Heritage: The history of Havering’s parks

Langtons Gardens in Hornchurch. Picture: Ken Mears

Langtons Gardens in Hornchurch. Picture: Ken Mears - Credit: Archant

Some of Havering’s finest parks were planned more than 200 years ago, says Professor Ged Martin

We need exercise and fresh air, but social distancing is vital to beat Covid-19. Luckily, Havering has some large parks where you can roam freely.

Several of them were planned centuries ago. They can be traced on Chapman and André’s 1777 map of Essex, zoomable on https://map-of-essex.uk/.

Romford’s first public park was the gift of banker-philanthropist Herbert Raphael in 1902. (It opened two years later.)

Part of the Gidea Hall estate, its history began in 1461, when London merchant Thomas Cooke secured a royal licence to “empark” the property. After Cooke was imprisoned for treason in 1467, his enemies wrecked the Gidea Hall grounds, killing his deer and poaching his fish.

READ MORE: Herbert Raphael and the other baronets of Havering

Eighteenth-century owners created “pleasure grounds” of stately avenues and ornamental ponds. They even grew grapes and melons.

Raphael Park’s popular lake dates from this era. A pond by the main road, probably originally powering a watermill, was dug out and lengthened, the soil piled up to create islands.

Romford Council, Havering’s forerunner, purchased the 215-acre Bedfords Park in 1933. It’s probably named after John Bedford, a local landowner in 1362, the era of the Peasants’ Revolt.

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Lawyer John Heaton bought Bedfords in 1771 and erected a gloomy mansion, demolished in 1959 after vandals had wrecked it. In recent years, Heaton’s walled garden was rescued by the Friends of Bedfords Park. Bedfords has great views over London and across to the hills of Kent. Bring your binoculars!

If you plan to feed the deer, give them carrots, broken up for easier digestion. Deer also roam Harold Hill’s Dagnam Park (184 acres, locally known as The Manor).

The original 17th-century mansion was rebuilt by Sir Richard Neave around 1772. Earlier formal gardens were replaced by a park, designed around 1800 by Humphry Repton, the famous landscape gardener, who lived in Gidea Park.

The mansion was demolished in 1950 after a caretaker stole the lead off the roof.

Close to Dagnam Park’s Settle Road entrance, the moated site of a former manor house, Cockerels, is home to a colony of great crested newts. Be nice to them.

Parklands in Upminster includes the lake and ornamental bridge completed in 1789, part of the grounds of Gaynes, a mansion built about 1771 and demolished fifty years later.

The eighteenth-century park around Bretons at Elm Park later reverted to agriculture. In 1869, it became Romford’s sewage farm. “Farm” wasn’t just a polite term: sewage was spread around the land to grow bumper crops which paid for the disposal costs.

Later, a modern sewage works couldn’t cope with the growth of local population. Its closure in 1969 allowed Bretons to become a park once again. The eighteenth-century house (some of it probably older) still stands.

Langtons, in Billet Lane, Hornchurch, is Havering’s register office. Its six-acre gardens are a delight. John Massu, a wealthy silk merchant of Huguenot (exiled French Protestant) descent, purchased Langtons in 1797, extended the mansion and commissioned Repton to redesign the grounds around 1800.

A miniature lake was a must-have feature. The splendid Orangery, an elegant greenhouse now adapted for weddings, is a gem – a bit of Kew Gardens in the middle of Hornchurch.

READ MORE: Uproar in 16th century Upminster over unfair tax burden on farms

When the Upminster mansion, New Place, was built around 1775, its stable block had a very modern feature – a clock, the only public timepiece in the village. It came from Woolwich Arsenal.

The big house was knocked down in the 1920s, but the surviving stables give their name to Clockhouse Gardens, a three-acre shady enclave with another historic water feature. Parking is scarce, but – like the Langtons Orangery – it’s a hidden gem.

Two centuries ago, parks were exclusive places, a sign of private privilege.

Now many are open to us all. Bedfords, Dagnam and Raphael Parks have Friends organisations with lively websites. For information on opening times and facilities, check Havering Council’s site: https://www.havering.gov.uk/info/20037/parks/.