Tuesday 17 October 2017

Living with history

A few weeks ago I blogged about Marble Hill House and English Heritage’s plans for the property. I'm coming back to this because I think that the way that we fit historical buildings and landscapes into our modern world is important. This post provides a bit of an update and some more detail on the issues that "heritage" can raise.

[For a later post, including a lot of discussion of the research that English Heritage base their arguments on, see http://tomwilliamsauthor.co.uk/marble-hill-18th-century-garden-21st-century-park/]

The essence of English Heritage’s plan is to carry out improvement works in the park and to develop significant parts of the park back toward more what they might have looked like in the 18th century. They have done detailed archaeological work and the plans are not fanciful, but based on the best possible evidence that they can gather. For those (and there are many of them) who believe that heritage is about restoring our historic past, the proposals are an exciting opportunity to restore grounds which were significant in the development of the English garden. For many local residents, this is a bunch of historians messing with a much loved park in order to rebuild something that may or may not have been there two and a half centuries ago.

Marble Hill Park

I leaned rather toward the second point of view and drafted a post attacking English Heritage and their plans for widespread tree felling. The words “Jane Austen theme park” may have appeared. Fortunately, I sent the draft to English Heritage for comment and John Watkins, their Head of Landscape and Gardens came to talk me through the plans and explain where I had got them wrong.

I learned a lot about the history of the park and quite a bit about the trees, but mainly I learned how the planning system is hardly the best way forward in moving projects like this to a satisfactory conclusion.

Woodman spare that tree

Marble Hill House is set within a small area of woodland (described as “wild wood”). The vegetation is mainly self-seeded. There is a lot of holly, ranging from small bushes to large trees. There is a thick canopy and little light reaches the ground, which is largely covered with ivy. A few animals – mainly squirrels and foxes – live there, but the density of the trees and the amount of ivy means that it is not an especially helpful habitat in terms of biodiversity. There are strong arguments that from the point of view of maintaining the grounds and improving the health of the trees generally, some clearing and coppicing would-be a positive step.

The house from the north

So far, so uncontroversial. Unfortunately, Richmond Council, in the interests of ensuring that no trees were unnecessarily removed, asked for a survey that counted every individual tree or shrub in the wood and a note of each one that was to go. The result was headlines like this one on Twitter.

A petition has been set up and, at the time of writing over 2,800 people have already signed it.

It’s a petition I would once have been happy to subscribe to, but two hours of looking at the site with Mr Watkins has made me see it in a somewhat different light.

Firstly, the majority of the 300+ "trees" are small, damaged, or near the end of their life. Anybody interested in the health of the woodland must appreciate that the current density of trees and uncontrolled undergrowth is not a healthy eco-system. The woodland floor gets little sunlight and is covered in ivy. It does not support wildlife. Some of beautiful trees in the area are difficult to see because of the scrub surrounding them and all of the trees suffer because they do not they do not get the light or nutrients they need to grow. Removal of many of these "trees" would not worry anybody who has been in and looked at them up close.

There are trees in the area which should be preserved. It's possible to argue about the merits of individual trees. For example, we looked at a yew that is scheduled for removal because of damage to the trunk which, it is argued, means it is not a healthy tree. However, looking at it with Mr Watkins he agreed that there is certainly room for disagreement on the point. There are several trees where it's not really possible to make a final decision on removal or retention at this stage, but the planning process means that all the trees that might be removed have to be listed. It would clearly be better if the planning consent was in two stages – one for the smaller shrubs that are definitely coming out and then a careful consideration separately of the larger trees that may or may not be removed later. Unfortunately, this doesn't seem to be the way that planning applications work.

This oak show significant storm damage but is structurally sound and will be retained

More seriously, the details of the trees that are to be removed have been released ahead of the details of the trees that are to be planted. My concern that the current blocks of woodland will be replaced with a much more open view containing a few neatly laid out trees such as may have been planted in the 18th century turns out to have been mistaken. Yes, some trees will be removed and there will be a small number of trees planted in neat rows very unlike what is that at present. However, the northern margins of these blocks will be built up with additional planting to maintain the same sort of appearance from the north, whilst opening the area up to visitors. At present, the whole area is fenced off as the vegetation is thick and the ground-cover not conducive to walking.

Butcher's broom in the woodland. So called because it was traditionally used by butchers to clean their blocks

Some people will still be unhappy with the planned changes, but many people will be reassured if they only knew what they were. In any case, whether you like the proposed changes or not, it would surely be helpful if they were clearly explained ahead of any planning decision. The idea that the planning consents could be given in stages is surely worth looking at.

Butcher's broom again. This is a female plant (with berries)

Restoring the original gardens

Some of the problem with the discussions of what is planned for Marble Hill is that there are two distinct aspects to the work. Part of it is essentially about woodland management but this is being done in the context of attempts to restore the original 18th-century garden plan. As I explained in my previous post about Marble Hill, the gardens are important in tracing the development of landscape gardening in England. Henrietta Howard’s plans seem to combine the strict formality of gardens from the 17th century and before with the more informal approach to landscape that was, arguably, to find its finest expression in the works of Capability Brown.

English Heritage will argue that the restoration of parts of the 18th-century gardens in the apparently incongruous environment of a modern municipal park is actually very close to the original concept which saw different kinds of land-use sitting alongside each other. Whether the hidden pathways and wooded areas of an 18th-century garden actually make aesthetic or practical sense next to a 21st-century rugby pitch is a serious question and one which I think deserves to be seriously addressed. It does go to the whole question of how we protect England’s historical heritage within the context of the modern world. I'm not sure that the planning process is the best place to be having this discussion.

Self-seeded elm in the woodland. English Heritage at looking at possibly reintroducing elms to the park
I was very sceptical about the whole idea, but I must admit that John Watkins makes a convincing argument. When you explore these blocks of wild woodland in detail, sometimes stepping over the fence into areas that are not generally open to the public, a surprising amount of the 18th-century plan is still visible. Unfortunately, you really do have to be there together with an expert. The sheer quantity of vegetation means that photographs, whether taken at ground level or from the air, basically show lots of leaves. It's only when you stand with a guide you can see the gaps in the trees where open rides would have led through the woodland area all that time ago. One of the blocks has a more open area hidden at the centre. There is lots of ground-cover but no larger trees. The 18th-century plan shows that there was a secret flower garden at this point and English Heritage intend to restore it. A surprising amount of Lady Henrietta Howard's landscaping is still preserved, although it is visible only to a landscape archaeologist.

Living with heritage

It seems that everybody locally has a view on whether or not their favourite tree should be chopped down. (In at least one case, sadly, it must be, because the roots are beginning to attack the foundations of the house.) They all care about whether the whole of the park should still be open to dog walkers – a substantial element of the park using community. They care about the playing fields and the children's playground and the future of the local cafe. All these issues are being aired, but there doesn't seem to be any forum for a serious discussion of the heritage issues.

English Heritage are trying hard to engage with the public, as evidenced by the amount of time that they have been prepared to give to me, but this appears a dialogue of the deaf. English Heritage are only now learning just how deeply people feel about a park which many of them have been using on an almost daily basis since they were children. (The number of people who stood up at a public meeting and presaged their remarks with the statement that they had been walking their dogs there for over 40 years was eye opening.) Local people, on the other hand, know little, if anything, about the historical importance of the grounds and see only vandals who want to attack treasured woodland. How this mutual incomprehension is ever going to resolve itself into a plan generally acceptable to everybody is not clear. I would love to think that this blog might be a starting point. If anybody does want a conversation, you could begin by posting in the ‘Comments’ below. 

Valuing heritage

Any discussion of English Heritage's plans for Marble Hill – and, indeed, for many other sites – can't ignore the financial constraints that English Heritage works under. In this country we claim to be very proud of our heritage and it brings in a lot of money from tourists as well as giving much pleasure to the many people who visit heritage sites every year. Yet English Heritage has moved from being a government-funded organisation supported by taxation to being a charity which will soon be expected to raise the money that it needs to maintain England's heritage by charitable contributions.

Realistically, people are not going to put enough money into collection boxes for them to keep places like Marble Hill properly maintained. (If you do want to support English Heritage financially, you can join HERE.) The result is that many sites are now expected to generate income to cover their costs. Hence the plans for an on-site cafe, which have raised many complaints locally. Despite concerns that trees will be felled and the nature of the site will be changed, the cafe will not have any significant effect on woodland or on the park’s landscape. This is not to say that it's necessarily a good thing, but it does seem to be a necessary thing unless we are to accept that the park should not be properly maintained.

If the cafe doesn't raise the sort of money that English Heritage are hoping for then the plans could leave us with an elaborate exercise in landscaping that will soon become overgrown, dirty, and (given the number of hidden spaces in the woodland) potentially squalid and dangerous. Alternatively, English Heritage will have to make up the shortfall from its other income, leaving other properties short of resources. 

Of course, if this really is our English Heritage, one solution would be for the government to fund improvements to the landscaping from taxation, but while politicians can find money for their pet vanity projects, heritage funding is a victim of austerity and likely to remain so. English Heritage’s plans are therefore defined almost as much by the financial realities as by any ideal view of how the park should be presented. 


Whilst I'm not sure that I share English Heritage’s vision for Marble Hill, I do acknowledge that they are doing their best to meet what they see as their remit. English Heritage put significant resources into what is essentially a municipal park that they never asked to take responsibility for but which they were landed with as a result of the political changes discussed in my previous post. The park is, as I hope my photographs show, an amazingly beautiful place, free for anybody to enter and enjoy. Just because I may not agree with their future plans, doesn't mean that I don't appreciate the efforts that they are making.

I'm particularly grateful to Kate Pitt and John Watkins of English Heritage for giving me so much of their time and answering some very ignorant questions, and to the on-site archaeological team for explaining to amateurs like myself how they know so much about what the gardens would have originally looked like.


  1. Clearing the park of old growth to make way for new - and better walking paths and a more diverse biotope makes sense to me. It's not like they're chopping down all the trees and putting in parking lots...^^

  2. Excellent report. Thanks.
    Part of the Marble Hill problem has nothing to do with the park, but with the house. When I came here 40 years ago the house was open almost every day of the week, and access was free. It was a big draw, very popular. Not nearly so much now with only weekend opening and then limited to 2 guided tours a day.

  3. The plan is to open the house free of charge five days a week during the summer. It was originally going to be all year, but I think they are perhaps being a bit more realistic about their funding situation. The house is definitely in need of some attention and improvements there are a significant part of the project, but at the moment this is being overshadowed by the controversy about the park.

  4. The problem has been that there has been no compromise on the part of English Heritage in its physical plans and only one message promoted.. that they are right. Yes trees can be counted if they are certain size but no one has placed any value on self seeded coppice and brush which is vital for insects and beetles etc. These feed the bats and the frogs and toads that are being decimated nationally. Yesterday's BBC report said research was showing that insect life is plummeting. We need to preserve these areas, not urbanise them into gardens.
    So if only English heritage would amend the plans...after all their proposals are guesswork anyway.Not abort the plans, water them down somewhat. We live beside history and modernity and struggle to preserve nature...we need compromise.

  5. I agree. I think part of the problem is the way the planning process works. EH could come forward with compromises, though - like keeping the weeping birch that so many people like.

  6. You have fallen victim to the blandishments of John Watkins. Let me, as a professional, put you right. Heritage is defined as that which has survived from the past and is cherished by the community. Long lost landscapes are history not heritage. The current landscape is our heritage.
    The four “quadrants” around the building are fenced off to create a natural wild area – a beautiful feature. English Heritage have failed for decades to do the necessary maintenance so, of course, they are in need of some thinning out. However EH intend to remove the fence and all the undergrowth and to grass it over, so this will cease to be a wild area. Vandalism!
    The trees that EH intend to plant on the south side, according to their plan, will be in eighteen straight parallel rows. These will divide the south side into three separate sections invisible to each other. Far from being more open, as you believe, this will totally obliterate the existing beautiful long east-west vistas. Tragic!
    Stop listening to EH’s half-truths and look at the plans.

  7. There's no doubt that I was a lot happier with English Heritage's plans after I had spoken to John Watkins, but I'm far from convinced that they are right. What I am convinced of is that many of the comments I have seen about this are based on a misunderstanding of the plans and that the planning process that is being operated by Richmond is not helpful in explaining what is being proposed or ensuring that the result is optimal – whichever way it comes out. Part of this is because I suspect that the result will be a clear "yes" or "no" to the plans whereas I think that parts are a necessary approach to dealing with maintenance issues in the Park and parts are much more problematic.

    I haven't commented on the straight rows of trees planned to run south toward the river. Some people say these will block the view, others deny this. Again, the truth is not at all clear. It would seem to depend in part on things like what kind of trees are planted and, as far as I know, no final decision has been made on this.

    When I spoke to John Watkins I got a different picture of what is planned from that presented at the public meeting. English Heritage's plans are clearly in a state of flux. (They seem happy to admit that they are far from firm). I think English Heritage have not presented them particularly well and that the discussion of them is therefore not especially constructive. Maybe one answer would be to have a committee with representatives of the Council, people who live in the area and English Heritage, where the plans could be discussed in more detail and some sort of sensible compromise worked out? I'm certainly not saying what I think the eventual result should be.

    1. It hardly matters what kind of tree is used. So many trees in straight rows will allow only small glimpses between the trees and these glimpses will get ever smaller with the passage of time. This is no substitute for the existing broad vista.
      This odd mixture of the formal and the informal appeared briefly at the beginning of the 18th century before being swept away by the totally informal English Landscape Gardens of Capability Brown et al. – this country’s greatest contribution to garden design. Only a garden historian would think it a good idea to resuscitate such an oddity.
      Marble Hill is a local park that happens to have a listed building in it. It is not a living museum like the grounds of Ham House.

    2. I have some sympathy with your argument. (Have a look at my original post about Marble Hill - http://thewhiterajah.blogspot.co.uk/2017/08/a-tale-of-two-houses.html.) However, the discussion is confused because there is a lot of uncertainty (some of it, I suspect, in English Heritage itself) about what exactly is planned. I fear that the muddled debate (such as it is) at this stage is likely to end up with a muddled scheme. Hence my attempt to spell out some of the detail.