The Grove Entrance
Today, the Grove is a luxury hotel and spa, where you can escape the pressures of everyday life with a massage or a spot of golf. However, the history of the Grove goes back many centuries, and it’s full of tales of ghosts and lavish royal parties.
During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the first substantial house was built at The Grove. However, archaeologists have unearthed some Bronze Age pottery on this site, pointing to our ancestors settling there as early as 7,000 BC.
Many years later, a man named Lord Doneraile possessed the estate. He proceeded to have building work carried out on the house, which included rebuilding an ancient chapel into a kitchen. Legend has it that Lord Doneraile was punished for this work and is compelled to spend the next life pursuing a ghostly fox through the grounds on horseback, accompanied by a pack of phantom hounds. Many workmen have claimed to have witnessed this event, and details appeared in the Watford Observer in March, 1974, having been relayed by a staff member at The Grove.
In the eighteenth century, the house became the property of the Earls of Clarendon. The first Earl of Clarendon to live on the estate was Thomas Villiers, who was also a Lord Commissioner of the Admiralty. This made him one of only seven members of the Board of Admiralty who exercised command over the Royal Navy, at a time when it was the most powerful navy in the world.
In the 1770s, Captain Cook presented Thomas Villiers with a sapling of just-discovered Black Walnut Tree. This impressive tree still stands today, towering over the Terrace of the Grove.
In the 1830s, the London & Birmingham Railway wanted to build new tracks along the course of the Gade Valley, which crosses the Grove estate. The Earl, however, would not tolerate it, and the railway company had to seek an alternative course, resulting in the lengthy and expensive Watford tunnels.
The third Earl of Clarendon, John Villiers, became a very important man when he was added to the Privy Council and made Comptroller of the King’s Household. But unlike many of the Earls of Clarendon to come, John took little part in public life after succeeding his brother as Earl, devoting himself instead to religious and charitable works.
George Villiers, fourth Earl of Clarendon, was appointed minister at the court of Spain. Slavery was intended to be illegal in Spanish colonies from 1820, but many ignored this and continued to keep slaves. George worked with the help of Times correspondent David Turnball to remove slavery from Spanish colonies. He received the Grand Cross of the Bath in acknowledgement of his services, and was later made a Knight of the Garter.
In 1846, the fifth Earl became Queen Victoria’s secretary and aide, and started the English tradition of lavish house parties for the Queen and her posse. House guests of the Grove during this time included Edward VII, Horace Walpole and Lord Palmerston. Invitations were highly sought after and prized, with guests driving down from London on Saturday and returning on Monday. It was a new phenomenon which The Times named “Weekending”.
In 1920, the aristocratic family had to leave the Grove as the Villiers downsized their estate in view of reducing Estate Tax. The Times published a letter mourning the passing of “one of the greatest political houses of the 19th century”.
Throughout the 1920s and 30s, the Grove was used as a gardening school, health centre, riding school and girls’ boarding school.
In the 1940s, the Grove became the secret wartime HQ for the London, Midland & Scottish Railway. Of great strategic importance, it was called simply ‘Project X’. The Local Defence Volunteers was formed, eventually becoming the Home Guard, and they patrolled the Grove and surrounding roads from dusk till dawn. After Dunkirk, when an attack seemed most likely, they began patrolling with loaded rifles.
Six air raid shelters from this period can still be seen in the grounds today, now home to one of England’s largest colonies of Pipistrelle bats.
Information courtesy of Chris Reynolds of http://www.hertfordshire-genealogy.co.uk
Article taken from the Watford Observer Nostalgia Series by Kelly Pells
Reproduced courtesy of The Watford Observer