West Berks Historic Environment Records and the Lost Gardens of Shaw House

A talk by Beth Asbury, West Berkshire Council, on Saturday 16th September 2023

West Berkshire Council (WBC) has curatorial responsibility for archaeology in the local environment.  Consequently, its Archaeology Team researches the sites of planning applications in its Historic Environment Records (HER) which holds information on all known surviving physical remains of human activity.  Surprisingly, local authorities are not required to have an HER, but the Levelling-Up and Regeneration Bill (LURB) proposes making them compulsory.  The HER database is linked to a Geographic Information System (GIS) which accurately records where designated heritage assets such as scheduled monuments, listed buildings, registered parks and gardens, registered battlefields and protected wreck sites are to be found.  The WBC HER contains one registered battlefield, 1,929 listed buildings, and 94 scheduled monuments including the standing remains of Donnington Castle, although this is the only English Heritage managed property in Berkshire.

Shaw House was built in 1581 by a wealthy cloth merchant and is now a Grade 1 listed building.  The listed buildings within its park include; the Grade 2 listed 1908 Gateway which probably replaced the Ha-ha which was filled in; the Grade 2 listed 1841 St Mary’s Church, formerly the site of an Anglo-Saxon Norman church with a Norman font and which may have been important in the Roman period as Roman tiles are said to have been in the roof of the previous building; the Grade 2 listed lychgate (‘Lych’ – Anglo-Saxon word meaning, dead body); four Grade 2 listed tombs in the churchyard mainly dating to the early 19th century.

Shaw Park is Grade 2 listed.  The route to the house from the Bath Road is long and tree lined.  In 1733 the Duke of Chandos joined the river Lambourn to the canal giving rise to a cascade and a semi-circular pool which reflected the house.  Remnants of a platform to view this are believed to remain.  The water features silted up in the early 20th century.  In the 1960s they were filled in as part of the construction of the A339.  The drive is still partly lined with trees but now bisected by this road.

Shaw House became a school during World War II and was used as such for decades until a new school opened in 1999 in the Deer Park.

Historic England decides which buildings to designate.  There are 53 designated areas in West Berkshire.  The grounds of Shaw House now have several different owners and are therefore on the ‘at risk’ list.

The first battle of Newbury took place on the 20th of September 1643.  The outcome was a stalemate, and its site is now a registered battlefield.

The Battlefield Trust wants to list the site of the second battle of Newbury which took place in 1644.  However, it needs the agreement of all concerned to do this.  For this battle the royalist army made its headquarters at Shaw House.  It is possible that the chalk terrace (parterre) of Shaw House was used in this second battle.  The royalist army made some gains before nightfall but was in a weak position and removed to Oxford overnight.

Most heritage assets are not nationally or locally designated which means that they have no legal protection.

The Kennett Valley is an important Mesolithic site.  The discovery of the oldest decoratively carved piece of wood at Boxford in the Lambourn Valley four years ago indicates that Mesolithic occupation could extend there too.

From 1957-61 John Wymer, then curator at Reading Museum, excavated the Thatcham Reedbeds which in the Mesolithic period had been a lake, popular on a seasonal basis.  Nowadays there is a trail around the site.  Finds, including a human arm bone, are on the top floor of Reading Museum and in West Berkshire Museum.  Thatcham is the strongest claimant to be the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in Britain.

Hartshill Copse to the north-east of Thatcham was occupied in the Bronze Age as evidenced by round houses and pottery.  But it was the evidence of ironwork there which brought the start date of the Iron Age in Britain forwards by 200-300 years.

The Heritage Gateway website, www.heritagegateway.org.uk is the portal to most HERs across the country.

WBC has an online map, with sites linked to its respective HER records.  There is an online reporting form for enquiries about WBC HER records, and another for WBC heritage information and issues.  Alternatively, contact the archaeology team at WBC.

Information on the local heritage trails at Kintbury, Inkpen, Hungerford, Pangbourne, WWII Newbury, and the Shaw House and St Mary’s church conservation area is available at: www.westberkshireheritage.org/local-heritage/heritage-walks .

report by Julie Worsfold

Exploring the archaeology, history and heritage of Berkshire