wall after its ‘re-erection’ in the grounds of Capel Manor Horticultural College and Environment Centre in Enfield. It has since been removed.

As is implied in this lady’s notes, the fernery at Ponsbourne was actually built in a ground floor ‘reception’ room known as the ‘Winter Garden’, and the picture in Fig 1 was taken when the table was laid out in preparation for a hotel function. The fernery was built against the wall, and had planting pockets for ferns, and a shallow gully at the bottom.

When Tesco took over the hotel, it was decided that the fernery was no longer needed, so the ‘wall’ was moved, piece by piece, to the Capel Manor Horticultural College and Environment Centre in Enfield, and erected as a wall ‘in the style of Pulham’, as shown in Fig 2. Heaven only knows what James 2 would have thought of it, but this, too, has since been mercifully dismantled, and no longer exists.

 Site 02 - Ponsbourne 3 - Stream IMGP2402

Fig 3 – Stepping stones over the stream at Ponsbourne

 The ‘small pools and a rocky stream’ referred to by the lady in her letter do still survive in the grounds, albeit in a somewhat overgrown state, as can be seen from Fig 3. It is only quite a small stream, rising from a culvert, and winding its very pleasant way over a couple of small cascades before disappearing into another culvert some 100 yards away.

In another part of the grounds is the Walled Garden, which is a very interesting feature. It is not mentioned in Pulham’s notes – either because it was not a fernery or a rock garden feature, or because it was constructed at a later date – but the high wall with its ball terminals has all the hallmarks of a Pulham construction. There are indeed Walled Gardens on a number of sites on which the Pulhams are known to have worked, all dating from around the time that their work was done, and the general style of this example – particularly the impressive entrance, with a curved seat on either side that continues its circular sweep – is typical of their work. It is pictured here in Fig 4.

 Site 02 - Ponsbourne 4 - Gateway - BL P1010939a

Fig 4 – Entrance to the Walled Garden at Ponsbourne


5 thoughts on “1858 – Ponsbourne Manor, Newgate Street, Hertfordshire

  1. I was at Ponsbourne from 1959 to 1966 as a boarder, and the fernery was in excellent condition at that time. Father George Lee the chaplain worked painstakingly on the fernery and the exterior gardens.
    What a dire shame that this feature has been removed and the glass dome as well. i spent many hapy times watching the goldfish swimming up and down the pond at the base of the fernery. I am publishing a book about my days at Ponsbourne Park shortly. John Ruth.

    1. Thank you, John, for your very interesting note. I have had a number of comments from others who spent part of their lives at Ponsbourne, and they all say similar things. It is great shame that this particular example of our heritage has been allowed to be destroyed in this way.

      1. Hi Claude, I was up there today, and it is all boarded up, a very nice security chap let us have a walk around the grounds, they are becoming rapidly overgrown. I wonder what Tesco intend to do with the site now?

  2. Came from Canada to England in 1961. My Mom sent me off to Ponsbourne as a boarder until 1964. The grounds were beautiful but sometimes lonely. Ended up as MC (Master of Ceremonies) in my last year. Sister Anastasia was in charge of our dorm. The Prioress was lovely and was fond of me. Have a picture of her with me in the courtyard on my desk today. She inspires me to be better. Remember Father Lee as well………he was very kind. Still to this day the sound of a train whistle at night is a bit haunting. I guess I wanted to be on that train and go home. Mostly good memories though.

    1. Hi Brian, good to see you on this forum, myself, my brother and sister were at Ponsbourne P st the same time as you. I published a book about our time there. it’s called The Veritas Years, by John Ruth and is published by Tredition. We were there from 1959 to 1966 my e’mail is john.ruth1@ntlworld.com
      It would be great to here from you.. Regards. Seamus Ruth.

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