The History of Hamstead Park
Have you been for a walk along the footpaths through Hamstead Park west of Newbury and wondered about the gate piers stranded in a field of sheep? This is one of my favourite walks, and the piers are the remnants of a grand, seventeenth-century garden. Hamstead Park has been recognised by Historic England as a landscape of national significance and it is Grade II registered.
The recorded history of Hamstead Park started in the 13th Century, when it was a deer park and owned by William, the Earl Marshal of England (c.1146 – 1219). There was a medieval village, three motte and bailey castles, fishponds and a park “pale” that was a hedged mound and trench to keep the deer in. While deer parks were once very common throughout southern England, it is rare to find a surviving park which has escaped being used for agriculture and has surviving elements of the medieval landscape. At Hamstead park, the motte and bailey castles, the fishponds and nine surviving portions of the park pale can be seen today.
The estate was given to the crown in 1302 and continued to be associated with royalty for the next 300 years. In 1620, the manor was purchased by Elizabeth Craven, a wealthy widow, and it stayed in the Craven family until 1984. Her son, William Craven (1606 - 1697), pursued a military career and spent much of it campaigning on behalf of Elizabeth, sister of Charles I. William, who became the Baron of Craven in 1627, built a grand mansion for Elizabeth at Hamstead on the site of an existing manor house. It is thought that the garden was created at the same time as the house was built. The result is captured in an engraving dated around 1709 which shows a great formal garden surrounding the house with avenues of trees leading into Hamstead Park.
The mansion was destroyed by fire in 1718. Most history books suggest that it was not rebuilt and the hunting lodge was expanded to become the main Craven residence in Hamstead. Once the mansion was gone, there were very few planned changes in the landscape. The Craven family also owned Benham Park at this time, and another Elizabeth Craven (1751 – 1828) who lived there, moved one set of the mansion’s gate piers to Benham Park (and these can be seen from the A4). She may have made some minor changes to Hamstead Park when she employed Capability Brown to remodel the grounds at Benham but this is conjecture. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a combination of lack of interest and then lack of money meant that Hamstead Park was left alone and the formal gardens slowly disappeared.
Kyp’s Engraving of Hamstead Mansion, c. 1709. Reproduced from https://archive.org/stream/cu31924020603282#page/n109/mode/2up
It is remarkable that there are surviving remnants of the formal gardens that can be identified, thanks to the Kyp engraving. A few trees in the avenues that extended into the Park still exist. The majority of the seventeenth-century gate piers are extant and show the boundary of the formal gardens. Because the engraving is so accurate, these can be identified using the church as a reference point. The walls around the Fruit Garden still remain as does the raised terrace. And in dry summers, there are parch marks that show the location of some of the paths and flower beds.
BGT are organising a guided walk around the Park, taking in the features described with an opportunity to see the park in its immediate context of the Kennet Valley and enjoy tea at the Red House. Further information will be posted on the web site later once we are sure that group meetings are again permitted.
The entry of the Historic England’s website provides more information about Hamstead Park’s surviving features and why they are so interesting:
https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000525 and https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1015953 gives more information about the medieval features.
One of the gate piers at Benham Park on the A4