The second part of a Dacorum Heritage Trust feature on Hemel Hempstead’s Water Gardens.
The ‘water serpent’ was the brainwave of Geoffrey Alan Jellicoe for the Water Garden at Hemel Hempstead.
Its head is the lake at one end, with a fountain ‘eye’ and its ‘tail’ flicks around the mound at the northern end.
This was intended to create the illusion of an endless body of water, a trick learnt from Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, the renowned landscape designer.
The Rose Garden attaches itself as a ‘howdah’ (reminiscent of the canopied seats on the backs of elephants) to the serpent’s back, framed by a pair of pleached lime avenues.
The smooth underbelly is the lawn along Waterhouse Street and the scaly back is indicated by the shrubbery next to the car parks.
As one of 14 new towns established after the Second World War, Hemel Hempstead represented the vision of a better world for communities devastated by war.
Hemel’s Water Garden is the most important survival of New Town mid-century ‘gardens for the people’ and in 2010 it was added to the English Heritage Register of Parks & Gardens of Historic Interest in England, as one of only 1,600 really special landscapes across the country, as well as being a world-class modernist garden.
Jellicoe considered the Water Garden the best and most successful scheme he had built over a long career. He drew on paintings by Paul Klee and the works of Carl Jung to produce a garden full of meaning and allusion – and interest.
Jellicoe’s weirs across the river Gade were intended to create different moods, either fast flowing and energetic, or rippled, slow and reflective.
They were ‘tuned’ by using different heights and treatments of the walls to make individual sounds and water effects. His wife, Susan, designed all the planting, creating different schemes for each part – the water’s edge, the shrub bank to screen the car parks, and the flower gardens.
Due to post-war restrictions, funds and materials were scarce and Jellicoe made good use of inexpensive materials.
The car park screen bank was constructed from material excavated from the river.
He used concrete and timber to stabilise the water edges and young plants, except for the semi-mature limes. This thrift means inevitable wear and tear.
The timber bank revetment has rotted and the stabilisation of the banks has been thwarted by Canada Geese – some of the concrete is in need of repair, or has been badly repaired in the past, whilst subsidence has resulted in higgledy-piggledy paths.
The planting, once immaculately maintained, has become overgrown. Tree canopies are shading out the now threadbare grass and have reduced variety in the shrubberies. Tree roots have made it harder to maintain the shrubberies and the Rose Garden.
Despite all this, the original garden is largely intact and a remarkable survival. Dacorum Borough Council is working on a Heritage Lottery Fund bid to restore the garden, which has now reached the critical point where restoration is essential if it is not to be lost altogether.
Once fully restored, it would link the town centre and the valley sides once again and prove a jewel in the crown of Hemel Hempstead.