Hatfield House Visit: Palace, Gardens & Woodland Walks

Hatfield House is a Grade I listed country house in Hertfordshire, home to Gascoyne-Cecil family and open for viewing, set in an extensive ancient woodland park and 42 acres of gardens that make a great day out. Not only is it jam-packed full of historical art and artefacts, it’s also the film location for dozens of movies and TV shows. In fact, the first time we visited we had to be content with viewing the grounds only as the house was occupied by a film crew.

How to visit Hatfield House

Since we live nearby in St Albans, Hatfield House is only a 15 minute drive to get to. If you’re coming from London, you can get the train from Kings Cross right to Hatfield Station, which is just outside the gates of Hatfield Park!

To visit Hatfield House, you’ll need to book your ticket on the website, where you can also check opening times. The house itself is open seasonally, but you can explore the gardens and woodland year-round and shops all have different operating hours.

The Old Palace

The Old Palace, which you’ll see as you walk through from the car park, is one of the best examples of mediaeval brickwork in the UK. On the right you can see the exterior of the remaining wing, with the Banqueting Hall inside, with most of its original roof timbers. The palace is open for tours, but make sure you check as it’s often used for weddings and as a filming location.

Hatfield House The Old Palace

The Old Palace is most famous as Henry VIII’s nursery. Elizabeth I had a happy childhood here, benefitting from her brother Edward’s education, until 1553 when her older half sister became Queen Mary. Cathrolic Mary feared that her enemies might plot to place her protestant sister on the throne, so kept Elizabeth at Hatfield under house arrest.

In 1558, Elizabeth was sitting under an oak tree in the park when she learnt her sister Mary was dead. One of her first acts as queen was to call her trusted advisers together for her first Council of State, held in the Banqueting Hall of the Palace.

The reason the Banqueting Hall survives to this day is that it was used as the stables for the newly built Hatfield House for three centuries, after it was acquired by Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury in 1607. It was restored by the 4th Marquess in 1915.

To see The Old Palace you can book a tour from the kiosk in the Stable Yard, on days when it hasn’t been hired for an event. If that is the case, you can still get a great view of it from the viewing bay (from the Stable Yard side) and the Upper Solar (which you can get to through the Garden with a ticket).

The Stable Yard

First things first, after passing the Old Palace on your right you’ll get to The Stable Yard, which hosts an eclectic mix of independent businesses open throughout the year including a riding school, bridal shop, dog groomers, jewellery, ice cream and …guns.

Hatfield House The Stable Yard

Darlish Ice Cream, one of our favourite gelato joints, is open Thursday to Sunday and definitely not to be missed. At the gate to Hatfield House grounds you’ll find the ticket kiosk.

Once through the gates, you’ll see Hatfield House on your right, with a magnificent water sculpture in front designed by Angela Conner, one of Britain’s most prolific sculptors.

Hatfield House

Inside Hatfield House

The Marble Hall

First up on entry is the Marble Hall, pretty much exactly as it was built in 1611 with extravagant oak carvings, many portraits, and chequer-board marble floor. Sometimes used as a dining room, this is the place where the Salisburys would entertain their guests with lavish banquets, dances and masques.

Not to miss in here: original woodwork and plasterwork ceiling, panels featuring classical themes painted by Giulio Taldini, Robert Cecil’s coat of arms carved at the centre of the Gallery (with the family motto: Sero Sed Serio, meaning ‘late but in earnest’), embroidered banners hanging from the Gallery featuring bees and imperial eagles (symbols of Napoleon) and, the famous Rainbow portrait of Queen Elizabeth I.

Perhaps the most colourful Tudor portrait, this dazzling picture is rich in symbolism, as the guide will tell you. The motto Non sine sole iris (no rainbow without the sun) refers to Elizabeth as a bringer of peace after a period of storm. Her robes are covered in eyes and ears to show that the crown sees and ears all. The rainbow in her right hand is muted, showing that not even rainbows outshine this queen. And of course, she is portrayed as flawlessly beautiful and youthful despite being in her sixties.

The King James Drawing Room

This room is dominated by a life-size statue of James I, presented by the King himself, which stands above the mantelpiece. The marble chimneypiece was carved by the King’s Master Sculptor, Maximilian Colt. Also in this room, six original tapestries hung when King James I visited Hatfield in 1611, telling the story of Hannibal and Scipio.

You’ll also see another famous portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, painted by her court artist Nicholas Hilliard, displayed in the centre of the north wall of the room. As well as being a celebrated painter and miniaturist, he was also a goldsmith, and gold is used liberally in the painting on her jewellery, and the Sword of State lying by her left hand. She holds a sprig of olive in one hand (representing Peace) and has a small white ermine on the sleeve of her left hand (a symbol of purity and virginity).

The Long Gallery

The Long Gallery which runs the length of the South Front (lengthened to 170ft in 1781) might be familiar to you if you’ve seen the TV show The Great.

The ceiling, originally white, was covered with gold leaf by the 2nd Marquess who had been impressed by a gold ceiling he had seen in Venice. At the far end of the Long Gallery you’ll find bejewelled hat, gloves and stockings traditionally believed to have belonged to Queen Elizabeth I.

Hatfield House Dining Room

The Library

The Library was built in about 1782, when the dividing wall between the two rooms was removed. The reconstructed chimneypiece displays a remarkable mosaic portrait of Robert Cecil which was made in Venice and presented as a gift to him in 1608.

Most of the chairs were made for the room in 1782, recently re-covered in Nigerian goatskin to match the original crimson leather. The windows overlook the West Garden and the Old Palace, with cast-iron balcony rails supplied from Paris in 1875.

The Armoury

The Armoury was originally an open loggia in the Italian Renaissance style, with a door at the top of the steps at each end. This ended up being quite inconvenient, as it meant that there was no way to get between the two wings on the ground floor, so in 1834 the 2nd Marquess filled in the windows and laid the marble floor.

Today it’s referred to as The Armoury unsurprisingly down to the armour that covers the walls, purchased by the 2nd Marquess from the Tower of London in the 19th century. At the west end there are two suits of armour with the face of Charles I, sculpted from his death mask.

The Armoury houses a fine domestic organ supplied in 1609 by John Haan, a Dutchman. The case still has its original decoration by Rowland Bucket, and is still played to this day.

Hatfield House Chapel

Maybe my favourite room, the original Chapel survives to this day despite a huge fire in 1835 that destroyed the West Wing and claimed the life of the Ist Marchioness of Salisbury. The intense heat melted the leaden water tanks in the attics, dropping their contents on the blaze below. Simultaneously, the wind changed direction and torrential rain began to fall, so the flames were extinguished before any more damage could be done.

Once you leave the chapel, you can exit the house through the original kitchens, where you’ll find… what else? The gift shop.

What is filmed at Hatfield House?

This was the question on my mind as we explored the Jacobean house. It’s quite hard to find specifics on the internet, but among the most famous movies are: The Flash (2021), Enola Holmes (2020), The Favourite (2019), Rebecca (2019), Anna Karenina (2012), Sherlock Holmes (2011 and 2009), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 2 (2011), The Kings Speech (2010), Hot Fuzz (2007), Batman Begins (2005), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), V for Vendetta (2005), The Importance of Being Ernest (2002), Sleepy Hollow (1999) and Shakespeare in Love (1998). It’s also played host to some pretty outstanding TV shows, including The Great, Bridgerton and Band of Brothers.

Hatfield House Gardens

The house might only be open seasonally, but the Gardens, Park & Woodland Walks are open year round from Wednesday to Sunday, including Bank Holidays. The East Gardens are open Wednesdays only.

Old Palace Garden

On the east side of the Old Palace is its garden, intricately designed, bordered by box hedges and with a mini-maze in one of its four sections. This garden or parterre was originally surrounded on all sides, but today you get a great view of it from the pathway. When we visited recently a beautiful wedding was taking place with the newlyweds taking photos in the doorway.

Hatfield House The Old Palace

The West Garden

If you’re a garden enthusiast, this is the main event. Surrounded by a massive yew hedge, inside you’ll find pathways and fountains with boarders of spring bulbs, geraniums, iris, shrubs, herbaceous plants, roses and annuals.

Hatfield House Gardens

Woodland Garden

If you’re visiting in April or May, make sure you take time to explore the Woodland Garden, where bluebells, wildflowers and narcissi cover the ground, and there is a growing collection of magnolias, camellias, prunus, sorbus and malus alongside the paths.

Nineteenth century rhododendrons still survive, and there are many late-flowering shrubs like Styrax, Eucryphia Hoheria and Halesia as well as a magnificent hydrangea walk where many varieties of Hydrangea Paniculata line the grass paths to the fledgling Yew House, complete with front door. The Garden is managed by Lady Salisbury and her small team of gardeners.

In the Woodland Garden you’ll also find the viewing bay, which gives you arguably the best view of Hatfield House in all the grounds.

Hatfield House

After all this exploring, it’s high time to stop for lunch before an afternoon of woodland walks.

Coach House Kitchen at Hatfield House

Located in the Stable Yard, The Coach House Kitchen describes itself as a “contemporary yet cosy restaurant”. It was recently refurbished, and is definitely more stylish than it was before, but still has quite a cafeteria feel to it with its open-plan kitchen and buffet. Honestly I would describe the food as just, fine. It’s the best you’re going to get in this area — there really is nothing else in the vicinity.

Woodland Walks at Hatfield Park

After dinner it’s time for one of Hatfield Park’s Woodland Walks. Hatfield Park is the centre of a large agricultural estate with extensive parkland. There are three walks of varying lengths marked in the Park:

Hatfield House Woodland Walk Map

The Yellow Walk is 1.4 mile and takes about 40 minutes. The Blue Walk is 2.1 miles and takes about an hour. The Red Walk is 3.1 miles and takes about an hour and a half.

Hatfield Park

The medieval parkland of Hatfield is one of the last sites in the UK still using a wood pasture system of land management, where trees and grazing animals are combined. The trees have been actively managed over the centuries as a source of bark for tanning leather, wood for fuel and building and food stuffs for animals in the form of acorns and foliage (this is called pollarding).

Thanks to this system, there are some hugely imposing oak, hornbeam and beech pollards to be found by following the longest route of the three nature trails.

It’s pretty great to see Hatfield House estate take the environment so seriously. Their system provides sanctuary to a rich diversity of wildlife, enhances biodiversity and provides sustainable timber resources for the estate. It’s even a carbon sink, reducing the local carbon footprint.

The Deer Park

There have been deer parks at Hatfield Park as far back as the 13th century when the park was under the control of the Bishops of Ely. The two main deer parks were known as Innyings Park and Middle Park. A survey taken while Princess Elizabeth was living in the Old Palace in 1551 shows a total of 145 deer, which were probably fallow deer. When Robert Cecil was building Hatfield House in 1610 he purchased fourteen red deer from Lincolnshire and from then on the parks held both fallow and red deer. In medieval times deer parks were used mainly as venison farms and for hunting. By 1624 the number of deer had risen at Hatfield to 626 animals.

Fun fact: Fallow deer are known as bucks and does, whilst red deer are stags and hinds.

Sadly, most of the herd had to be culled during the First World War. But that’s not the end of the story, and in the mid 1990’s a new deer park was created with deer from Sussex, Surrey, Cumbria and Norfolk. Today there’s an average of 160 in the deer herd, all of a variety known as menil fallow, which have a beautiful light colouration.

Hatfield Park

Verdict

As history buffs and nature nerds, we’ve absolutely loved both of our trips to Hatfield House, where we easily spent the entire day exploring. The Marble Hall, Chapel and Woodland Gardens were my personal highlights, and I also greatly appreciated the encyclopaedic knowledge of the guides who I’m sure could answer any and all questions you might have.

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Hatfield House
Sophie Lain
Sophie Lain

I’m Sophie, a writer and blogger living in St Albans, traveling, eating, and telling you all about it.

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