- 1810 Estate plan of Panshanger (by permission of Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies, HALS/D/EP/P38)
Between 1755 and 1764 Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown laid out a landscape park for the 2nd Earl Cowper at Cole Green.
Cole Green House had been built in 1704–11, replacing an earlier house, for William, 1st Earl Cowper (and first Lord Chancellor of Great Britain in 1707–10). He settled there on his retirement in 1718, and the following year bought the neighbouring Panshanger estate.
By 1738 the park surrounding Cole Green House, near Hertingfordbury, Hertfordshire, had been extended to around 50 hectares (124 acres). The 2nd Earl Cowper's ledgers, kept between 1755 and his death in 1764, show seven payments for work carried out by Capability Brown, amounting to £718 7 shillings and 6 pence (equivalent to £1.25 million in 2015). Recent research has shown this to be £100 more than previously thought. The ledgers also record the sequence of work, with first the garden and then the park being improved, as well as renovations made to the house.
‘Beautifying’ Cole Green
Brown may have been called in at Cole Green as early as 1752, when work started on a new kitchen garden. He was certainly working there by autumn 1755, when the 2nd Earl Cowper received a letter from his brother, Spencer, hoping that "Mr Brown and you may still go on with y[ou]r scheme for beautifying Colegreen".
The first payment to Brown was recorded on 11 December 1755, and direct payments by Earl Cowper for garden labour are also documented in that year. In May 1756 work had begun on the brickwork of the ha-ha or sunken ditch, and in June 1756 there are payments for gravel for the 'south walk' and to a stonemason for a rolling stone to firm the path.
Brown may have inspected the work that month as he also received a payment, as did Benjamin Read, "Mr Brown's Head servant", who received 1 guinea, presumably as a tip at the end of his foremanship. A letter from Spencer Cowper in October 1756 suggests a disagreement between Brown and his client: "As to Brown's sauciness, I believe you have nothing to combat it with, but Patience."
It was not until 1757 that there were payments for shrubs sent from garden designer Charles Bridgeman (1690-1738, Wikipedia) and nurseryman John Williamson "to Colegreen by Mr Brown's order". There was an increased workforce at the estate between March and the beginning of June that year, and payments for labourers in the park, felling timber and then planting new hedges.
The changing map of the estate
The changes made to the estate can be seen by comparing the estate map of 1703/4 with the Dury and Andrews map of 1766 (view map online). This shows that the estate has been enlarged, fields have been turned into open parkland with a drive and paths, and the approach to the house is now at an angle rather than direct. It also indicates that woodland has been thinned, formal gardens by the house removed and a ha-ha surrounds the house and gardens. In 1762 the 2nd Earl had bought a temple, which can be seen as a ring of dots behind the house.
The planting is thought to have included firs, pines, larch, tulip tree and magnolia, which the earl had listed in his diary in 1752. The surviving mature trees include oak, sweet chestnut and beech, together with a Ginkgo and a Robinia, which at that time were exotic and rare.
Brown was still working at Cole Green when the 2nd Earl Cowper died in September 1764, the last payment to him being made "on account", indicating that work was still in progress. An undated drawing in the Cowper archive gives an impression of the improved park, with scattered clumps of trees on mounds and a pond in the foreground.
When the 5th Earl came of age in 1797 he called in landscape designer Humphry Repton (1752–1818, Wikipedia), who produced a Red Book for the whole estate in 1799. A new house was built for the family at Panshanger, in a more picturesque position. Cole Green House was pulled down in 1802, and the park landscaped by Brown was largely returned to agricultural use.
Panshanger in the 20th century
After the First World War the estate became run down and, in the absence of Cowper heirs, about 1,666 hectares (4,000 acres) were sold in 1919 for the creation of Welwyn Garden City. The estate was finally broken up and sold out of the family in 1953, and by 1954 Panshanger House had been knocked down.
Dury Andrews 1766 Map of Hertfordshire: www.duryandrewsmapofhertfordshire.co.uk
Hertfordshire Gardens Trust walk leaflet: www.hertsgardenstrust.org.uk/downloads/Panshanger.pdf
Hertfordshire Garden History Volume II: Gardens Pleasant, Groves Delicious, Ed. Deborah Spring, University of Hertfordshire Press, Chapter Four 'Mr Lancelot Brown and his Hertfordshire clients', by Helen Leiper, pp 90–109