Imagine a magnificent 700-acre park; an historic pleasure ground four-and-a-half miles in circumference with attractive manned lodges at each of several entrances.

The park is cut by a canal on which occasional boats glide past. Nearby is a winding river filled with trout, crayfish and other freshwater species. On one side of the river and canal lies the flat, beautifully timbered Home Park with its well-drained lawns in which established trees grow singly and in clumps, many with seats below.

Gracing the lawns are two ancient Stone pines, native to the Mediterranean, their bare trunks covered with ivy and clematis, and the tallest European Silver fir in the country. These trees were first introduced in England in 1548. There’s an 80/90-foot Douglas fir, one of the first in England; an Austrian Black pine; a Pygmy spruce; a long-lived Sequoia; a Nordman and a Noble fir; Cedars of Lebanon; two copper beeches; and two Tulip trees.

In the park are numerous other firs and cedars, as well as pyramidal-shaped oaks, limes, beech and chestnuts, all of uniform heights. The fruit trees include black cherry, some 80-feet in height.

Watford Observer: André Le Nôtre, 1679-1681. André Le Nôtre, 1679-1681. (Image: © Château de Versailles, Dist. RMN / © Christophe Fouin)

On either side of the carriage drive is an impressively long avenue of lime trees. They are said to have been planted in King Charles II’s reign in 1683, by André Le Nôtre, architect gardener to Louis XIV and creator of the gardens of Versailles. John Rose, the park gardener, had been sent to Versailles to study its formal style. Half- way up the carriage drive and at right angles to the limes is an avenue of stately elms; the site of an old one-mile racecourse. Large elm trees mark both ends.

Queen Elizabeth I planted a tree in the Home Park in the late 16th century, no doubt also seeing the owner, Robert Devereux, the 2nd Earl of Essex, her staunch favourite.

Add to this sylvan scene a rose garden, a sub-tropical garden, rows of laurels and rhododendrons, hawthorn spinneys and a closely-planted wide plantation with trees of great height. In spring, daffodils, snowdrops, primroses and violets grow, while campion and foxgloves tower above a profusion of wild flowers in the summer.

Watford Observer: View of Two Firs in the Park by Huet Villiers. Britton's Cassiobury facsimile reprint by J.B. Nunn, 2005. Courtesy of Linda NunnView of Two Firs in the Park by Huet Villiers. Britton's Cassiobury facsimile reprint by J.B. Nunn, 2005. Courtesy of Linda Nunn

There are long walks under hornbeam arbours intertwined with ivy, a secluded dell, fountains, ponds filled with goldfish and stone busts. A herd of cattle grazes in the lush pastures and deer are within sight. This is where Red Bengal deer were first acclimatised in this country.

There’s a 135-foot orangery with rows of orange trees in painted boxes that are placed outside in the summer, as well as plant-filled conservatories and a bay tree grown from a cutting from Virgil’s tomb in Naples. Napoleon’s fountain is here, named after a willow which grew from a cutting from his original tomb in St Helena.

Cross a rustic bridge over the river and a second bridge above the canal and you’ll pass a group of towering beech trees, beyond which the sloping Upper or Second Park beckons. Artists have come here with their brushes, paints and canvases for generations.

When Daniel Defoe visited the park in the 1770s, he declared it ‘One of the finest places near London.’

Watford Observer: Conservatory Scene from Berceau Walk by A. Pugin. Britton's Cassiobury facsimile reprint by J.B. Nunn, 2005. Courtesy of Linda NunnConservatory Scene from Berceau Walk by A. Pugin. Britton's Cassiobury facsimile reprint by J.B. Nunn, 2005. Courtesy of Linda Nunn

You’ll have deduced that this was Cassiobury Park, believed to have been named after Cassivellaunus, Chieftan of the Catuvellauni some 2,000 years ago.

I’ve focused on the park in the later 1880s when Watford’s population was around 16,000 and Henry Williams wrote his enticing descriptions. In his time, the public enjoyed promenades in the grounds, particularly on Sundays, courtesy of Arthur Capell, 6th Earl of Essex. The Volunteers and Herts Yeomanry drilled here, local gentry were permitted to ride or drive carriages through the park and woods and, in summer, groups of London workmen and children visited on day excursions.Watford Observer: Head Gardener Joseph Fitt, courtesy of the Fitt familyHead Gardener Joseph Fitt, courtesy of the Fitt family

The park was then tended by the newly-married head gardener Joseph Fitt, Fellow of the Royal Horticultural Society, member of the National Rose Society, and a horticulturist who, in later years, was an expert on ferns and presented rare specimens to Kew Gardens. He met his wife Anne at Cassiobury, where she worked as a dairymaid at the Home Farm.

My early memories of the park, much changed from Henry Williams’ time, are of summer days and pleasant walks, passing through those wonderful castellated lodge gates with their mullioned windows; one side square, one octagonal; both crowned with towers. Just inside, there was the heavy lawn roller often left by gardeners on the path. I’d walk to the river with my grandmother, past the bandstand, armed with a fishing rod and jam jar, hopeful of catching a few minnows.

When you next walk or bike around Cassiobury Park, take a moment to stop and stare. It has a truly glorious past; a past that also saw visits by a young Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, King Edward VII and a two-year period of residence by the Dowager Queen Adelaide, widow of King William IV.

With thanks to Chateau de Versailles; Linda Nunn; the Fitt family; and Valerie Richards,

  • Lesley Dunlop is the daughter of the late Ted Parrish, a well-known local historian and documentary filmmaker. He wrote 96 nostalgic articles for the ‘Evening Post-Echo’ in 1982-83 which have since been published in ‘Echoes of Old Watford, Bushey & Oxhey’, available at and Bushey Museum. Lesley is currently working on ‘Two Lives, Two World Wars’, a companion volume that explores her father’s and grandfather’s lives and war experiences, in which Watford, Bushey and Oxhey’s history will take to the stage once again.