Danesbury Park – History of The Fernery


Capt. and Mrs. St. John built St John’s House between 1775 and 1776.

In 1851 Mr.Blake, who then owned the house, (and re-named it Danesbury), employed Mr. Parsons as his head gardener and they built the Fernery in 1859-60.


(The following extracts and the black and white photo are kindly offered by Mrs Pat Watt – former voluntary Warden of Danesbury Park. The photo is believed to be from a copy of the Hertfordshire Countryside Magazine)

Extract taken from THE GARDEN Oct. 22, 1881

Danesbury Park, Welwyn
THE FERNERY. -One of the chief features of interest in the park is the hardy Fernery. It is formed on a sloping bank in a rather deep dell-like valley, overhung with trees and ivy, in the shade of which the ferns seem to delight. This charming spot has been further enhanced in appearance by some rockwork, in many respects decidedly the leading feature of Danesbury. As regards the planting, the various genera are arranged in distinct and well-defined groups, and each group is assigned a position and provided with soil adapted to it’s requirements; therefore, all have an equal chunnamedance of becoming well developed. ”Ah,” says some one, ”but these Ferns are indigenous, and therefore do not require any cultural care; simply stick them in the ground, give them one heavy watering, and then let them take care of themselves.” Yes; that is how many hardy plants are treated; but not at Danesbury.

Another extract about the same date



In the park is a hardy Fernery, situated in a dell, and reached by means of a good gravel walk. It is associated with some large trees, which are surrounded by Laurels,&c., which aid in keeping the rougher winds away from the more tender kinds of Ferns, and the whole is inclosed by substantial rabbit- proof fencing. Entering under an archway, formed of grotesque-looking wood, we proceed a few yards, and an interesting scene presents itself, the imitation rockwork being in itself worthy of a visit. Here are steps to descend to the level below, formed, as it were, out of hard rock by time itself. On the opposite side is a ravine, over which has been thrown a rustic bridge, whilst nearer to the left, under the more massive upper rock – as is customary – is a capacious grotto, from the rock at the side of which streamlets of pure water trickle down into its basin bed. Here and there, abutting upon the green sward, the rocks appear, cragged and pointed, each having at its base, or upon its bosom, some quaint form which culture, and observation have brought to light. The whole is well backed up by huge boulders, placed here and there, as if they were the work of one of Nature’s strange convulsions.


Others also admired the fernery; W. Robinson in “The English Flower Garden”, published in 1883, writes, ”In the home counties there is probably not a better Fernery than at Danesbury. It is on a sloping bank in a rather deep dell, overhung with trees and Ivy, in the shade of which the Ferns delight.”


Mr. Anthony Parsons became gardener to Captain Blake at Danesbury in 1851, and remained there until his death on Christmas Day 1880. He wrote in The Gardeners Chronicle, “I have had to make a hardy fernery, which now contains a magnificent collection of British Ferns, and is well known to many admirers of these truly lovely plants.” Mr Parsons was well known for raising and developing new varieties of plants. Whilst at Danesbury one finely-crested dwarf golden fern of his origination was named in his honour Gymnogramma chrysophylla parsonii.
Although the rocks appear to be of natural sandstone they are in fact “Pulhamite”. Upon closer inspection it can be seen that they are in fact artificial. J.R. Pulham and Co. London constructed them in 1859-1860, using a core of brick and rubble, which was covered in cement.


The WHBC Draft Management Plan 2013-2023 – an unfulfilled ambition

Recent re-assessment of the potential of the Fernery to provide a significant point of interest within the nature reserve will hopefully lead to partial restoration funded by Higher Level Stewardship:
 removal of scrub growing along the cascade face
 replacement of fallen and ‘stray’ rocks into the cascade face
 selective removal of more mature trees around the perimeter of the pit
 the creation of a circular path including steps to allow safe access
 the control of nettles using herbicide and regular cutting of herbaceous vegetation to
keep the pit open and attractive
 the restoration of sections of the decorative paling fence and its use to create a
 establishment of variegated holly to restore the designed planting scheme
 provision of interpretation explaining history and interest of the Fernery

The above proposals were withdrawn before the final Management Plan was published, but the cudgels have since been taken up by the Friends of Danesbury Local Nature Reserve, a group of local volunteers.

The Friends of Danesbury LNR commenced clearing the Fernery site in September 2015 and by June 2016 had completed the task: all scrub had been cleared, elder stumps have been poisoned and nettles have been eradicated following herbicidal spraying. The Friends are now in the process of deciding the way forward in partnership with the Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council.

Curent ambitions are to involve other organisations in and around Welwyn, and to create a Community Project. Interest is therefore being sought from gardening societies, archaelogical and history groups in Welwyn, with the ambition to excavate the rockwork and paths, and re-plant ferns and appopriate rock plants.