Cassiobury Park Community Archaeology Project, Watford, Herts – Swiss Cottage Dig


The Cassiobury Park Community Archaeology Project was set up as a part of a scheme to improve facilities in the park. It was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Watford Borough Council, who manage the park.

The project is overseen by professional archaeologist Graham Keevill of Keevill Heritage Limited and the work has been undertaken by volunteers from the SW Herts Archaeological and Historical Society (SWHAHS) under the leadership of Chairman Laurie Elvin.

The Day of Archaeology on 29 July 2016 marked the culmination of the dig carried out in June 2016.
An Open Day was held on 18th June to allow the general public an opportunity to inspect the site and learn about its history, talk to the archaeologists and view the artefacts uncovered by the dig.


Cassiobury Park, Watford

Cassiobury Park was created in 1909 when the Borough Council purchased part of the estate of the Earls of Essex around Cassiobury House, which was subsequently demolished in 1927.

Originally in the ownership of St Albans Abbey the estate passed to King Henry VIII on the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539. In 1546 Henry granted the manor of Cassiobury to Sir Richard Morrison who began building Cassiobury House as a Tudor mansion. In 1627 the estate passed into the Capel family through marriage.

The first Earl of Essex, Arthur Capel, commissioned Hugh May to rebuild the Tudor House circa 1677-80. The park and gardens were laid out by Moses Cook.

Between 1799 and 1805 the 5th Earl commissioned James Wyatt to remodel the house in the Gothic style and Humphry Repton to improve the Park. A number of lodges, including the Swiss Cottage, were probably also designed by Wyatt and his nephew, Jeffry Wyatville.

The 7th Earl, George Capel, married an American heiress and at the beginning of the 20th century parkland was sold, mostly to Watford Borough Council for housing and a public park.

After the 7th Earl died in 1916 his widow and son, the 8th Earl, sold the house in 1922 and it was demolished for the materials, some of which were transported to the USA. More land for the public park was also purchased by the Borough Council in 1930.

The Swiss Cottage

The ‘Swiss Cottage’ was built as a summer house around 1820. It was used for picnics and parties for the Earl of Essex’s family and friends and included a small museum. School groups were also allowed to use the cottage and grounds. Part of the cottage was lived in rent-free by estate staff and their families but this ended in the 1930s. The cottage became unsafe and was demolished, in the late 1940s
Cassiobridge Lodge (also known as Swiss Lodge), which was a similar age, construction and style, is still standing in Gade Ave. and is a listed building.

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Did We Find Anything?

The answer to this common question from the public is that we revealed the full extent of the building in 5 separate trenches, containing tiled floors and cobbled surfaces in situ, badly damaged cast iron kitchen ranges set into a brick chimney breast and the colour that the walls were distempered!

Artefacts included assorted building ironmongery, lead cames from the windows and materials from the demolition of the building.

Personal artefact finds were disappointing but were sufficient to interest visitors on the Open Day. A George IV farthing, dated 1822, found on the Day of Archaeology provided some excitement and fulfilled the frequent phenomenon of finding something unexpectedly on the last day of a dig.


Comments of some of those taking part

Laurie (experienced volunteer and organiser)

I was pleased that I had been able to organise the completion of the excavation in the time allocated and very grateful to all the volunteers for their enthusiasm and good humour in spite of the hard work.
The site is in a beautiful location, next to the river Gade.

We assembled at 9am and after a reminder about health & safety hazards and tour of the trenches, I allocated tasks according to the experience of the 5 volunteers and one seasoned digger. These were minor extensions to existing trenches, recording worked stone and cast iron finds by drawing and photography and calculating ‘reduced’ levels from the readings taken with a ‘dumpy’ level.

As well as supervising these activities, I reviewed all the site drawings to ensure that they were complete and that I would be able to interpret other people’s drawings, when I digitise them to produce CAD drawings for the report of the excavation.

Then the hard work, of returning all the excavated material to the trenches, started. All the material in the spoil heap was returned to the trenches using shovels, buckets and barrows.

The next day the backfilling was completed and the site left for nature to reclaim

Shirley (volunteer – new to archaeology)

I enjoyed the day, even with the hard work re-filling the trenches! I am looking forward to seeing the ‘post’ from our group.

Jane (volunteer – new to archaeology)

I really enjoyed the day at Swiss Cottage and was chuffed I managed to see some finds as I had missed the main event in June. I found the day well organised, Laurie and Christine are good at giving direction.

Christine (experienced volunteer)

Thanks again for the opportunity to work on such an interesting site.

Anne and Paul Kendall (volunteers – new to archaeology)

“We thoroughly enjoyed the last two days of work on the site on the 29th and 30th July. Great fun, hard work and good company. It was good to learn new skills as well. As we were not able to come for the main dig it was really interesting to see all the discoveries, especially the two kitchen ranges. Then we massively improved our spadework as we helped to fill in the trenches. Anne has developed some very impressive biceps.

Keith (volunteer – new to archaeology)

Swiss Cottage was my first full archaeological dig.  To uncover finds that haven’t seen the light of day for over 70 years was a thrill, and to try to fathom out what we were finding was a challenge on occasions.  Sad to cover it all up at the end of the day, but all good things come to an end.