Cassiobury Park is the principal public open space in Watford, Hertfordshire, in England. It comprises over and extends from the A412 Rickmansworth Road in the east to the Grand Union Canal in the west.
The area occupied by the park and the housing developments to its north and south was formerly the estate of the Earls of Essex. The house itself was demolished in 1927.
The name "Cassio" is ancient. The earliest known spelling is Caegesho, which may derive from the Old English caegs, meaning "a spur of land". "Bury" is a common suffix in English place names. It comes from the Old English word for a fortified place, "burh", whose dative, "byrig", means "by the fort", or "by the manor".
Much of the park is covered by mown grass and scattered trees. There are notable specimens of American oaks such as the Pin Oak Quercus palustris Muenchh. and the Scarlet Oak Q. coccinea Muenchh. The Cedar of Lebanon Cedrus libani A. Richard is a prominent feature, though some of the older and unsafe specimens have been removed. Many more recent plantings of exotics have been made, such as Swamp Cypress Taxodium distichum (L.) Richards and various Asian rowans Sorbus spp.
The park slopes generally downhill from east to west, into the alluvial valley of the River Gade. The broadly meandering river and its bridges add much charm; the canal takes a more direct route. The direction of flow is north to south. The Gade is a tributary of the Colne, which ultimately flows into the Thames at Staines.
The valley is partly wooded. Some of the woodland is rather wet and gloomy, but very beautiful; alder Alnus glutinosa (L.) Gaertn. is frequent beside the streams. Here also may be found the remains of beds and ditches for growing watercress Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum (L.) Hayek. These are largely silted up and overgrown, but the original springs are still flowing. Beyond the river and canal the ground rises quite steeply to the West Herts Golf Course, beyond which lies Whippendell Wood. The whole area is freely accessible and surprisingly unspoilt, given its proximity to London, about 20 miles away.
Man-made structures in the park include a complex of paddling-pools and an adjacent children's railway near the Gade, tennis-courts, a bowling green, a system of all-weather asphalt paths, and a number of shelters.
The bird-life of the formal areas is typical of parkland in southern England. Nuthatches like the old timber; spotted flycatchers the more open ground; and redwings and fieldfares the more open ground yet. Common and black-headed, and sometimes lesser black-backed and herring, gulls form loose flocks on the lower reaches towards the Gade.
The canal, the river and its associated streams provide more interest for the bird-watcher. Teal Anas crecca, Water Rail Rallus aquaticus, Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea, Grey Heron Ardea cinerea and Kingfisher Alcedo atthis are regular visitors or resident. Especially in freezing weather, the disused cress-beds can yield waders: most often Snipe Gallinago gallinago, but also Redshank Tringa totanus and Green Sandpiper Tringa ochropus and, more rarely, Jack Snipe Lymnocryptes minimus and Dunlin Calidris alpina. Water Pipit Anthus spinoletta may also be found here in winter, and in January 1965, on some cress-ditches which have now been filled in, up to four spotted crakes Porzana porzana were present. The valley is a good place to see Willow Tit Parus montanus, Reed Bunting Emberiza schoeniclus, and Sedge Warbler Acrocephalus schoenobaenus. The alders attract flocks of Siskin Carduelis spinus and Redpoll C. flammea. Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos minor is frequent
Some of the old ditches and surrounding woodland have been made into a local nature reserve. Marsh Marigold Caltha palustris L. grows here, and there is a fairly large bed of Great Reed-mace Typha latifolia L.
An obvious feature of the riverside flora are three species of balsams: Small Balsam Impatiens parviflora DC, Jewel-weed I. capensis Meerburgh, and Policeman's Helmet I. glandulifera Royle. These are said to be escapes from the canal-wharves, where they arrived with consignments of imported timber.
"The abbey of St Albans holds Caissou. It answers for 20 hides: of these the abbot holds 19. There is land for 22 ploughs."Pasture and pannage for a thousand hogs are also mentioned.
When King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1539, Watford town was divided from Cashio and Henry made himself Lord of the Manor of Cassiobury. In 1546 he granted the Manor to Sir Richard Morrison, who started to build a large house in extensive gardens, but had not made much progress by 1553 when he went into exile abroad. The estate grounds were much larger than they are today, reaching as far as North Watford and southwards almost to Moor Park.
After the death of his father in 1556, Sir Charles Morrison continued building and completed the mansion, Cassiobury House. It had 56 rooms, a long gallery, stables, a dairy and a brewhouse.
"WATFORDE or WATELINEFORDE crosseth the Colne nere this place and so coasteth to old Verlame [St Albans] as is sayd before [John Norden, Hartfordshire]. Somewhat lower I saw Watford and Rickmansworth two mercate towns; concerning which I had read nothing of greater antiquity than this, that king Offa liberally gave them unto St Albans; as also Casiobery next unto Watford. In which place Sir Richard Morisin knight, a great learned man, and who had beene used in Embassages to the mightiest princes, under king Henrie the Eighth and king Edward the Sixth began to build a house, which Sir Charles his sonne finally finished."In 1610 Sir Charles Morrison's daughter, Elizabeth, was baptized at Watford parish church. In 1627 she married Arthur Capel (1610-1649) and the estate passed into the Capel family. The Capels were settled at Hadham, in Essex, but after the marriage they became closely associated with Cassiobury. The coat of arms of the Capel family appears on the badge of Cassiobury Junior School; the name "Lady Capel" persists at Lady Capel's Wharf, which is beside the Grand Union Canal a mile or so north of the park and was the place where goods were unloaded for Watford.
Lord Capel was condemned in 1649 for his loyalty to Charles I and beheaded outside Westminster Hall. His son, also named Arthur (1631-1683), also married an Elizabeth and was Morrison's great-great-grandson.
At the Restoration, King Charles II made Arthur Capel Earl of Essex and the estate was returned to the family.
Arthur Capel, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, commissioned Hugh May to rebuild the Tudor house, incorporating the original north-west wing. The new house was laid out on an "H" ground-plan, popular during that period, and was filled with fine things. The first earl also started developing the park, importing many exotic trees. There was much delay and expense. The earl wrote from Ireland telling his brother to hasten the work at
"Cashiobery and of the covering of it and that it should be done with all dispatch imaginable ... for unless this part of the house be roofed and tiled before I come, I do not know how I shall be able to lie one night there."The Capels were patrons of the arts and engaged Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721), the Dutch-English sculptor and wood-carver. Moses Cook (died 1715) laid out the grounds for the 2nd earl; he devised many woodland walks and avenues. In 1672, it is said, an avenue of 296 lime trees was planted, linking the gardens to Whippendell Wood. Remnants of this can still be seen today. However, ring-counts of fallen trees suggest that the avenue dates from about 1720. George London (died 1714) and the royal gardener Charles Bridgeman (died 1738) also worked at Cassiobury.
On 16 April, 1680, John Evelyn (1620-1706) accompanied Gibbons there.
"On the earnest invitation of the Earl of Essex, I went with him to his house at Cassioberie in Hertfordshire. The house is new, a plaine fabric built by my friend Mr. Hugh May, there are divers faire and good rooms and excellent carvings by Grinling Gibbons, especially the chimney piece of the library ... [but] the soil is stony, churlish and uneven, nor is the water near enough to the house though a very swift and clear stream runs within a flight shot of it. The valley which may fitly be called Colnbrook, it being indeed excessive cold, yet producing fair trouts ... it is a pity that the house was not situated to more advantage, but it seems it was built just where the old one was."By 1683 André Le Nôtre (1613-1700), the French architect and ornamental gardener to Louis XIV, was engaged on planting trees on the estate.
In the same year Arthur Capel was implicated in the Rye House plot, accused of plotting to assassinate Charles II. Like his father before him, Arthur was imprisoned in the Tower of London. In July 1687 he was found dead at the Tower, his throat cut, apparently by his own hand.
The Grand Union Canal dates from the late eighteenth century. The 4th earl was one of the noblemen on the board of the canal company; at his insistence the canal was widened and landscaped where it passed through his property. The northward view from Iron Bridge (Canal Bridge No. 167) is picturesque and must be one of the most photographed in Hertfordshire.
The 5th earl of Essex arrived at Cassiobury in 1799 and commissioned James Wyatt (1746-1813) to remodel the house. Wyatt specialized in the Romantic Gothic style. Most of the rebuilding was finished by 1805. The new house comprised a large number of rooms, the main ones being the Winter Drawing Room, with family portraits by Lely and Van Dyck; the Crimson Drawing Room, with Canaletto, Gainsborough, Morland, and Reynolds; the Inner Library, which also had portraits by Reynolds; and the Great Library, in which were busts of the Duke of Bedford, the Duke of Wellington, Napoleon and Charles I. The furniture of the Best Drawing Room was said to be "of the latest fashion and displays superior taste". Another spectacular room was the State Bedroom, with blue and white furnishings, a Gobelin tapestry (The Village Feast), and a ceiling in blue and gilt.
Frances Calvery, in An Irish Beauty of the Regency (1816), writes:
"On Wednesday we went to Cashiobury, the seat of the Earl of Essex, which is a very pretty house and more full of comforts, curiosities and pretty things than any other house I ever saw. Lord and Lady Holland, Lord Auckland and several more now in the house". On the Thursday she records: "Lady Essex took us all over her flower gardens, which I declare are the most complete in England".Humphry Repton (1752-1818) was commissioned to landscape the park. A number of lodges and other buildings for the estate were constructed. These were designed by Wyatt's nephew, Sir Jeffrey Wyattville (1766-1840). Only one now survives: Cassiobury Lodge, in Gade Avenue, "... the most elaborate in execution - its whole exterior being covered or cased with sticks of various sizes split in two", wrote a Victorian visitor. At this time the park comprised , the Home Park and the Upper Park being separated by the River Gade. The Upper Park became the West Herts Golf Course.
In 1841 a fire destroyed the orangery, which was filled with newly collected plants and fine orange trees, some of which had been presented to the 6th earl by Louis XVII. Herds of deer roamed the park. Parties were a regular feature at the weekends. The public were allowed to ride and walk through the grounds, but had to apply for a ticket in advance.
The parties and entertainments at Cassiobury House continued into the new century: in 1902 it was visited by the young Winston Churchill and King Edward VII. But at about this time the Essex family planned to let the house and live in London. The upkeep was becoming increasingly expensive.
In 1909, of parkland were sold by the 8th earl, most to Watford Borough Council for housing and the public park. More land for the park was purchased in 1930.
Construction of the residential Cassiobury Estate began. The land was made subject to restrictive covenants stipulating that only good quality detached or semi-detached houses would be allowed. Most activity was in the 1930s, though building still continues, mostly of "infill" housing on former back gardens. The park is bounded by Parkside Drive and Coningsby Drive on the north, and Cassiobury Park Avenue on the south.
On Thursday 8 June, 1922, at 2.30 p.m. at 20 Hanover Square, "By direction of the Right Honourable Adèle, Countess Dowager of Essex", "Cassiobury Park estate including the historical family mansion, Little Cassiobury, and the West Herts Golf Links, embracing in all an Area of about " was auctioned by Humbert & Flint, in conjunction with Knight, Frank & Rutley.
Having remained unoccupied and unsold, the house itself was demolished in 1927. Only the stable block remains: this has been converted to Cassiobury Court, an old peoples' home, still extant in Richmond Drive. The grand staircase (said to be designed by Gibbons but since attributed to Edmund Pearce) was removed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Other materials from the house were used to restore Monmouth House in Watford High Street. Posters advertised "To lovers of the antique, architects, builders, etc., 300 tons of old oak: 100 very fine old oak beams and 10,000 Tudor period bricks".
In 1967, even the quaint, castellated entrance gates on the Rickmansworth Road were demolished to make way for a new traffic system.