The Secret Seventeenth-Century Water Garden

By Stephen Wass

There are multiple references to the garden at Hanwell Castle in Robert Plot’s Natural History of Oxfordshire, with pools and islands hidden away in its woods, it has survived almost intact in its seventeenth-century state. Despite this remarkable feat of endurance, the garden remained somewhat overlooked until the arrival of author Stephen Wass in 2012.

In this, the first of a series of blogs, Stephen reveals the story behind his Hanwell project, from his discovery of the waterworks at Hanwell Castle in an Ordnance survey map, to the pages of the acknowledgements in his new book, Seventeenth Century Water Gardens and the Birth of Modern Scientific Thought in Oxford.

With the publication of our new volume on Hanwell Castle’s gardens and the recent award – after nearly ten years and 100,000 words – of my D. Phil. It feels like a good time to look back on the birth of the Hanwell project and the coincidences that lead to its inception, way back in 2010.

Image of the garden at Hanwell Castle

Photograph provided by Stephen Wass and taken on his first visit to Hanwell Castle

Putting Hanwell on the map

I had been busy working with the National Trust at Farnborough Hall in south Warwickshire as part of the research for my MA dissertation at Leicester University and, in reading round for information on other local gardens, I came across references to the waterworks at Hanwell. On consulting the Ordnance Survey map, I realised that there were still pools and islands and goodness knows what else lurking in the woods there. A fortuitous conversation at a local history society put me onto the property owners and, early in 2012, I organised a site visit.


The opening gambit from my hosts was, ‘we’ve been waiting for 30 years for someone to turn up and show an interest in our garden’. They were well aware of the multiple references to Hanwell in Robert Plot’s famous Natural History of Oxfordshire, published in 1676 and were surprised that no-one else had picked up on it. A tour of the site soon revealed its archaeological potential for, whilst much of its was wooded, it had been spared the attentions of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown and his like and in effect survived as an intact seventeenth-century garden and park. Without a doubt, worthy of further investigation.

It then emerged that one of the property owners taught history at Christ Church and Brasenose Colleges so… ‘Why don’t you investigate our garden and you can propose it as a D. Phil. research project?’ Well, why not?

Teamwork makes the dream work

Image of the garden at Hanwell castle

Photograph provided by Stephen Wass and taken on his first visit to Hanwell Castle

What makes the project unusual was the increasing use of volunteers both local and from further afield to help with the digging. Through contacts both personal and with local history groups I had already recruited a number of helpers and once the word went round about opening up a new site at Hanwell we began to get enquiries from far and wide.

It was also very gratifying to be able to work with volunteers from opposite ends of the age spectrum, our helpers being equally divided between retired folks and university students. It’s no surprise that the project proved so popular; opportunities to work on archaeological digs for free have become increasingly rare and the combination of healthy outdoor physical activity and intellectual challenge is a hard one to beat. The older people who have joined us have brought lifetimes of experience and skills: we have had biologists, engineers and even a surgeon helping out, whilst the students have energy, enthusiasm and sometimes knowledge of current thinking and cutting-edge techniques.

When the final acknowledgements went into the book there were nearly 90 names listed including helpers from countries as far flung as the United States, Japan and Belgium…  OK, so Belgium is not that far flung, but we have had three volunteers from that fine country.

Keep an eye on our blog for the next installment in Stephen’s story!

Seventeenth-Century Water Gardens and the Birth of Modern Scientific Thought in Oxford is available now from Oxbow Books!

Click here to order

Featured image a photograph of the dig at Hanwell, provided by Stephen Wass