The Restoration of Easton Park
The withdrawal of Uttlesford District Council’s draft Local Plan earlier this year hopefully means its proposal for a 10,000-home new town on Easton Park has died with it. Here, Vincent Thompson, of the campaign group Stop Easton Park, unveils the fascinating, and colourful, history of this beautiful place.
The Restoration of Easton Park
On April 30, 2020, Uttlesford District Council voted by an overwhelming majority to withdraw its draft Local Plan issued in 2017 that proposed the creation of three “garden communities”, one for 10,000 dwellings to be located on the historic deer park known as Easton Park.
UDC will now start to formulate a new plan, which provides the opportunity for a campaign to restore this ancient park, which was badly damaged in the Second World War, having been requisitioned by the War Office to build an airfield used by US and RAF bomber squadrons.
This campaign is being led by the local residents’ action group known as Stop Easton Park, set up to support Little Easton Parish Council in its efforts to defeat the Local Plan. In essence, the argument is that Easton Park is not a sustainable location for new housing, whether 10,000 units or any smaller number, and so it should be restored to its former glory and opened to the general public.
This article sets out to give an overview of the historical background.
The village of Little Easton, once known as Estaines Parva, can be traced back to Roman times and before. On high ground and benefiting from multiple springs, it was a natural location for a settlement in the great forests of Essex that stretched from London to Thaxted. These forests were highly prized in Tudor times for deer-hunting and frequently used by royalty. Epping Forest and Hatfield Forest remain as prime examples and deer are very much in evidence to this day.
Three outbreaks of the plague, in 1348, 1361 and 1369, may account for the fact that the main part of the village now lies a mile to the north of the Norman Grade I-listed church built on the site of a Saxon church and the manor house.
Easton Park: The Jewel in the Crown
The heart of Little Easton was, and remains, Easton Park, one of the great parks of Essex.
The documented history of Easton Park dates back more than 700 years, since in 1302 Matthew de Loveyn acquired a licence for two deer parks at Little Easton. A map from 1594 clearly shows the two parks.
Three hundred years later, Easton Park was central to the grant to Sir Henry Maynard in 1590 of the Manor of Estaines and surrounding lands. He chose to build his mansion at Easton Lodge in the park rather than at the manor and the name of the former hunting lodge was retained.
Sir Henry’s grandson, William, who succeeded in 1640, expanded the park to its current shape and laid out three formal avenues of trees in the ‘patte d’oie’ format, which, along with the house, are clearly shown in a Skynner engraving of 1756. These avenues remained partly visible until 1940. The history of the park is well documented in an article by JM Hunter in Essex Archaeology and History (2001) – see here.
In 1937, the Countess of Warwick declared the park a nature reserve and put in train an agreement with Dunmow Rural District Council to limit development on the park to no more than 10 dwellings. The agreement was signed in 1939, after her death, by her executors and remains in force to this day.
Following the requisitioning of the Easton Lodge estate by the War Office in 1940, the park was cleared to build an airfield, involving, allegedly, the destruction of 10,000 trees. The estate was returned to the Maynard family in 1950, when the badly-damaged house was pulled down, bar the west wing, and the park converted to agricultural use. However, the park, comprising some 1,150 acres, retains its original shape, which is clearly visible to this day, as too is the vibrant wildlife of deer, birds, flora and fauna that the countess was so determined to protect for future generations.
The park is crossed by multiple byways and footpaths and sits at the centre of a group of related assets including High Wood, a Site of Special Scientific Interest, to the south, the Grade II*-listed Stone Hall to the south-east, Lays Wood to the north-east, the Grade II-registered Gardens of Easton Lodge to the north and the conservation area surrounding the Grade I-listed Norman church and Little Easton Manor to the north-east.
The area also includes an exceptional range of listed buildings, most of which were formerly part of the Easton Lodge estate, and as such provides a rare insight into the form of a large country estate at the turn of the 19th-20th century.
In 1994, a proposal to build 2,500 dwellings on Easton Park was rejected by the planning inspector. In 2017, Uttlesford District Council issued a draft Local Plan including a proposed allocation to build 10,000 dwellings at Easton Park, but following concerns expressed by the inspectors in January 2020 the draft Plan was withdrawn on April 30 after a vote backed by an overwhelming majority of councillors.
Easton Park is potentially a key asset both for the district of Uttlesford and the county of Essex. Extensive building in recent years in the locality, notably at Great Dunmow, Takeley and Bishop’s Stortford, has highlighted the need for a large open space, a destination park, to serve the needs of the local community. This need is most clearly demonstrated by the current plight of Hatfield Forest, which is suffering severe degradation due to excessive use resulting from house-building.
This campaign is designed to highlight the indisputable merits of Easton Park as an open space accessible to the general public given that it can never be seen as a suitable location for a new town, be it 10,000 dwellings or fewer, due to its lack of access to the M11 and the mainline railway, its proximity to Stansted Airport and Great Dunmow, its severely restricted access, resultant congestion and the severe impact on the ecosystem and heritage of this rare asset.
It is hoped that UDC will be persuaded to use its powers under the 1939 agreement to protect the park and work towards its restoration for the benefit of future generations.
The Easton Lodge estate
From 1365 the Manor of Estaines and the estates surrounding Little Easton were owned by the Bourchier family, the last of whom, Anne, in 1541 married William Parr, brother of Queen Catherine Parr. The marriage ended in divorce, but William retained the lands and was made Earl of Essex in 1543. In 1553, he was condemned to death for espousing the cause of Lady Jane Grey. Though William survived, he lost his lands, which were later given to the church in 1558, the year Elizabeth I ascended the throne.
The Easton Lodge estate derived from the grant in 1590 by Elizabeth I to Sir Henry Maynard, secretary to her chief adviser, Lord William Burghley, of the Manor of Estaines and the surrounding lands, comprising 1,000 acres, to which he added the Manor of Great Easton in 1597 and Little Canfield Hall before his death in 1610. Sir Henry Maynard built an Elizabethan mansion at Easton Lodge in 1597 but retained the name to reflect its origin as a hunting lodge.
From 1590 to the Second World War, Easton Lodge and Audley End were the two grand houses, the two key socio-economic units, in what is now Uttlesford District. Sir Henry’s son, William, was made a baron in 1620 and acquired Great Canfield Lodge. His grandson, also William, played a prominent part in the restoration of Charles II.
The Elizabethan mansion survived until a disastrous fire in 1847, following which Easton Lodge was rebuilt in the Victorian Gothic style to the designs of Thomas Hopper.
The expansion of the estate continued until the death of the last Viscount Maynard in 1865, by when it comprised some 14,000 acres mostly between Great Dunmow and Thaxted. The Maynard emblem in the form of either a deer or the letter M in a round circle is still visible on many buildings in the area.
Easton Lodge estate reached its zenith under the tenure of Frances Evelyn ‘Daisy’ Maynard, who was born in 1861 and inherited the estate in 1865 at the age of three following the death first of her father and, soon after, her grand-father, so becoming, allegedly, the richest heiress in the country.
In 1881, Daisy married Francis Greville, Lord Brooke, who in 1893 became the 5th Earl of Warwick on the death of his father.
The countess was a colourful individual with many gifts, including intelligence, beauty, social skills and considerable abilities as a writer, gardener and farmer. She entertained extensively, notably the Marlborough Set, resulting in a close relationship for nine years from 1886 with the Prince of Wales, who became Edward VII in 1901.
In 1902, the countess commissioned Harold Peto to improve her gardens, including building an Italian sunken garden to the north of Easton Lodge. The Gardens of Easton Lodge were listed as a Grade II-registered park and garden after a major restoration. The countess also renovated Stone Hall, a property to the south of the park, where she created a themed garden in the Arts and Crafts style that was the subject of considerable acclaim.
In 1904, the countess became a socialist and thereafter played an active role supporting good causes, notably the welfare of the local community, with particular emphasis on educational reform and employment skills, especially for women.
In 1909, the writer HG Wells became a tenant at the rectory, renaming it Easton Glebe, where he remained until 1928 after the death of his wife, Jane. He too entertained extensively, including many of the well-known writers of his day, including George Bernard Shaw, Rebecca West and Charlie Chaplin.
The countess had a keen interest in theatre, partly through a close friendship with the acclaimed actress, Ellen Terry, who was a regular visitor. She converted the barn at the manor to create a theatre where many notables including HG Wells and George Bernard Shaw performed.
After the marriage of her daughter Mercy to the theatre impresario Basil Dean in 1925, the countess gave them the manor, where Dean carried out substantial renovations in the Art Deco style.
Financial pressures arose due to extravagant expenditure and problems in the agricultural sector, which led to major sales in 1919 and 1921 and a significant reduction in the estate. However, the core comprising the land surrounding Easton Lodge and Easton Park, amounting to some 2,400 acres, was retained by the descendants of the Maynard family until sold to Land Securities in 2004.
The countess died in 1938 and was succeeded by her son, Maynard Greville.
In 1940, the War Office requisitioned both the house and the park, resulting in the building of Great Dunmow airfield, where the US 386 Bomber Group, the Crusaders, was based. It was heavily involved in the bombing of Utah Beach prior to the D-Day landings in June 1944. The 386 then moved to France and was replaced by RAF 190 and 620 Squadrons flying heavy Stirling bombers.
After VE Day, the park became an army storage depot for more than 34,000 vehicles.
In 1950, the estate was returned to Maynard Greville. The house, which had been badly damaged during the war, was pulled down, other than the west wing, and the park converted to agricultural use.