Less than an hour from central London is a grand mansion house and huge gardens that are also open to the public. The estate, at the time a smaller royal palace where Queen Mary and Elizabeth I lived for a while, was given to Elizabeth’s chief minister, Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, in 1607 as a land swap for Theobalds House in Hertfordshire.
The Cecils decided to demolish much of the old royal palace and built a much larger and grander building next to it – Hatford House, and over 400 years later, the Earls of Salisbury still own it, and still live there.
About half the house and much of the grounds are also open to the public.
Inside the house
Inside is decorated in the style you expect of a grand house that’s been lived in for over 400 years by very rich people with the ability and desire to buy lots of art.
There’s a wow moment when you walk in, for the huge marble hall is the showpiece room, packed full of wood carvings on the walls, the ceilings and every corner that could be carved. The famous “rainbow portrait” of Queen Elizabeth I is here, and a guide will tell you the secret meanings hidden in the painting.
Grand stately home staircase lined with tapestries takes you upstairs to a room so packed with colour it’s almost overwhelming. If all the paintings aren’t enough, even the walls are covered in tapestries. Rather less grand, but reminding us this is still a family home smaller family portraits of the current Earl of Salisbury are dotted around.
Every grand Jacobean mansion needs a long gallery, and this one is longer than it used to be after being extended, with an astonishing ceiling, and views out of the windows to a long walk that’s not open to the public.
A winter dining room reminds us that this is a house large enough to have both a summer and a winter dining room. It also reminds us that for all their wealth, they still lacked double-glazing and central heating, so needed to move their suppers to a warmer room in winter.
Something the family had that marked them out as aristocracy, was their own private chapel, and a visit on a sunny day is rewarded by the stained glass windows filling the small room with coloured lights.
There’s a heck of a lot to see, almost too much to take in, and with only modest signs about each room and guides to answer questions, it’s very much a “soak up the atmosphere” type of visit rather than being bombarded with facts. Personally, I prefer that, as there’s only so much information a person can absorb in a day without being exhausted.
Less grand, but an essential part of any visit to a grand house today is to go downstairs to the restored kitchen. The wall by the range looks old, but that’s a modern effect added by a film crew and the owners decided they quite liked it, so it’s remained.
Although it very much feels like a National Trust or English Heritage property, what marks it out as not being one, is that it doesn’t have a tourist shop selling guide books and teatowels.
Which also means I didn’t get to add to my growing collection of tourist mugs.
Not just the house
The house has grand gardens on both sides, and one side is also open to the public. A classic box-hedge garden of the sort that would be recognised by the original builder is next to the remains of the old royal palace.
A stunningly beautiful garden is surrounded by walkways, and I wasn’t the only one trying to work out what some of the flowers were called and pondering if they can be grown at home.
A woodland walk offers a chance to see the house from the private side, and also something shown on the map as a “viewing window”, but which simply looks out over fields.
Not just the grand gardens
There are extensive woodlands heading north of the house, with a number of grand vistas lined with lime trees that were planted centuries ago, and new younger avenues to become grand avenues in the future.
The guide suggests three walks which collectively take about 3 hours to complete, taking in a range from open countryside to dappled woodlands and lakes. You can picnic in the woodlands, and plenty of people seemed to be taking the chance to do so on a sunny day next to the lake.
A key visitor attraction is the Elizabeth Oak, where it is said Queen Elizabeth I learned of the death of Queen Mary and her own accession. We shall ignore the historians who are very dubious about the story, and simply stand here thinking back on that fateful day.
However, if you’re thinking that oak looks a bit small for an ancient tree, that’s because it’s new. The old one died in the 1980s and a replacement, planted from an acorn from the older was planted by the current Queen in 1985.
Not just the estate
There are three things worth seeing outside the house.
Right next to it by the old royal palace is St Etheldreda’s Church, a good solidly decent old church of the sort most small towns have.
What most don’t have is a massive memorial to one side, this being for Robert Cecil, and do look underneath to see the skeleton beneath his effigy.
A short walk around the old town is a very modern Roman Catholic church, and we shall overlook how illegal that would have been when Robert Cecil was alive. Marychurch R C Church was built in 1970/71 by George Davis and Sons to a strikingly modern circular design. It looks interestingly modern from the outside, but if the doors are open, or someone gets the keys to let you in, take the chance as the interior is quite stunning.
The stained glass windows fill the space with light, and a tall concrete cone lifts the space with added height. The windows behind the seating are all based on paintings that hang in other churches, and there’s a list of them in the corridor behind.
Finally, something that’s easy to overlook as you walk over it. When you visit Hatfield House, if going in by the main pedestrian entrance, you might notice that for a short while you’re walking over a deep valley.
In 1850, as part of the works to build the town’s railway station, a new entrance to the House was added, and a brick viaduct over the valley to link the station to the House. You can walk beneath it as well, and do notice the marks showing where there used to be old houses built within the arches. Recently removed as the area has been redeveloped for modern housing.
Visiting Hatfield House
You can either visit just the gardens and woods, or do them plus house. The house is only open in the summer months though.
Entry to the House and estate is £19 per adult (£9 per child, £49 for a family of up to 4 children). At the moment, you need to book in advance. Do be careful to check the website for closure dates as the house is often used for filming.
The estate opens at 10:30am, and the House at 11am.
From London, it’s a 40-minute trip by train on either Thameslink or Great Northern. Unusually for a grand house, it’s also right next to the railway station in Hatfield, so you just get off the train, cross the road, and there you are.
At the station, do notice that the northbound platform is offset from the southbound. The staggered platforms are a legacy from when Queen Victoria and other dignitaries were frequent visitors to Hatfield House. In order to accommodate the Queen in appropriate style and privacy, the platforms at Hatfield were built such a way to ensure they do not conventionally face each other across the tracks. This arrangement ensured there was no chance of a train on the other platform stopping directly next to the Royal Train and giving the commuters a chance to peer inside.
Hatfield as a town though is frankly, not really worth visiting — as it’s mostly post-WW2 new town. Fortunately, as the House and summer wanderings around the ground are easily large enough to fill most of a day, you’re not missing out.