Call to save our heritage in Weston

The historic and archaeological importance of Weston Medieval Deer Park is hoped to be recognised by English Heritage, as Louise McEvoy finds out

An application has been submitted to have Weston Medieval Deer Park, which was once owned by Anne Boleyn, recognised by English Heritage in order to protect the land from development.

An area of the park has been earmarked for housing in the Stevenage and North Herts Action Plan (SNAP), which was published in 2007 by Stevenage Borough Council and North Herts District Council to accommodate 16,000 homes in the area.

While SNAP was shelved last year, it was not cancelled, and so to protect it from any development in the future, Roddy Pryor, who lives at the park’s Weston Lodge, has applied to English Heritage for the park to be afforded national heritage designation, based on historic and archaeological reasons.

The earliest record of the park dates from 1231. Its historic importance includes the fact that in 1532 Henry VIII granted the manor of Weston, including the park, to Anne Boleyn. In 1536 it may have reverted to the Crown, but in 1541 some of it was leased.

Roddy explains, ‘As one of the largest and most attractive of the deer parks in medieval Hertfordshire, it may well have provided the venue for some prestigious hunting events. The detailed history of those three centuries of the Weston deer park is brilliantly described in Anne Rowe’s book Medieval Parks of Hertfordshire.’

He also says that for over three centuries the park would have played a vital role in the local economy. ‘It would have employed quite a lot of people locally to kill the deer and take them up to London to be sold, and a lot of people would have been needed to keep the fences and hedges in good order so the deer couldn’t get out,’ he says. ‘It would have given employment to at least 30 to 40 people.’

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Roddy asserts that the creation of the park would have greatly influenced the pattern of settlement in the area and the development of the local road network, with much of the landscape around Weston having altered little over the centuries.

Archaeologically, earthwork evidence of how the land had been used during the medieval period has been preserved where pasture has survived.

Today, the park is made up mostly of arable land, with some pasture and quite a lot of woodland. Remains of the boundary of the deer park, which would have been a thick hedge on a bank, are clearly visible in several places, and it is possible that some of the oak trees date back to medieval times. The only buildings on the 380-acre park are a collection close to the lodge, where Mr Pryor was born. He says, ‘The lodge will have been the most important building within the park in medieval times and was strategically located to give the parker extensive views over the park. It became a farmhouse in the 16th century and has probably been rebuilt several times.’ As well as Weston Lodge, there is an 18th-century granary, which was converted into a cottage at the end of the 19th century, and is surrounded by a large partly 17th-century thatched barn. Both buildings are Grade II listed and there are a further two barns and a range of stables and kennels on the site.

According to Roddy, the site has never been investigated or excavated. ‘There may still be a considerable amount to be uncovered, and it affords a rare archaeological opportunity in a medieval deer park untouched by development,’ he says.

Asked what prompted him to apply to English Heritage for the park to be afforded national heritage designation, he says, ‘At the time we first heard about SNAP, it did seem it was going to come awfully near us, and then Anne Rowe’s book came out about the medieval deer park in 2009. The existence of the deer park was not known locally until then. It seemed to me something that might well slow the development up.

‘We’ve submitted the application and English Heritage are certainly looking at it, but they did say it would take quite a time because they have a lot of applications and they look at it in great detail. We really are waiting on them. Let’s hope it keeps the developers off.’

The application to English Heritage is supported by Joanna Cherry, who owns more than 350 acres of the park with her husband John, and by Weston Parish Council. ‘We are very much in support of the application,’ says Joanna. ‘Apart from anything else, it gives us a stronger case for not developing houses on the land.’

Roddy concludes, ‘The current recession makes it unlikely for SNAP to be revived until the current economic situation improves, but that will surely happen in a few years. There is a need for more houses in Stevenage, so we regard urban development as a serious threat which listing could help to avert. The threat is real and designation would emphasise the importance of Weston’s medieval park.’

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