Country Park Pursuits
Updated: Apr 7, 2021
This month, as spring beckons and as we hope to see an end to the trials and tribulations of Covid 19 and the isolation that it has forced on us, we take a look at the history and the delights of the Denham Country Park.
Catch phrases of the day include: “Protect our Environment”, "For your Wellbeing enjoy the beautiful outdoors", "Learn to appreciate insects and the wildlife" - and "Have Fun!". These contemporary ideas have new packaging and marketing, but we only need to look back a bit to see how these ideas had been incorporated in the past and brought forward. The Denham Country Park and the wider recreational areas of the Colne Valley have fascinating histories, emphasising our connection with nature.
In 1992 we could have joined: “A two-mile walk around Denham Park on Sunday (which) promises one and a half hours of fun. All the family are welcome to take part in the ramble titled Sensory Sensation, but they must be prepared to get dirty. Meet at the Colne Valley Visitor Centre at 2 pm.” The Uxbridge and West Drayton newspaper published that invitation almost 30 years ago.
By then, the Denham Country Park had been changed into a delightful destination as a result of decades of "tender love and care" from municipalities, citizen groups, private corporations, funding entities and others. Most of the historic landscape at Denham Country Park now falls within Buckinghamshire Golf Course.
From farm to golf course
In 1990 Bucks County Council gave the Japanese construction company, the Kajima Corporation, a long lease on the Denham Court Mansion and most of the surrounding former farmland for use as a golf course.
By 1992, the Denham Court Mansion had been renovated, remodelled, renewed, and emerged as the Buckinghamshire Golf Club and Heron restaurant. It was far from an easy transition from farm to golf course. A two-year campaign by villagers, including Sir John and Lady Mills, protested the sale of the farmland and buildings. One former villager, a child at the time remembers confusing what she heard of as the “Golf War” with the Gulf War. Local walkers feared that they might lose access to ancient rights of ways on eight paths through the farmland.
Eventually, cordiality returned. Kajima established its golf course and Bucks County Council kept much of of the woodland, riverside and surrounding areas as Denham Country Park. The Colne Valley Park Visitor Centre was built here at the heart of the local park. The community responded to Sunday brunches in the Heron restaurant, joyful participation in BGC sponsored celebrations such as Guy Fawkes Night, and Halloween celebrations, and special times observing one of the exciting golf tournaments. Today Lime Avenue leading from St Mary’s to Denham Court has become a wide major walkway through the golf course. Although the first stretch of Lime Avenue from St. Mary’s toward the golf club is not a public right of way, it has been paved and improved over the years. Walkers, cyclists, and families use it often - as anyone there during the days and weekends during the current pandemic is well aware.
Groundwork South, an environmental charity that carries out work for the Colne Valley Park Community Interest Company (CIC), currently now has leases both on the building which is used as a Visitor Centre and on the café and the office buildings at the rear.
How then did we get from there to here ?
Denham Court - a brief history
Not surprisingly, Denham Court, the late 17th Century Mansion on the banks of the Colne River, has had a long and colourful history since Sir William Bowyer and family were residents. The poet John Dryden, whose wife was a relation of the Bowyers, was a frequent visitor, calling the area "one of the most delicious spots in England". The house passed through a succession of Bowyers, the last of whom sold Denham Court Mansion in 1813 to Thomas Hamlet, a London merchant and banker, after whose bankruptcy in 1840 it was bought by Nathaniel George Lambert. Lambert represented Buckinghamshire alongside Disraeli in Parliament between 1868-1880.
In 1885, Commander H. W. Swithinbank acquired the property. After the mansion had been 35 years in his possession, the Commander announced an upcoming sale in April 1920 by private treaty for his “300 acres, a magnificent 17th century mansion, grandly timbered park, stables, and gardens”. The sale included live farming stock comprising cattle, horses, pigs, and poultry, and dead farming stock which included agricultural implements.
As there is no record of a successful sale, the house was put up for let over the summer months in 1935 and discussions continued about the fate of the Denham Court mansion property. On October 22, 1935, Mrs. Swithinbank put the house's furnishings up for sale. The contents of the house were sold over a three-day period. Private individual ownership of the property was over.
Following this, in November 1935, the Middlesex County Council formally approved its purchase of 306 acres of Denham Court Estate, Buckinghamshire for £42,000 as part of London’s ‘green belt.’ Competition for the property, albeit unsuccessful, came from a film company that regarded the charming grounds which surround the mansion as ideal for the shooting of films. Instead, the house became the Hillingdon Borough Council's home for children in need in the late 1950s, providing accommodation for up to 24 children. In 1964, title was transferred to the Greater London Council after the Middlesex County Council was abolished in 1965.
The Greater London Council also disappeared in local government reorganisation in 1986 and Buckinghamshire County Council acquired Denham Court mansion and the estate. That led directly to the sale to Kajima in May 1990. The property has changed hands a couple of times since Colne Valley Golf Company Ltd. was established to convert the land and house into a golf course and club house.
As the Middlesex County Council had done in 1935, the Buckinghamshire County Council continued to acquire more property to add to the designated green belt. In June 1938, the Beeston Gazette and Echo reported that “Many noted beauty spots on the fringe of London are included in a scheme, approved by Buckinghamshire County Council, for the acquisition of 1,236 acres in the Colne Valley. The total estimated cost of the land is £232,876, and it is also proposed to take in a further 969 acres, involving £6,000 in compensation, The areas included in the scheme include 131 acres between the North Orbital road and the Middlesex county boundary, north of the London-Oxford road at Denham, 648 acres adjoining the Middlesex boundary between the Great Western Railway and the Colnbrook by-pass, with part of the Richings Park estate; 190 acres between Iver and the Middlesex boundary, which embraces the Huntsmoor Park estate already preserved under a separate scheme ; and 167 acres adjoining the Thames at Wraysbury”.
Mundane as it seems, gravel figures significantly in Denham’s history. Gravel has been extracted from the area around our village for at least 200 years. The Toby Carvery up on the Oxford Road opposite Caps Wood once glorified as a simple pub in the name the Gravel Diggers Arms. The existence of the former gravel pits explains the expanses of water around the village and an impetus for the establishment of the Denham Country Park, and indeed the much larger Colne Valley Regional Park.
Gravel meant wealth. In 1964 The Sphere newspaper, in one of its last editions, published an article “Gravel into Gold” describing the huge post war building programme that the national economy then permitted. One company alone in the “booming” south east around Greater London, owned some 66 gravel pits, mainly in the rich Thames Valley basin.
But, as good an investment as it might be, The Sphere warned of the downside:
“Digging, unfortunately, makes a mess of the countryside. And even if you can find a deposit of the right quality in the right place – and it needs to be convenient for sites; gravel is heavy and costly to move very far – the local authority, the town and country planning people, the preservers of rural England, and the rest will usually fight to the death to deny you the right to remove it”.
The warning was not new. A front-page headline from October 1950 read: ”Pit-Diggers Should Clear Up the Mess, Say Councils.” Mr H.E.G. Stripp, Uxbridge Council’s Engineer and Surveyor was reported as warning that “the western area of Greater London are expected to produce 3,500,000 cubic yards of sand and gravel each year in the future, which could be for over a third of century.” Mr Stripp described how the unsightliness of sand and gravel workings had a bad effect on the amenities of the district and are often a danger to children. He added: “There are certain groups of pits along the Colne Valley, in areas of some scenic beauty, which would be suitable for retention as a nature reserve, but the cost would be heavy. Pit operators should help pay the costs, which could include filling in some of the pits.”
Following a conference in December 17, 1965. a consortium of local authorities, led by Buckinghamshire and Hillingdon, was formed, and by 1967 the consortium had established the Colne Valley Regional Park. The boundaries were drawn to include all the open land visible from the valley floor between Rickmansworth and Denham. The eastern boundary was defined by the existing development, and the southern end by the River Thames. The western boundary was defined by development at Langley and Datchet, and then ran roughly parallel to the River Colne, taking in Langley Park and Black Park. The Misbourne Valley below Chalfont St Peter was also included.
The boundaries remain broadly similar today, although additions have included land north of Staines town centre, an area near Langley, and some more near Gerrards Cross and Chalfont St Peter.
And those gravel pits? The disused pits within the Colne Valley Flood Plain of course flooded to form the attractive lakes, which are prominent within the Regional Park particularly in its southern area. Many of these lakes are now used for recreational purposes, for example angling, canoeing and bird watching.
We will be telling more about the Regional Park, its past and its hoped-for future, later this month together with a glance at the “future history” of what we can expect from the impact of HS2.
London Green Belt
The idea of establishing green belts around cities has a very long history, perhaps as long as 2500 years. Indeed the Old Testament’s Book of Numbers includes the command that “the Children of Israel shall give to the Levites, from the heritage of their possession, cities for dwelling; and open space all around the cities shall you give to the Levites. The cities shall be theirs for dwelling, and their open space shall be for their animals, for their possessions, and for all the amenities of life”.
So far as London was concerned limitations were placed on its growth as early as 1593 when legislation was enacted to prohibit the erection of new buildings within three miles of the city and to prevent the enclosure of common land. The impetus for this legislation was to halt the spread of plague and it wasn’t particularly effective, but it served to entrench an idea about the need for people to reach beyond their cities into the countryside.
Of course as the population grew and opportunities for travel other than on foot increased, the three mile limitation went “by the wayside”. The idea was not revived until the late 19th century and even then it took a long time to come to fruition. In London a major driving force for the green belt was the Labour politician Herbert Morrison, later the Home Secretary in Winston Churchill’s wartime cross party National Government. As leader of the London County Council in 1934, Morrison devised a plan which in the following year was adopted by the Greater London Regional Planning Committee, "to provide a reserve supply of public open spaces and of recreational areas and to establish a green belt or girdle of open space". There was much to inspire Morrison’s efforts in Denham. His close friend Sir Stafford Cripps, wartime ambassador to the USSR and later Chancellor of the Exchequer, was married to Isobel Swithinbank of the Denham Court family. Morrison was a frequent visitor to Denham Court where he received much support for his plans.
The Green Belt (London and Home Counties) Act 1938 empowered local authorities in the Home Counties including Buckinghamshire to buy land to keep it open as Green Belt, but it was another 14 years before any really coherent plan was drawn up. The Act also made provision for landowners to enter into covenants that their land would be treated as part of the Green Belt in return for a compensatory payment from the Local Authority. Little use appears to have been made of this provision though Mrs. Swithinbank, Isobel’s mother, encouraged by Herbert Morrison, did consider a proposal to dedicate the Denham Court estate for the enjoyment of the people of West London – though it seems the deed of dedication was never formally completed perhaps because later post war legislation made it unnecessary.
After the second world war, there was a recognition of the need for society to control the development of land, resulting in the Town and Country Planning Act 1947. This Act laid the foundation of the modern planning system. It was realised that it is not feasible for local authorities to purchase all the land needed to maintain a proper green belt and the covenant option was not working. What was needed was a way of controlling development without interfering with the ownership and existing use of land.
A number of the local planning authorities in and around London started writing into their local plans belts of restricted development to stop the uncontrolled spread of London. The Government approved of the idea and on 3 August 1955, the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (as it then was) issued a circular to all Local Planning Authorities asking them to establish green belt in their development plans wherever appropriate. The Denham Court farmland fitted neatly into those plans.
Denham Country Park
Though these days controversy is much more about pressure on the belts from building proposals, green belt development in the 1940s was certainly not free of controversy in the opposite direction. Some landowners did not take too kindly to proposed restrictions on the use of their land and objected to ramblers and others wandering over it.
The Uxbridge and West Drayton Gazette reported in April 1945 that, despite the uncertain spring weather, cyclists and ramblers were becoming more venturesome. There were numerous parties of them to be seen on the roads and along the field paths and some kind of dispute had arisen over a public footpath at Higher Denham. The writer of the article suggested that it would be well if some kind of organisation could be formed to make a survey of all these ancient rights of way and protect them. Apparently, some Councils had prepared schedules of these old rights of way and had also taken care to erect signposts to assist in their use and protection. The newspaper suggested that “Perhaps the Youth Council of the local youth organisation will take the matter up in some organised form, now that their clubs are beginning the rambling season.”
Councils also debated about how much of the green belt could or should be used for private use, and if so, how much rent would be appropriate to contribute to the costs of upkeep.
Though the land we now know as Denham Country Park then became part of the London Metropolitan Green Belt, the truth is that not much was done with it between 1955 and 1990. Though the village protesters of 1990 bitterly opposed the loss of the farmland which extended across the north side of the village, it is certainly the case that the sale by Buckinghamshire County Council to Kajima provided the impetus for the establishment of the two square mile Denham Country Park that provides so much enjoyment to locals and to the people of west London as Herbert Morrison and Mrs. Swithinbank intended. Plans were prepared in 1990 and work began in October 1991 to transform the “overgrown park” into an informal recreation area. In March 1992 Denham Country Park and the Colne Valley Regional Park were formally declared open by the Duke of Kent. Bucks County Council Chairperson Gillian Miscampbell declared it “the first real taste of the countryside this side of London”
The Denham Country Park today is located within the larger Colne Valley Regional Park and is surrounded by the Grand Union Canal and the rivers Colne and Misbourne. The Colne Valley Regional Park of which it forms part, is 27,500 acres, 42 square miles, of parks, green spaces and reservoirs alongside the often multi-channel River Colne and parallel Grand Union Canal, mainly in Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire, with parts in Hillingdon, Berkshire and a small area in Surrey.
Denham Country Park is now a 69-acre public park and local nature reserve. The Colne Valley Park Visitor Centre and cafe are located in Denham Country Park and provide great recreational opportunities and family activities, some of which include the Adventure Land area which opened five years ago. The photo here shows members of the Denham Parish Council and Groundwork staff celebrating the addition of the new area of the Park, especially developed for youngsters.
Along with front-line support from the Parish Council, the waste management and environmental services company Grundon, a "Founding Corporate Supporter", has been contributing to special projects as well as the preservation and enhancement of the landscape of the Colne Valley.
Three million people live within 10 miles of the Parks and 25,000 visitors enjoy the environmental benefits of the Parks area each year. Of course, there continue to be organised activities in Denham Country Park just as there were decades ago. However, many visitors choose to select a map of the area and head in a direction of their own choosing. Rejuvenation and Wellbeing do not require a group.
Portrait of John Dryden by John Michael Wright c. 1668 © National Portrait Gallery, London www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw141000/John-Dryden?
Photo of Herbert Morrison attributed to Yousuf Karsh, CC BY-SA 3.0 NL <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/nl/deed.en>, via Wikimedia Commons
www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk (Uxbridge and West Drayton Gazette, Beeston Gazette and Echo, The Sphere
... and with grateful thanks also to Parish Councillor Sharon Williams for her assistance with research
The Colne Valley Park website provides access to a guide to the park together with a map - CVP Visitor Guide 2020.indd (colnevalleypark.org.uk)