Belhus

Belhus Park, South Ockendon, Thurrock, Essex
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Overview

Lancelot “Capability” Brown created the Long Pond at Belhus as part of extensive improvements between 1753 and 1763 for the 26th Baron Dacre.

Between 1752 and 1763 Brown was involved in several phases of work for Lord Dacre, laying out a new shrubbery, shaping the landscape and advising on the creation of Long Pond. Belhus Park, near Thurrock in Essex is a site of around 119 hectares (294 acres), lying between Aveley and South Ockendon.

Details about what Brown did at Belhus can be found in letters written by Lord Dacre – particularly those to the architect Sanderson Miller (1716-80), who was a friend of both men. There are also records of payments to Brown in his pass-books at Drummond’s Bank. These show payments to Brown of £668 and 14 shillings (more than £1.1 million in 2015) for his work at the estate between 1752 and 1763.

A New Shrubbery

Lord Dacre had already begun extensive improvements to the house and grounds at Belhus in the 1740s. Brown, who had been suffering with asthma, was rather slow in sending his initial designs for landscaping the estate. Finally, in October 1752 Lord Dacre wrote to Miller about Brown’s visit to the estate and his plans for the new shrubbery, running north/south along the western boundary of the park.

He wrote that Brown had worked all day and into the evening, drawing up plans for the shrubbery and that he had promised to return the following month. In November 1754 another letter from Lord Dacre to Miller gives a progress report from Belhus. Much had been done by then, particularly in the fields in front of the mansion. The shrubbery was to be extended to the small wood in front of the house.

Long Pond

Brown’s involvement with the development of the Long Pond went on over several years. In 1756 Lord Dacre was planning further improvements to the estate and asked Brown to advise him on plantations. Three years later he wrote to Miller that he “has had Lancelot Brown with him at Belhouse and decided to make a ten acre pool where now there is a run of water in the lower part of the Park”.

Lord Dacre wanted his new water feature to be about 0.4 kilometres (0.25 miles) long and have an irregular shape – unlike the rectangular canal shown on an oil painting of Belhus from around 1708. One idea was to make the Long Pond from the rushy area of Bumpstead mead, moving the excavated soil up to where the meadow rises.

Not until 1761 was the plan for the pond confirmed. Another letter from Lord Dacre to Miller refers to his heavy expenses at the time, though he admits he will not be able to resist “meddling with my water in ye lower part of my Park”. By then he had decided that a cheaper option would be to convert the existing canal into a river rather than a lake.

Lord Dacre was still in touch with Brown about this project in the early 1770s. It is thought that landscaper Richard Woods eventually carried out the work on the Long Pond. There are records of payments to him although no plans exist.

The 1777 Chapman and André county map (see online) shows the finished Long Pond in the north-east corner of the estate. Belts of trees and some trees along the boundaries are thought to be part of Brown's scheme, as they do not appear on earlier maps. The avenue from the house to the road is shown on the 1619 estate map, and is still there in 1777.  

Another element of Brown’s design was the addition of three large mounds planted with lime trees, to give more contour to the landscape.

Belhus today

Belhus was damaged by bombing and by military occupation during the Second World War. The house was finally pulled down in 1957.

The park, listed Grade II, is now owned by Essex County Council and is used for sport and leisure activities. Two of Brown’s three mounds now lie within an area used as a golf course. The outline of Brown’s shrubbery can still be seen, but the Long Pond has been split by the M25 and only the north-west tip is still in the park.

Sources

Lancelot Brown and his Essex Clients: A Gazetteer of Sites in Essex Associated with Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown 1716-1783, Essex Gardens Trust, 2015 www.essexgardenstrust.org.uk/

John Chapman and Peter André, A Map of the County of Essex 1777: www.chapmanandremapofessex.co.uk/

Historic England: historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000738/