The Friends of Danesbury Local Nature Reserve (FOD) is a volunteer group which has been organising monthly Work Parties throughout the year for some 20 years. Notices of our meetings are advertised in the community, and on the Nature Reserve itself. We are currently about 20 members strong, but over the years numbers have fluctuated. But we gain added support from other local volunteer groups: the Friends of Mardley Heath and the Sherrardspark Wood Wardens. when we schedule more demanding project-based work.
Where we work
Welwyn is approximately 40 kms North of London on the A1(M), and Danesbury Park, is on the North side of Welwyn village. The Access Page gives detailed directions.
The Local Nature Reserve is an extensive area of natural grassland, now rare in Hertfordshire, which is rich in fungi, wild flowers, butterflies and birds, and a range of grasses which reflect the changes in soil composition.
Danesbury Park is managed by Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council (WHBC) and officers have supported the group since its inception with training opportunities, tools and equipment, and help from contractors with larger projects.
Danesbury Park is laid out in the form of 2 fields/pastures: The ‘Park Field’ from the B656 Codicote Road in the West, and the ‘Fernery Field’ which stretches from Danesbury House eastwards to the A1 (M). These two fields were formerly part of the Danesbury House estate (built in 1776), and they were designated a Local Nature Reserve (LNR) in 1998 covering an area of some 25 hectares (65 acres).
In one of the fields sits a fenced off and derelict Victorian Fernery, which was built in 1859/60 by the then owner, William John Blake, and his renowned gardener Anthony Parsons. It is built in an old chalk pit, and incorporates artificial stonework (known as Pulhamite) manufactured in situ by James Pulham & Sons, a Broxbourne based Company. Pulhams were tasked with constructing a grotto, a dropping well, a pass, and a rustic bridge over a gorge. It was hugely successful and an 1881 RHS Journal described it as ‘the best fernery to be found in the Home Counties’
What we do
On non-project work we typically clear overgrown paths and invasive scrub to encourage the regeneration of grasses which would otherwise be lost to unmanaged woodland, but when working on project-based work we are joined by other local volunteer groups.
Between 2013 and 2015 we jointly ran a large Project to clear scrub from the lower Codicote Road (B656) slopes; to create large scale wildlife corridors, and restore sight-lines to many of Danesbury’s wonderful old ‘heritage’ trees.
The Fernery – Where to start?
In September 2015 the FOD started a new Project to ‘reclaim’ the abandoned and very overgrown Victorian Fernery. Apart from the renowned collection of rare ferns it once contained, of principal interest was the Pulhamite artificial rockwork which was completely hidden from view under nettles, alder, scrub and soil.
Volunteers have undertaken extensive research in local record offices and in the RHS’s Linley Library over the years, and whilst there are historic references to both the gardens at Danesbury and the career of Anthony Parsons himself, unfortunately there are no papers in existence which show exactly where all of the Pulhamite features were positioned on the site, nor where the species of ferns were planted, nor how water was brought to the site and circulated.
In September 2015, when the FOD started work in the Fernery, the site had not been maintained as a garden for well over 100 years and it was virtually impenetrable. But by June 2016 all the invasive nettles, elder and scrub had been cleared, invasive tree roots poisoned, and grass seeded to make the site look less derelict.
In November 2016 we started the careful task of excavating the original pathways, during the course of which we began to uncover hidden rockwork. In the autumn of 2016 we planted 2000 English daffodils and 2000 snowdrops, and in February 2017 we planted 50 hawthorn, field maple and hazel.
During 2017 we continued to remove more spoil from the site and we uncovered more rockwork, including a cistern which holds hundreds of gallons of water; a basin at the foot of the dropping well; and a ‘lost’ path which undoubtedly would have led to the gorge over which a rustic bridge had been thrown. Gradually over a period of perhaps another two to three years we will endeavour to restore or replace these features so that visitors might enjoy them once again.
In June 2017 we made a huge advance when we opened the garden to some 200 visitors as part of the annual Welwyn Festival. This opening has brought so many more people out into the park to see for themselves our progress; local ‘walking for health’ groups now stop by regularly,
In November 2017, we decided upon Garden Design Objectives, which took into account the fact that we had no records of the original design by Anthony Parsons. A Planting List was agreed by the end of 2017 with local garden designer Sarah Marsh, who had volunteered to plan a layout ready for the volunteers to start planting in April 2018.
The big engineering challenge we set ourselves for 2018, which was to trace water pipes, was met in May 2018 when we discovered that the Victorians had installed an elaborate system of underground water pipes that irrigated the principal planting beds. We have been uncertain whether water was pumped from the basin at the foot of the dropping well back up to the cascade at the top. But current thinking is that, on notice of a site visit, the Victorian gardeners would have turned on a tap, which we have discovered at the foot of the dropping well, and relied on gravity to slowly empty a cistern at the top of the rock face down to the dropping well basin. The water would then have drained away into a sump which has been discovered in the ground in front of the grotto. We have found the cistern, and a tap, but not yet been able to prove if they are connected.
In 2020 we set up a system to simulate the action of the dropping well which we plan to operate for visitors on future ‘high days’ and ‘holidays’, or by special arrangement.
The principal central planting bed was planted out in time for the June 2018 Open Garden Day.
Volunteers have attended Pulhamite conferences, and have visited other similar Pulhamite sites to learn how it should all be done. In all this we are guided by the original research undertaken by Ann MacDonald of the WHBC, and encouraged by the Hertfordshire Gardens Trust.
Why volunteer work matters and the difference it makes
This Community led Project is attracting much interest from County focus groups and is encouraging visits from Welwyn’s residents and local organisations, many of whom just 5 years ago did not know that the Fernery existed. We have received donations of plants from the District Gardening Club, and donations from the Welwyn Festival group and other local charitable groups, and private benefactors too.
The volunteers are indeed recovering a gem from extinction, so that it will once again become an attractive and permanent local feature of Welwyn’s long heritage. and a restful garden that future generations might respect and enjoy.