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Past and Present

Imperial College acquired Silwood Park and Ashurst in 1947, as a Field Station to provide a site for research and teaching in those aspects of Biology not well suited for the main London campus.

The existing manor house was comissioned by Charles Patrick Stewart. Stewart was keen on horse racing and partying, and built his new house around a splendid ballroom where, on race days and holidays, he would entertain the sons of Queen Victoria amongst other keen followers of horse racing.

The Manor House is the second Silwood Park house, built in 1878, designed by Alfred Waterhouse, who also designed the Natural History Museum in London, South Kensington and Strangeway Prison. It replaced the original Georgian house, built in 1790 for James Sibbald, when the grounds were landscaped by Humphry Repton, the most celebrated landscape designer of his generation. Silwood was requisitioned as a military hospital and convalescent home during WWII, so when the College took it over in 1947 it was surrounded by bleak, but useful, single-storey wards and offices.  Some still survive; the present Refectory is a gem of the period. Presumably no-one in 1940 anticipated a working life of over sixty years for these 'temporary' edifices.

Since 1947, the College's activities at Silwood have expanded continuously.  The Department of Biology was formed in 1981 (from the Departments of Zoology, Applied Entomology, and Plant Pathologists). More recently, in 2001 the Department expanded further as Biology and Biochemistry were merged into Biological Sciences under the auspices of the new Faculty of Life Sciences.  In recent years, the Division of Biology has been created, whose Ecology and Evolution section is entirely based at Silwood. 

Silwood now houses a large graduate community of some 150 students, many from overseas, either studying for the M. Res. and M.Sc degrees in (1) Ecology, Evolution and Conservation, (2) Biodiversity IG., (3) Quantitative Biology  or (4) Conservation Science,  and for Ph.D. degrees in a wide range of ecological subjects. 

The University of London's nuclear reactor was constructed here in 1965, expanded in 1971, and was the only civil research reactor in the UK.  CONSORT design reactor is designated a 'low power research reactor'.  It is designed to provide the neutral particles, or neutrons, which result from nuclear reactions inside the reactor core. It is currently being decommissioned to allow redevelopment of its site.

Silwood is fortunate in having about 100 ha of land with natural habitats including grassland, scrubland, mature woodland, three streams and a large lake. Much of it is relatively undisturbed, providing a refuge for wildlife and opportunity for ecological study.


Picture the scene. It is 1066. Silwood lies on high ground, surrounded by uninhabited wilderness. The great bog of Sunningwell stretches away to the south, and the barren heaths of Ascot lie to the west. The huge forest of Windsor occupies all of the land to the north and east. The Normans are coming. A tiny cluster of primitive huts surrounds an ancient hill-top shrine. The occupants are soon to find themselves in the middle of a royal hunting forest. This is a very dangerous place to be.

For several thousand years after the glaciers retreated, no one had lived here permanently, although foraging groups of Stone Age people no doubt passed through the district.  The earliest local artefacts are Mesolithic flint axes from about 10,000 years ago, dug up in Cheapside and at Manor Farm, Ascot. Neolithic farmers worked the lighter soils about 5000 years ago, and left behind their cream-coloured flint axes at Silwood and in Sunninghill. Bronze Age bell barrows have been excavated near Sunningdale Station, one of which contained 23 urns (now in Reading Museum), and there were bell barrows on the ground around Heatherwood Hospital on Ascot Heath.

About BC 50, after the great revolt in Gaul, one of the Belgic tribes, the Atrebates (meaning settlers or inhabitants), under their leader Commius, fled to Britain. Their new territory came to embrace most of the old county of Berkshire but the material remains of these newcomers are scantily represented. The Atrebates appear to have been better organized both socially and economically than the Iron Age groups to the north and west, and the most striking economic change was the introduction of a native gold and silver coinage. Their economic unit appears to have been the isolated farmstead defined by a rectilinear ditched enclosure (e.g. Robin Hood’s Arbour at Maidenhead and Windmill Hill at Hinton Waldrist). From about BC 15 the Atrebates appear to have re-established friendly relations with Rome, and it was an appeal for help from the last Atrebatic king, Verica, which provided Claudius with the pretext for the Roman invasion of Britain in AD 43.

The impact of Roman life and Roman culture has left no outstanding monuments near Silwood. To the west, Reading probably served as the river port of Silchester (Calleva Atrebatum), which was the cantonal capital and had straight roads radiating out to all the important Roman towns of southern England. Villas like the ones at Hampstead Norreys and Letcombe Regis are scarce, perhaps because of the absence of any major population centres which would provide a market for their produce. Silwood’s local Roman road is known as the Devil’s Highway, and runs east-west between Sunningdale Church and Broomhall, 2km to the south of Silwood Park, just north of the parallel-running A30. The road passed over the barrens of Hounslow Heath (now buried beneath Heathrow Airport) to the river crossing at the gravely shallows near Staines then through Egham, Sunningdale, across Bracknell Forest, through Crowthorne (south of Nine Mile Ride) then along the Hampshire-Berkshire border from Riseley to Silchester.  This was a sandy infertile heathland passed through only for necessity, and there was nothing to induce human beings to remain in Roman times.

Little is known about the slow decline of the Roman occupation of Berkshire, but Saxon penetration by way of the Thames had been achieved early in the fifth century. The last Roman Legions left in AD 410, and their provincial town at Silchester was soon deserted. At some time between the departure of the Romans and the Norman Conquest a tiny hamlet developed on the enclave of  well-drained, relatively fertile ground that is now Nash’s Field. This Saxon village of Sunninghill (named after the Saxon people “Sunna” or “Sonna”) may well have been one of their easternmost hilltop settlements. The conversion of the Saxons to Christianity began hereabouts in the mid-seventh century, after Bishop Birinus of Dorchester had baptised Cyneglis, king of Wessex, in 635. The local abbeys at Chertsey and Cookham were founded in 666 and c.700 respectively. From the tenth century, the Saxon kings used the land south of the Thames as hunting forest. The name Silwood comes from “Siele”, the Old English name for Willow. Silwood was within easy reach of the Saxon palace at Old Windsor which the kings could reach by boat from London.

There has been a religious site on the hill-top at Ashurst for a very long time. Neither the date of the origin of the Christian church, nor the reason for its dedication to St Michael and All the Angels are known (it is speculated to date from c.890 and is certainly pre-Norman). It is possible that the original building on the hilltop at Stoneylands was located there because of the local availability of sarsen stones for building.  It may have been used as a shelter and a landmark for the Saxon kings while out hunting from their palace at Old Windsor. The ancient yew tree north-west of the present church tower is hollowed out, and held together by a massive iron girdle. It has been attributed various ages but is almost certainly over 1,000 years old and may pre-date the earliest Christian church, perhaps marking the site of a pagan shrine. The spring on the hillside to the north-west of the church is now buried beneath the rustic dairy in the grounds of The Cedars, and this may have been a sacred pre-Christian site. The first stone church at Ashurst was constructed during the reign of Henry I, probably between 1120 and 1130, using locally collected sarsen stones (see p. 19). There must have been a substantial local community of woodlanders at this time to justify the construction of a stone church. The church stood in the centre of a piece of glebe land given to the church from the Royal Forest. The glebe was a piece of cultivated land assigned as part of a clergyman’s living. The priests lived close to the church and served as chaplains and confessors to the nuns of Broomhall Priory (see below). Cart tracks led from the church across farm land (over what is now Silwood Lake) to Cheapside, to the mill (on what is now Mill Lane) and south to the priory at Broomhall.

Soon after the invasion, William the Conqueror moved down the Thames from Wallingford and made Windsor his castle. Thus, Silwood became part of his vast Royal Hunting Forest. The Silwood part of the King’s forest was in the Bailiwick held by the Norman family of de la Bataille along with Winkfield, Swinley, Ascot, Sunninghill and part of Bagshot. There is no mention of Silwood or any other local properties in the Domesday Book of 1086, indicating that none of the local manors was of any significance at this time. Silwood became part of the Cookham Hundred, but the poor fertility of the soil and the merciless policing of the Royal hunting forest meant that human population density remained low. Under the Norman kings the Royal Forest grew steadily, reaching its greatest extent under Henry II when an astonishing thirty percent of the entire country was set aside for royal sport. The infamous Forest Laws aimed to protect the beasts of the forest from the depredations of the lower orders. Some favoured tenants were allowed the privilege of taking smaller game like hares or pheasants, but hunting wild boar and deer was the preserve of the king and his foresters. No one was allowed to carry bows and arrows in the Royal Forest and severe penalties awaited poachers. The extortions and petty tyranny of the forest officials made them extremely unpopular with other local folk. Thus, the early residents of Silwood Park were either employed, or tolerated, by the keepers of the Royal Hunting Forest. They were peasant woodsmen, deer keepers, kennel men and estate workers who, if they were fortunate, might have a cow and a few pigs.  They collected what they were allowed from the forest (e.g. “by hook or by crook” refers to the kind of firewood you were allowed to collect by pulling dead bra nches out of the canopy with  your crook; you were not allowed to cut down any living timber). They poached what game they dared. The punishments for poaching were severe in the extreme. If the park keepers thought that an example might be set, they would cut off your testicles and poke out your eyes, so that your disfigured presence in the neighbourhood might serve as a constant reminder to others of the costs of poaching the King’s game. Alternatively, they might just as easily kill you on the spot and leave your body for the foxes and the crows.

In 1362 the manor of Silwood was in the hands of John de Sunninghill and comprised a main house, farmland, woodland and a few cottages. It was surrounded by royal land except on the south where it abutted the land of Broomhall Priory.  The main products of the estate were timber and venison. Oak from Sunninghill was used in construction work at Windsor Castle, Eton College and other grand buildings like St George’s Chapel. Much land changed hands during the Wars of the Roses (1455-87) and was re-allocated to knights with local interests and court favour. Sir John Norris secured a charter confirming his rights over the manor of Sunninghill; these were still intact at his death in 1466. The Norris family held extensive properties in Berkshire. They dominated the county as sheriffs and major landowners and had considerable influence at court throughout much of the sixteenth century. Such grand folk as these did not live or work at Silwood, which remained a small and relatively poor estate. They inhabited much grander houses in more fertile parts of the county. For instance, Sir William Norris (1433-1506) was keeper of the Royal Manor of Foliejon and lived in the splendid Ockwells Manor (1446-66) at Cox Green, near Maidenhead, described by Pevsner as “the most refined and the most sophisticated timber-framed mansion in England”.  The Manor of Cookham, likewise, did not regard the forest of Sunninghill as especially important; after all, it contributed little to the revenue of the Hundred, and “since they are in the forest they have not been surveyed”. Furze (gorse) was listed as one of its products. The manor was reduced from one sixth to one tenth of the Cookham Manor on the grounds that Sunninghill was “barren land overlaid with deer” (just like now, really). Significant oak planting was undertaken in the 1580s by Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth’s first minister, who was lord of the manor of Ascot. One of the Silwood oaks is said to date from this time, along with another in Cheapside (the woodland at Cranbourne certainly dates from this period).  The timber was intended for the construction of warships. 

The original manor house in Silwood Park was called Eastmore, meaning “east of the moor of Ascot heath”, in a deed of 1582. It sat on the high ground above Silwood Farm, overlooking the valley at the confluence of the Red Brook and the Clear Brook where Silwood Lake now lies. Old yew trees on the summit of Farm Wood Hill mark the location of its former gardens. Silwood remained an unpretentious working manor through Tudor and Stuart times. There was a scattering of cottages around the church, a few along today’s Wells Lane, more at Cheapside and some on the high ground where Upper Village Road in Sunninghill now lies. There was a water mill below Heronsbrook which may have been associated with the tannery (e.g. a bark crushing mill). The land immediately around Eastmore was pasture and meadow ground, and there was arable farming at Ashurst and Cheapside. Henry Slann had a timber mill in 1613, and a century later William Slann had a timber and carpentry business at Beggars Bush (next to the Cannon Crossroads). In 1613, there were just 30 homes in the whole area between Blacknest, Bagshot Park, Englemere and Virginia Water.

The first owner-occupies of Silwood Park were farmers like the Farrants and the Days who lived in Silwood in the early years of the seventeenth century. They ran the land as mixed farms, with small arable fields set amongst coppiced woodlands, with a predominance of sheep on the meadow land. When Phillip Farrant died in 1621 he left a “new house” known as Farrants to his wife Agnes. It is not clear exactly where this house was. Perhaps Farrants was at Tetworth, or where Silwood Nurseries now stands. Alternatively, it could have been close to Eastmore on the top of the hill above Silwood Farm. Or it may have been closer to Nash’s Copse because it had “sixty acres of which Silmere Hill and Long Denes were a part, and two fields lying between the great coppice and Eastmore”. The great coppice was Nash’s Copse, and it is interesting that this is the only part of Silwood Park where such ancient woodland indicator species as Yellow Archangel and Wood Anemone are found today. Phillip Farrant II became lord of Sunninghill Manor in 1629, at which time he leased Eastmore with 80 more acres of land.  The field currently named Pound Hill, which lies between Cheapside and Silwood Nurseries close to the junction of Watersplash Lane, marks the location of the village pound in which stray animals were kept at this period. It is one of the oldest surviving field names whose meaning is known.

During the civil war, Windsor Forest fell into a sorry state.  The Parliamentary army was camped in the Great Park (Sir Thomas Fairfax, their general, was ensconced in Windsor Castle). Deer were eaten, timber was cut, farms were looted, and travel was dangerous. Foresters who attempted to prevent poaching were attacked and killed.  By 1647 the keeper Symonds reported to parliament that all the parks (i.e. enclosures) in Windsor Forest were destroyed. People made a lot of money by illegal felling of oak trees, not least the Aldridge family who made enough to buy Sunninghill Manor after the war (see below). It was about this time that the leather industry developed in Cheapside, using oak bark to tan the hides which were buried for months in stinking pits. The great storm of 1658 uprooted many oak trees and damaged houses throughout the forest. After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, King Charles II took a personal interest in the renovation of the Windsor Parks, and Prince Rupert brought in red deer from Germany to replenish the stocks.

In the 1670s the Aldridge family took over the manorial lands and were to dominate local affairs for more than 100 years. They had prospered as timber merchants, tanners and farmers during the Civil War.  Many of their children died young and are buried at Ashurst.  In 1673 John Aldridge bought Silwood Farm, Eastmore and the manor estate, but these were minor estates and are not marked on any of the maps of this period.  The development of the neighbourhood for large houses had begun about 1660 (the process known as “gentrification”), but human population was still very low, and the area was considered bleak and inhospitable by diarists like Samuel Pepys and Daniel Defoe.  But the gentrification was clearly impressive. Defoe thought that “the lodges in these parks, are no mere lodges, though they may retain the name, but palaces”. The reign of Queen Anne brought fashionable society to Sunninghill. Royal horse racing came to Ascot Heath in 1711, and taking the waters at The Wells was a major attraction (see below). By 1721, the local wealthy man was Sir John Barber at Sunninghill Park. Sir Henry Ashurst was at Stoneylands at this date and owned the land where the Marist Convent now stands.  Eastmore was still the chief mansion in Silwood, and the farm was let to tenants while the Aldridges got on with their tanning business. The Aldridge family eventually sold out in 1764.

The development of the local road network had a profound impact on the shape and size of Silwood Park, and the road network, in turn, was directly influenced by several of the owners of the park, who paid the vestry for permission to realign se veral of the ancient trackways. There was a track that ran from the Sunninghill Crossroads across Ashurst Four Acre Field, the line of which is still picked out by a row of ancient oak trees. The road was diverted southwards to form the current London Road, with its curious bend at Sandyride (now Princess Gate).  The ancient trackway from Bagshot to Windsor ran directly along the eastern front of Silwood Manor, before it was pushed eastwards to the current line of Buckhurst Road, thereby enclosing Beggar’s Bush within Silwood Park. The place where the Windsor Road crosses the London Road is usually called The Cannon Crossroads (also Silwood Crossways or Cannon Corner), but since the demise of the Cannon Pub the days of this name may be numbered (the pub is currently an Italian restaurant called Pazzia).  The present London Road was installed in 1759 by the Windsor Turnpike Trust; the Toll House was on the grassy triangle at the junction of Silwood Road. There was another toll bar at the top of the steep and muddy Sunninghill Hill through Beechgrove (where the mini-roundabout now stands); the toll booth was in the grounds of Beechgrove. Tolls were also collected at Blacknest Gate. Needless to say, local people tried to avoid the toll booths by using other tracks. It is to the vigilance and stubbornness of the vicar of Sunninghill at this period, Rev Joseph Thistlethwaite, that we owe the fact that Church Lane did not develop into a through-road from Sunninghill to Cheapside. Such a road would have cut the Silwood estate in half, and ruined the tranquil interior of the Park for ever. Eventually, there was sure to have been housing development in Church Field and Nash’s Field, just as there was at Kingswick on the southern side of London Road. The lane past the church from Sunninghill Crossroads to Cheapside had been a long-running source of controversy between the vicars and local people. It used to run straight through the Cedars, in front of the house, but was diverted to the east of the church when the current house was built in 1677. In 1769, the vicar wrote to St John’s,  “I have also with very great trouble prevented a King’s highway for carts, carriages and cattle from being carried through the yards, garden and middle of glebe land”. The fact that the present dead-end was never allowed to become a major road has saved a fragment of countryside (we hope) for ever.

By 1764, most of the working farms of the neighbourhood had been taken over by gentry who made their money elsewhere and who wanted a residence close to the social circle of the Royals. Wealth was not made in Sunninghill; it was attracted to it. There were four kinds of gentry: those connected with the royal family who wanted to be close to the court at Windsor; military people, both serving and retired; rich city types; and manufacturers who made their money in the north and midlands. The gentrification of Silwood Park and its neighbouring properties was essentially complete by 1768 at which time 24 freeholders were entitled to vote.  John Pitt, Surveyor General of His Majesty’s Woods, was the first purchaser. He paid the fourth John Aldridge £2,137 for Eastmore and the Sunninghill Manor Estate. He added Nash’s Copse and Gunness’s Hill 3 years later for £1,697. By 1774, the Pitt estate extended to 159 acres.  Pitt may have mentioned his plans for a new lake to the celebrated landscape designer Humphry Repton (1752-1818) when Repton was working at St Leonard’s Hill, Windsor, in 1783.

After Pitt died, the estate passed through several hands before it was purchased by James Sibbald in 1787. He was the head of an important London banking house (Marsh, Sibbald, Stracy and Fountleroy and Co). In 1790, Humphry Repton produced his Red Book for the Silwood Park Estate for James Sibbald. Repton’s vision was of a mansion on the hill by the Met Tower, looking down over oak-studded parkland to a boomerang-shaped lake, sculpted to look like the bend in a large river. The main aim was to “form a piece of water in the valley” in which “the water will take the form of a large river”.  Silwood Lake was created shortly after 1790 to Repton’s designs, when a 100m earthen dam was built, immediately downstream from the confluence of the Red Brook and the Clear Brook just to the south of Silwood Farm (Plate 11). The two inflow streams now made the arms of a crescent-shaped lake. The outflow stream ran from a sluice past the farm and below Cheapside to pass underneath Buckhurst Road next to Heronsbrook and on to the water mill on Mill Lane and into Virginia Water at China Island. Repton’s new lake flooded the old Parsonage Lane and cut off Cheapside from the church at Ashurst. When first constructed, the arms of the lake were much longer than they are today. The eastern arm of the Clear Brook ran up to Gunness’s Bridge, while the western arm of the Red Brook ran up as far as Cascade Bridge. Since then, this western arm has sedimented much more severely than the eastern arm. For most of its length through Cascade Marsh the lake has become a mature alder carr, while the advancing front of the terrestrial succession has been stuck as a Reedmace swamp, without further Willow incursion, since the 1970s. The eastern arm of the lake has been protected as a result of extensive sedimentation upstream in the lake at the Marist Convent and in the swamp between Rookery Copse and Gunness’s Bridge below Wood Bank (this is where the rare Scirpus sylvaticus grows). There was an apocryphal story, prevalent in the 1970s, that Silwood Lake had been built as a sediment trap to protect (the then new) Virginia Water Lake which was built in 1753. There is no truth to this story, and I can not trace its origin, but Silwood Lake is certainly a highly successful sediment trap and is filling up rapidly. One remarkable episode happened in the drought summer of 1995. The lake level was so low for so long that willow seed fell onto bare, dry mud in spring, germinated to form a solid carpet of tree seedlings, then grew large enough before the rain returned in the autumn to survive immersion in the winter. This single pulse of recruitment was enough to short circuit the entire successional process. The so-called “early successional species” like the Reedmace did not invade until after the willow trees had been established for several years. These two new terrestrial fragments are now known as “The Ninety-five Islands”.

On the map of the lake in his Red Book, Repton marks the “Site of the new house or Pavilion”.  The notes show that the owner should “alter or add to the existing dwelling instead of totally removing it”, suggesting that the old house of Eastmore (or possibly Farrants) was still there in 1790. It is unlikely, however, that the houses at Eastmore or Farrants would ever have been grand, and Sibbald had already decided to put his new mansion on the opposite side of the park, next to the Windsor Road (on the site of the current Waterhouse building). We do not know whether this was before, or despite of, Repton’s advice. No doubt Sibbald was influenced in his decision to relocate the house by his wish to escape from the stench of the tanneries in Cheapside and the smelly proximity of Silwood Farm.

Sibbald erected his splendid new mansion on the then green-field site of Beggar’s Bush in 1790. This first Silwood Park mansion was one of James Wyatt’s grandest buildings, a classical white Georgian house with pillared porticoes front and back. It boasted a grand entertaining room that could be extended by folding doors to 30m in length. Curiously, the vegetable gardens were on the opposite side of the Park, on the site of the current Silwood Nurseries, and Repton clearly felt that they were too far away.  In any event, the new house was built in a position from which Repton’s wonderful new lake was completely invisible. In 1790, Sibbald applied to the Vestry ( the parochial church council of the time) for permission to move the line of the Windsor Road further away from the house. The area enclosed by this expansion encompassed what was then called Beggar’s Bush by the Cannon Crossroads on the site of what is now the Science Park. Six years later, he was granted permission to enclose more than 8 acres of waste ground in front of the house. He paid the parish £100 for the privilege. This pushed back the London Road to its current position in front of Knight Frank and made way for the development of the Lily Pond and the ornamental plantations of Garden Wood. Sibbald became sheriff of Berkshire in 1799 and was made a baronet in 1806.  He sold the estate in 1811. His classic Georgian house was pulled down in mid-Victorian times (1876) and replaced by the present red-brick house in 1878.

It is interesting that none of the field names in use in Sibbald’s time have survived to the present day. Some of the names are close: Pound Field is probably the present Pound Hill Field, and Church Mead is probably the present Oak Mead and/or Church Field. Field names that were in use in the late eighteenth century but which have not survived included Crooked Ash, Birch Hill, Long Hill, Barnfield, Barnshill (we have no idea what became of the barn in question), Cheapside Upper and Lower Meads and the wonderful (but incomprehensible) Shagbag. There is no mention of who Nash, Merton, Mann or Gunness might have been (these people are immortalized in current field names; see p. 1361).

The enclosures took place from 1790 to 1817 and were a device to benefit wealthy land owners at a time when profits from agriculture were at their peak. All land was to be allotted to registered owners. The losers were the poor, who lost their ancient rights of “pannage, grazing, wood gathering and turbary”. Pannage was the right or privilege of feeding of pigs (or other animals) in a wood, and turbary was the right to dig peat for fuel on a common or on another person’s land. The enclosures followed an Act of 1805, and the Commission began meeting in 1806 to regularise all of the encroachments that had gone on over the previous centuries. Some of their sessions were held in The Wells, and the Commission reported from 1807 to 1810. There were 340 encroachments to be dealt with, totalling more than 200ha (an area roughly twice the size of the current Silwood Park).  Many claims and counter claims had to be settled, but as you might expect, the major beneficiaries were the Crown and the big landowners. The Windsor Forest Act of 1813 formalised the previously piecemeal process of enclosure. One of the main consequences was a great increase in tree cover, as the deer were greatly reduced in number and excluded from large parts of their former habitat. The Bog Trust was set up in South Ascot in 1817 to ease the problems caused for the poor by the Enclosures of 1813, which had reduced local common land, at a stroke, from c.2000 acres to just 112 acres. The trust allowed access to cut peat and gather timber in South Ascot (“The Bog”).

The new land owners had to make a substantial investment, marking out the boundaries of their newly enclosed land with fences, trees and planted hedgerows but of course they gained massively in the long term.  St John’s College Cambridge obtained the land that is now the Royal Berkshire Hotel and most of what is Titness. There had been a cluster of peasant cottages stretching from Ashurst Four Acre Field past the Walled Garden to the site of the present House, more in the grounds of Tetworth, and another cluster by the Church Lane footpath on the southern edge of Nash’s Copse. All the resident peasantry within the new gentrified park were evicted and their huts raised to the ground: none of the small peasant houses shown on Jean Roque’s map of 1752 were on the map drawn in 1817. 

After Sibbald died, the Silwood estate passed through several hands before being purchased in 1855 by John Hargreaves, who ran an engineering works and pump-making factory in Staffordshire. He disposed of a large chunk of the estate that lay to the south of London Road, including Belleview Farm and Kings Beeches (whose wonderful abandoned garden is still (in 2004) in splendid dereliction, since its big house was demolished in the 1970s). The remaining 250 acres included the current Silwood Park. He died in 1874 and his trustees sold the estate in 1875 to Charles Patrick Stewart for £80,000. It was Stewart who commissioned Alfred Waterhouse (1830-1905), the famous architect of the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, to design the current Silwood Manor House. Waterhouse lived nearby in Yattendon, south-west of Reading. His use of Silwood-style bricks in new University buildings at Manchester and London gave rise to the disparaging phrase “red-brick universities” (see p. 133).  Sibbald’s Georgian house was demolished in 1876 and the new building was completed in 1878. Stewart was keen on horse racing and partying, and built his new house around a splendid ballroom where, on race days and holidays, he would entertain the sons of Queen Victoria and their various horsy hangers-on. Stewart had made his money at the Atlas Works in Manchester and was a distinguished engineer (he became vice president of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in 1875).  It was at this time that the footpaths across the estate were realigned into their current positions; the Church Lane footpath from Mill Lane to the Church at Ashurst was driven straight across Church Field from Gunness’s Bridge to the Church Style on the corner of The Cedars, and the path from Cheapside past The Farm was realigned to join the Church Lane footpath by the Kissing Gate at the bottom of Nash’s Field.  Stewart died in 1882, only four years after his house had been completed. Pevsner was unimpressed by the Manor House: this is the full text of his account: “Red brick and huge. Free Tudor with a freer tower” .

Thomas Cordes was an industrialist and steel maker from Newport in South Wales. He bought Silwood Manor in 1888 and established a 40ha deer park, stocked with 120 Fallow Deer.  The venison from the park was hung in a shed by the head gardener’s house at the Garden Lodge next to Tetworth Hall. He paid for the construction of the eponymous Cordes Hall in Sunninghill (see p. 252). Margaret Cordes sold the estate between 1925 and 1928 after the death of her husband. The next owner was Sir George Dolby who had made his fortune from tea plantations in Assam and through various dealings in the Americas. He maintained the deer herd and extended the formal gardens to include a new Japanese Garden.  After his death, the estate was sold to Phillip Hill (who had also bought the next-door estate of Sunninghill Park, see p. 246), but the estate was taken over by the War Office at the outbreak of World War II, and Phillip Hill never lived at Silwood.

Silwood’s specimen trees

In addition to many outstanding veteran oak trees, Silwood Park is home to a unique collection of bundle-planted specimen trees. Bundle planting is an ancient practice in which several young saplings were tied together into a bundle and planted in the same hole after their inward-facing roots had been pruned to create a single, composite root ball. With time, the trunks grow together; if they were genetically compatible they fused, otherwise they simply compressed one another. The idea behind bundle planting was that nut-producing trees like Beech gave greater yields of mast for pig-fodder than did conventional canopies.  The most magnificent of the bundle-planted trees at Silwood is the 6-stemmed Beech tree adjacent to the Conservatory on the south side of the Manor House (see Plate 10).  The biggest bundle-planted specimen is the 6-stemmed giant Sweet Chestnut in Drive Lodge, which has a girth of more than 11.5m. There is a rare bundle-planted Silver Birch by the Nuclear Reactor carpark. When it comes to spotting bundle-planting, the trick is to be able to distinguish it from multiple-stemmed regrowth from ancient coppiced stools. One pointer is that coppice regrowth tends to produce a ring of similar-sized stems indicating the location of the circumference of the ancient stump, but lacking a strong central trunk.

Another speciality of Silwood Park is “close-group planting”, sometimes using the same species, but more frequently using different species with contrasting phenologies. The idea behind close-group planting is to produce a single, massive canopy, taking advantage of the fact that trees do not produce branches on the inner-facing sides of their trunks (buds produce branches on the side of a trunk facing white light, but not on the side facing green light, because green light indicates the close proximity of neighbouring plants, and investment in new branches on that side of the canopy would be wasted). There is a fine example of the kind of canopy produced by multi-species close-group planting on the ridge of Nash’s Field, visible in glorious silhouette from the Manor House, in which Norway Maple is planted along with Lime and Sycamore. There was an outstanding example of close-group single-species planting in the lawn just below the Ha Ha at the Manor House where three Quercus robur were planted in a ring of about 4m diameter. What made the group so attractive was that the three individuals came into leaf on widely differing dates, and turned golden in autumn at different times. Viewed from the Manor House, the left-most tree was the first to be lost (see Plate 12), but the biggest individual was felled by the Great Storm of October 15-16 1987. Its trunk has been left as a memorial to the storm and as a tribute to how fortunate we were to lose so few of our outstanding specimen trees (most of the casualties on that terrible night were over-mature Beech).

The Imperial College connection

Biology at Imperial College London started with Edward Forbes, who was appointed in 1851 as “Lecturer in Natural History as applied to Geology and the Arts” at the Government School of Mines and of Science Applied to the Arts in Jermyn Street. He was succeeded by the great Thomas Henry Huxley FRS, who dominated biological teaching and research in Britain until his retirement in 1885.  It was Huxley who oversaw the move to South Kensington in 1872 and employed such well known botanists as W.T. Thistelton-Dyer (long-time editor of Flora of Tropical Africa and Director of Kew Gardens 1885-1905), S.H. Vines, D.H. Scott (plant anatomist and physiologist, honorary keeper at Kew from 1892) and F.O. Bower. After that, there was a lull in the fortunes of biology around the turn of the century, until J.B. (later Sir John) Farmer took the chair in Botany in 1905, and Adam Sedgwick took up the chair of Zoology in the Royal College of Science in 1907.  Both men recognised the scope for training young scientists who could fill the overseas advisory and research positions that would become available as agriculture and medical services expanded in the tropical parts of The Empire.

Harold Maxwell Lefroy was the man who spearheaded the development of applied entomology and pest control at Imperial College that was eventually to lead to the purchase of Silwood Park.  He did much of the entomology teaching in his large garden at Heston, and he was passionate about the importance of field study. He died in 1925 and was replaced by Frank Balfour-Browne, who had been teaching entomology at Cambridge (he was author of the definitive three-volume British Water Beetles). He was not an applied entomologist but he was responsible for the inspired appointment of James Watson Munro in 1926, and this man certainly was an applied entomologist. Munro did not retire until 1953, by which time he had secured Silwood Park for Imperial College, and had established Imperial College as a world centre for the study of the control of insect pests. The timing was excellent, because this was a topic of great strategic significance with the looming prospect of war.  Munro needed a field station at which to rear insects and to carry out research on fumigation and other insecticidal procedures. To this end, in 1928 he sought out and arranged the purchase of a substantial house called Hurworth set in 4.5ha gardens on the London Road, a mile east of Slough. Much of the funding came from the Empire Marketing Board, the Australian Dried Fruits Board and the Imperial Tobacco Company, through their shared interest in minimising product losses in storage. Munro was very well connected and was clearly adept at smooth-talking and fund-raising.  For instance, when the Empire Marketing Board ceased to exist 8 years later, Munro persuaded Sir Henry Tizard, then Rector of Imperial, that the Field Station should be funded centrally by the University Grants Committee and he impressed Lord Rutherford and Sir F.G. Hopkins of the value of the work at Hurworth during the subsequent UGC site visit.  Funding was secured in 1936; £4,500 a year for maintenance, plus a further capital sum of £3,000 from the Carnegie Foundation. Munro read a paper at the Royal Society of Arts in 1936 in which he argued that “if ever we are faced with an international crisis leading to war, the storage of foodstuffs and other commodities will be a question of vital importance, and it is much to be hoped that it will before long receive the fuller recognition that it deserves as a factor in Imperial defence”. Much less was known about the problems of storing wheat and flour than about dried fruits and tobacco leaves, so the Food Defence Plans Department initiated “The Grain Survey” which began work at Hurworth in autumn 1938 to establish the nature of the problem and to investigate potential methods of pest control in grain and flour stores.

The Second World War had a profound effect on Silwood Park and its neighbourhood. Many of the large houses were taken over by various departments of the war ministry. Open ground was used to set up tented camps for contingents of American troops preparing for the allied invasion on D-Day. Soldiers of The Royal Artillery and The Royal Engineers were encamped on Ascot Racecourse. Wellington bombers were assembled on Smiths Lawn in the Great Park. Number Seven Internment Camp was set up at Ascot with its own new railway sidings; into this terrible place were packed together immigrants from continental Europe, fleeing fascist persecution (“suspected aliens”), and Britons, thought to be Nazi sympathisers. Needless to say, this extraordinary arrangement led to tension, and there were many fights. There was also a massive influx of children escaping from the blitz on London; more than 3,000 evacuees had come to Ascot, Sunninghill and Sunningdale by January 1941, to be put up with local families and taught in the local schools. This was a major culture shock for both locals and incomers; the Londoners though t the local children were rural and stupid, while the locals regarded the evacuees as urban and ignorant. “Dig For Victory” meant that many ancient grasslands were ploughed up, and several of the best areas around the Copper Horse in Windsor Great Park were destroyed. At Cheapside, the field known as The Scouts Recreation Field was ploughed up to grow cereals; this is where Hilltop Close now stands.

Silwood was used as a British Army Hospital during the war, and the Pioneer Corps were billeted there. The famous cricketer Denis Compton served as a sergeant at Silwood Park working as an Army Physical Training Instructor, helping wounded soldiers back to fitness.  Many Army buildings were hurriedly erected within the Park. For example, ranks of tin Nissen Huts were erected on North Gravel (where the Research Greenhouses and Southwood Halls now stand), and South Gravel was levelled to serve as the Parade Ground (this was the old Beggars Bush, now the Science Park). By the end of the war, the grounds were littered with clusters of army huts and prefabs, and many of these were used to house returning prisoners of war and refugees.  Some of the wartime buildings still survive; the bar and refectory, for instance, were the old sergeants’ mess. Other buildings lasted well into Imperial College days; a long wooden building known as the American Canteen, not demolished until 1987, stood on the site of the CABI building.

The success of the pest fumigation work at Slough meant that the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) took over the research in 1941 and commandeered space at Hurworth for this purpose. Despite this setback, war work on the biology of other stored products’ pests and their control continued unabated. At the end of the War in May 1945, the Department of Zoology faced a severe space crisis. DSIR were reluctant to leave Hurworth, and there was too little space to put up the Slough-based staff in South Kensington. But Munro’s luck was in again. Lunching at his club one day with Sir John Freyer, Secretary of the Agricultural Research Council and Mr Gater of the Colonial Office, both long-time supporters of Munro’s work, they happened to meet Sir Arthur Trueman, the Chairman of the University Grants Committee. As a result, the question of the future of the Field Station went to Sir Douglas Logan, then Principal of the University of London and Sir Alan Barlow, Permanent Secretary to the Treasury.  It was soon agreed that DSIR should keep Hurworth, but the College should be provided with an equivalent sum of money with which to purchase a suitable replacement property. Munro then set out to scour the countryside on his bicycle. Priest Hill at Old Windsor was the college’s preferred site (this is now part of Brunel University), but Munro considered the soil too poor and the out-buildings were committed to sitting tenants. The search eventually narrowed down to two suitable sites: Binfield Park near Taplow and Silwood Park near Ascot (which was actually discovered by A.E.H. Higgins, Munro’s research assistant).  The main building at Binfield Park was dilapidated, but what may have swung the decision Silwood’s way was the fact that the Green Line number 701 bus service from Ascot to Gravesend ran hourly past Silwood Park and happened to stop outside The Royal Albert Hall in South Kensington, right next door to the Biology Department.

At the time, however, the house and grounds at Silwood Park were occupied by the Army Pioneer Corps, and the War Office showed no inclination to leave the premises. It was time for some more of Munro’s legendary work behind the scenes.  While lunching at the Athenaeum, he encountered Sir Henry Tizard, no longer Rector of Imperial College but soon to become the Scientific Advisor to the Ministry of Defence, and told him of the military’s reluctance to vacate the site. The wheels had been oiled, and within days the War Office had agreed to vacate Silwood Park without delay. The Military Requisition Orders were ended in 1947, and the Park with 80 acres was purchased for £24,000 with contributions from the Empire Marketing Board (they had an interest in fumigation as a means of protecting stored foodstuffs from insect pests). Staff and students moved into Silwood Park in April 1947.

The adjacent property of Ashurst (formerly Stoneylands, see p. 244) with 22 acres was bought a year later from the Archer-Shee family for £11,000. The main house and outbuildings at Ashurst were particularly suitable for conversion into the kind of laboratories that were needed to continue research on fumigation for which the Field Station at Slough had become famous. Also, Munro did not want insecticides to be sprayed near the Manor House at Silwood, because that was where insects were kept for research purposes in controlled temperature rooms that had been built in the old cellars. The heart of the estate around Silwood Farm was bought in 1947 by William Perryman and his sons, who set about systematically asset-stripping the valuable timber from Nash’s Copse and Mann’s Copse. They left the land as scrub, which has subsequently become birch woodland, but there was little natural regeneration of oak or beech. They soon sold out, and the College bought 93 acres of land including Silwood Lake for £13,600 from a Major Bagshaw.  In this way, the estate increased from an initial 80 acres in 1947 to its eventual 223 acres in 1953. By this time, it comprised a range of natural habitats for field experiments, including grassland, woodland, orchards, arable land, a marsh, and a lake along with two streams, one “red”, one clear. After this phase of land purchase, the College set about improving the facilities for teaching and research. An expansion plan proposed in 1955 was to have cost £860,000: 31 huts scattered about the estate were to be demolished, the Manor House converted to entirely residential accommodation where the students would live, and new laboratory accommodation of 5,700 square metres was to be erected. However, the University Grants Committee visit to Silwood in December 1955 went badly, the inspectors were unimpressed, and the plan was shelved.  Professor O.W. Richards blamed this setback on his own lack of administrative experience, but December was not a good month in which to impress visitors with the workings of a Field Station. 

The fact that the 1878 Manor House had been built by Charles Stewart for partying and entertaining on a regal scale, rather than as a domestic residence, made it ideal for conversion to teaching and research.  The high-ceilinged rooms on the ground floor off the central dance floor were given over to a lecture room (with superb windows facing out across Silwood Bottom), a library (adjacent to the conservatory) and, until 1979, a Senior Common Room (facing the Lily Pond) where staff could escape from their students (modern tea breaks are much more egalitarian). The other downstairs rooms, and most of the big former bedrooms off the first-floor balcony, were given over to research labs, each of which accommodated three or four PhD students. The grandest of all the rooms was the turreted first floor corner room overlooking the Lily Pond; this was the office of the Director of Silwood Park. One of the principal bedrooms on the first floor overlooking the Lily Pond was kept as a very grand Visitor’s Suite. The complex of small dormer-windowed bedrooms in the roof of the Manor House that had formerly housed the servants became student accommodation (who often lived as many as three to a room in the early days). This maze of corridors and narrow stairs was known affectionately as The Warren. Around the courtyard and the former stables, the ground floor rooms were given over to workshops, while the upper story had more student bedrooms and recreation facilities including the celebrated Gnome’s Kitchen (so called because of the tiny door at the top of a narrow stair, through which access w as gained).  This was a favourite room for partying, where the evening typically ended with students dancing, tightrope-like, on the narrow beams that straddled the roof space.  Accommodation for students has been a constant concern, because local rents and property prices are so high (staff and students at Silwood do not receive a London allowance, in contrast to their colleagues at Royal Holloway College, just down the road at Egham). Generations of Silwood students lived in lodgings in the notoriously squalid Blue Star apartments, a big three-storey brick house named after the petrol station next door. The original Shenstone House had been turned into a hotel, and then, as it became progressively more dilapidated, into flats. The petrol station was closed and the house was knocked down in 1975 to make way for the construction of Shenstone Park.

William Penney FRS (1909-1991) is remembered at Silwood for the frightful hall of residence named after him. He was the nuclear physicist who led Britain’s development of the atomic bomb. Penney studied physics at the Imperial College and taught there from 1936 to 1945. He did research for the Ministry of Home Security and the Admiralty during the Second World War and was principal scientific officer of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research in 1944-45 at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, New Mexico, USA, where he helped to develop the American atomic bomb. In 1946, Penney was appointed chief superintendent of armaments research for the British Ministry of Supply and in this capacity he supervised Britain’s development of its own atomic bomb, successfully tested on 3 October 1952, in the Monte Bello Islands off Western Australia. Penney was director of atomic-weapons research and development at Aldermaston from 1953 to 1959, and he was chairman of the UK Atomic Energy Authority from 1964 until 1967. In 1967, he was created a life peer as Baron Penney of East Hendred, which is a thoroughly Berkshire title. William Penney Hall of Residence was opened by Lord Flowers FRS in 1970 and represents a perfect example of how not to build student accommodation; the rooms are dark and pokey, and the lack of sound proofing has to be experienced to be believed.  Until the early 1980s, married students mostly from overseas lived with their families in converted flats in a big old house called Sandyride. This was a rambling red-brick mansion with stables and servants quarters in outbuildings, which sat to the south of London Road, opposite the Blue Star, on land next to the lake of the Marist Convent. The property was sold in 1987, and the house was knocked down to make way for the speculative development of Princess Gate, built in pretentious 1990s style. This development destroyed the old walled kitchen garden, wiping out a wonderful population of Angelica archangelica in the process. Fortunately, Sandyride’s adjacent field (on London Road opposite Silwood House) was spared from development by stringent planning restrictions. The £970,000 obtained from the sale of Sandyride was used to build the two Flowers Halls on North Gravel, which were opened in 1987, adjacent to the three blocks of Southwood Halls that had been funded by the College in 1983. To cover the risk that the College might withdraw from Silwood Park, Southwood Halls had been built to a plan that would allow them to be sold as separate private houses if the need arose. The final residence block, known to generations of students as Colditz (but in fact, more prosaically, as John Smith Hall) added a further 33 study bedrooms in 1989.

In the early days of Imperial College at Silwood Park, the head gardener, Mr Stringer, had a staff of 15 to look after the grounds. One of their tasks was to grow the flowers needed by Imperial College in London; for this purpose, they had an extensive complex of greenhouses. The floristic highlight of the gardeners’ year was to take all these plants up to London by road to decorate the Royal Albert Hall for the graduation ceremony.  For many years after 1947 there was food rationing, and a tradition of self-sufficiency developed among the staff and students.  They kept their own pigs and hens in old wartime buildings on North Gravel, and garden staff grew huge crops of potatoes, and all of the vegetables needed to feed the resident student population. There were two kitchen gardens, one in Drive Field and another on the land where the Tractor Sheds and the Pinetum now stand. This tradition petered out gradually, and by the mid 1970s all of the provisions for sustaining the students were bought in. In Humphry Repton’s time, the original kitchen gardens for the Manor House were on the other side of the Park in what is now Silwood Nurseries; these had extensive walled gardens and greenhouses for fruit and vegetables. The vine in the greenhouse of the kitchen garden was famed for its size; it was 40m long, almost as big as the great vine at Hampton Court.

In the early years after Ashurst was bought by Imperial College, it was used essentially as a laboratory for insecticide research, particularly the use of fumigation in buildings, to control pests in stored food. The apparatus used by the scientists was wonderfully Heath Robinsonesque (e.g. the electric motor adapted by Drs Page and Lubatti in the late 1940s from Wellington bomber engine-heaters to run the fans for controlled environment cabinets). Subsequently, the work on insect physiology became increasingly sophisticated, employing stereoscan electron microscopes, and there was research into chemical communication between insects (pheromones). Research at Ashurst was transformed by the arrival of John Kennedy FRS who studied insect flight and Tony Lees FRS who studied insect responses to daylength (photoperiodism), when V.B. Wigglesworth’s insect physiology research group at Cambridge was disbanded, following the great man’s retirement in 1967. Ashurst was to become a world class centre for the study of insect behaviour. The Met Tower at Pound Hill had been built with a Royal Society grant in 1963 and was used for research into the detection of rain storms using radar. The work was soon closed down by the authorities, however, when it was discovered that the radar was interfering with local telecommunication systems. Later, the tower was used as the vantage point from which Charles David carried out his video recordings of moths flying upwind to a pheromone source which proved, contrary to then received wisdom that moths could not navigate relative to wind direction without access to visual cues from the apparent relative movement of the ground beneath them. The location of the odour plume was indicated by bubbles produced from an automated child’s soap bubble machine, and the location of the female moth (too small to appear on camera itself) was indicated by a research technician sunning behind the insect with his arm outstretched and his finger just behind the moth. Believe me; it looked just as eccentric as it sounds. But it worked brilliantly and provided a major breakthrough in insect behaviour. The Met Tower is now used as a mobile phone mast by three competing phone companies: Orange, Vodafone and Hutchison 3G.

The Overseas Spraying Machinery Centre metamorphosed into the International Pesticide Application Research Centre (IPARC) but continued development of new pesticide application techniques, including ultra low volume applicators; the scientists were affectionately known as “nozzle heads”.  In 1963, the Sirex Unit was set up under Frank Wilson on the site of the current CABI building to study the biological control of Sirex wood wasps. It was funded by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) and occupied a single storey, wooden building next to the wartime American Canteen. The unit closed in 1971, having completed its work, but its derelict buildings were not demolished until 1988. The Sirex Unit left a botanical legacy because one of the people who worked there during the 19 60s planted the bed surrounding the building with Oenothera biennis x O. cambrica, a Small-flowered Evening-primrose, and these plants became naturalized; they still grow on North Gravel in 2004. Where he got this unusual genotype and why he chose to grow the plant in monoculture, we shall never know.

Phase I of an expansion program saw the building of the appalling flat-roofed, two-storey South Block laboratories next to Silwood Manor House, overlooking the Lily Pond. Thank goodness there was no Phase II. At its peak in the early 1980s, almost 300 people worked or studied at Imperial College at Silwood Park: there were 43 academics, 35 research fellows, 47 technicians and 106 postgraduate students, with a support staff of 43 full-time and 20 part-time employees. There were no full-time undergraduate students, although students visited on short field courses in summer and a few were in residence for the summer term to carry out their final-year projects.

Ashurst was closed down and sold off in 1987 at the peak of the property boom for £2,200,000. The site was eventually redeveloped in 1995 as Ashurst Park, but only after the property developer had suffered substantial financial losses. The proceeds of the sale of Ashurst were used to construct the three blocks of Garden Wood Laboratories at Silwood between the Manor House and Buckhurst Road which opened in 1988.  Some of the scientists from Ashurst moved into the new laboratory blocks in Garden Wood, while others took up positions in Imperial College in South Kensington. But applied entomology was no longer to be the principal focus of work at Silwood Park, and studies of ecology and evolution were set to increase in importance. 

After the staff moved out of the Manor House to occupy their new labs and offices in Garden Wood, the grand old house lay empty and un-loved from 1988 to 1999 waiting for essential dilapidations to be carried out, including a new roof and re-wiring. There was no obvious source for the millions of pounds necessary for the refurbishment. The saviour was John Beddington FRS, head of the Huxley School, who convinced the College to invest in the Manor House to accommodate Environmental Science staff and students for their new MSc Course in Environmental Diagnostics.  The conservatory was refurbished at the same time and provided with a new glass roof and new carved stone parapet. The Manor House was reopened on 9 March 1999 by the former director of Silwood Park Sir Richard Southwood FRS.

Not all of the local residents know it, but there is a nuclear reactor in Silwood Park. It is quite extraordinary, nowadays, to imagine applying for planning permission to build a nuclear reactor in the middle of deepest and richest suburbia. But in the 1960s university expansion was unbridled, and they could do almost whatever they wanted. The CABI building was begun in 1987, following demolition of the wooden army buildings and the former Sirex unit that had cluttered the site. Designed by the same architects, C.A. Cornish Associates, who built the new Garden Wood Laboratories for the Biology Department, the Science Park and the Technology Transfer Centre on South Gravel and would build the NERC Centre for Population Biology. The Silwood and Ashurst libraries were merged with the CABI library in a move that was later regretted when CABI pulled out of the building in 2000, taking their books with them. CABI moved out to new quarters in Egham at the start of the new millennium. The NERC Centre for Population Biology opened in 1989 and sported a state-of-the-art controlled environment facility, consisting of 16 chambers in which different climates could be simulated (rainfall, temperature, daylength and carbon dioxide concentrations were varied experimentally in a range of experiments). It was named “The Ecotron” in jest at first (remember the Orgasmatron in Barbarella), but the name stuck and Ecotron was what it became. The first director of CPB was the eminent ecologist John Lawton FRS who was recruited from the University of York. The building was opened in July 1990 by Margaret Thatcher in one of her first official duties after stepping down as Prime Minister.

Development of the Science Park and the associated Technology Transfer Centre (TTC) on South Gravel was begun in September 1986. Many of the trees that had been left when Garden Wood was felled, and which had been intended as landscaping for the new site, blew down in the great storm of 15-16 October 1987. That is why the landscaping of the site consists entirely of trees planted in 1988, but at least it gave Greer Crawley who designed the scheme, the opportunity of planting a large number of interesting tree species, including many Quercus, Betula and Acer species, along with some distinctive conifers like Chamaecyparis nootkatensis ‘Pendula’ (the entire planting budget was just £15,000).

Silwood’s Gardens

The big, older trees around the Manor House (mainly Beech and various Cedars), date from c.1800 when Sibbald built his new house on this side of the Park. Prior to that, this part if Silwood Park had been heathery “waste” known as Beggar’s Bush. Sibbald made the decision to build here, instead of near Eastmore on the hill above Silwood Farm where Humphry Repton had preferred (see p. 219). There was then a long gap during which little if any tree planting occurred, until the modern phase of tree planting began in 1980. The first Pinetum was planted by Ray Davies and Mick Crawley on the east lawn adjacent to the main drive amongst the giant conifers in 1981.  It consisted almost entirely of North American pines: Pinus rigida, P. ponderosa, P. jeffreyi and P. muricata established well but have become rather sparse-crowned at 25 years of age. Pinus coulteri from California is big and fast-growing but it makes a gaunt and unattractive specimen. The pinetum was extended to the west side of the drive partly for screening the Tractor Sheds (erected in 1986) with species like Brewer’s Weeping Spruce, several Japanese pines and a young Wellingtonia, planted in spring 1991. Two of the species which grew most rapidly, Pinus pseudostrobus and P. muricata, both died suddenly in 1998. There was much tree planting between 1983 and 1990 associated with the new halls of residence (Ostrya japonica, Pyrus pyraster, Frangula alnus).  The open ground of Garrison ridge to the north of William Penney Hall, opposite the Nuclear Reactor, which had been Southwood’s intermediate successional stage, was levelled using a mechanical digger borrowed from one of Collin Merryman’s friends in 1993, and an arboretum of rare oaks and maples was planted in 1994. The most frost-sensitive oak species were planted in a bed along the south-facing wall of William Penney Hall in 1994, including Quercus vacciniifolia, Q. wislizeni and Q. agrifolia. The National Collection of Narcissus was moved from Sunningdale to Wishing Well Lawn in 2004.

Ecological and entomological research in the grounds of Silwood Park

There has been a long tradition at Silwood Park of studying insects and their relationships with their host plants (there is a full bibliography of this work on the web site). In the early years of the Field Station, most of the field work was carried out by Prof O.W. Richards FRS with Dr Nadia Waloff and their students. Richards had joined the zoology department in 1927 from Oxford. He became Head of Department and Director of Silwood Park in 1953 until his retirement in 1967. His botanist brother, also an FRS, was a leading expert on the ecology of tropical forests. Waloff was a formidable, chain-smoking Russian entomologist; she was recruited from Birkbeck College in 1942. Their study of grasshopper ecology in Nash’s Field was one of the first long-term studies of an insect population under field conditions (Richards & Waloff, 1954). The insect fauna of broom Cytisus scoparius was the focus of much of this early work and had both pure and applied aspects. Richards and Waloff were particularly interested in the ecological relationships between the different insect species feeding on broom, and their student Jack Dempster used a novel precipitin test to demonstrate which insects were predators and which were their prey. The broom beetle Phytodecta olivacea turned out to be a keystone species in this system (Richards and Waloff, 1961). They also carried out one of the world’s first exclusion experiments on the effects of insect herbivores on plant performance. They used insecticides to exclude insect herbivores from broom populations and discovered huge effects of insect feeding on seed production and death rate of the broom plants. These effects were attributable principally to the pea aphid Acyrthosiphon pisum subsp. spartii and the broom beetle Phytodecta olivacea (Richards and Waloff, 1977).

Dick (T.R.E.) Southwood FRS was appointed in 1955 and Michael J. Way in 1961, both from Rothamsted, and both were destined to become Directors of Silwood Park. Southwood did much of the field work for his classic book Land and Water Bugs of the British Isles at Silwood Park (Southwood and Leston, 1959). He went on to study insects in grassland, like Oscinella frit (Southwood & Jepson, 1962), communities of insects on trees (e.g. on oak and Buddleja), and population dynamics of insects on shrubs (e.g. the alien Viburnum whitefly Aleurotrachelus jelinekii on the alien evergreen shrub Viburnum tinus). Southwood is perhaps best known for his work on the role of insects in plant succession. Former arable plots in Silwood Bottom were abandoned from agriculture in 1977, 1978 and 1979, and the insect communities that developed during the course of secondary succession were followed over several years (Southwood, Brown & Reader, 1979). The plots soon became dominated by perennial grassland, but trees established in the early years, and within 15 years the plots had become oak/birch woodland; the wooded plot, abandoned from agriculture in 1977, is preserved to this day as a reminder of these experiments.  With Patricia Reader, he also studied the birds in three successional stages: the early successional (arable) community in Silwood Bottom, the intermediate community of scrub that developed on building waste on Garrison Ridge between William Penney Hall and Silwood Bottom and the later successional birch woodland on Hell Hill. Subsequently, the focus of the successional work turned to below-ground insect herbivores under the leadership of Val Brown and Alan Gange. This, in turn, led to work on the rhizosphere and mycorrhizae and into the ways that insects, feeding above and below ground on the same plant, can influence one another’s growth and survival. 

Michael Way specialised on aphids and their relationship with the ants that tended them.  He was the first to show that aphids tended by ants caused greater damage to their host plants than aphids on their own. He also demonstrated facilitation in aphid feeding and growth, whereby an aphid on its own grew less quickly than a similar aphid with a group of aphids caged on the opposite side of the same leaf. It is to Michael Way and his long-term collaborator Mike Cammell that Silwood Park owes its large population of Spindle bushes Euonymus europaeus. These were planted because they are the winter host of the black bean aphid Aphis fabae on which the two entomologists carried out long term research. The tall aphid suction trap which stands on the middle of the lawn in Silwood Bottom is part of a Europe-wide network of similar traps that was originally set up under the direction of Roy Taylor at Rothamsted in 1960. By constantly sampling flying greenfly from the air, the idea was to anticipate pest outbreaks and hence to rationalise the use of insecticides in agriculture. Sadly, farmers these days find insecticides so cheap to use that they spray their crops every year, “just in case” (this is called prophylactic spraying). 

The biology of insects in grasslands has been an on-going theme of the work in ecological entomology at Silwood Park. Stuart McNeill continued this tradition with his work on the energetics of the bug Leptopterna dolobrata in the Holcus mollis grassland on Gunness’s Slope. Long-term studies with the use of insecticides in grassland in Nash’s Field have shown the vital role played by the grass-aphid Holcaphis holci in suppressing the growth of Holcus mollis and hence allowing low-growing herbs like Galium saxatile to prosper; the enemies of Holcus mollis are the friends of Galium saxatile. Meanwhile, exclusion of slugs and snails promoted recruitment from seed, especially of low growing herbs like Crepis capillaris and Hypochaeris radicata.

The Commonwealth Agricultural Bureau (later CABI) came to Silwood in 1981, and their scientists worked on the first floor of the Manor House until their own custom-built facility was opened in 1988. CABI employees continued the tradition of studying broom Cytisus scoparius at Silwood Park. Broom is a troublesome pest of dry pasture land, foothills and riverbeds in California, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Efforts to find biological control agents for the weed involved screening a wide range of legume-feeding insects, mites and pathogens, and much of this work was carried out by CABI at Silwood Park. CABI scientists had extensive plots in rabbit exclosures on Gunness’s Hill from 1983 to 1998 in which broom grew spontaneously from the seedbank. CABI moved to Egham in 2001, and their building was converted for teaching and re-named the Hamilton Building in 2009.

The study of theoretical ecology at Silwood Park prospered following the appointment of M.P. Hassell FRS in 1971. Subsequent collaborations with R.M. May FRS and R.M. Anderson FRS revolutionised the study of host-parasitoid dynamics (Hassell and May) and led to the development of the celebrated SIR model of infections disease dynamics (Anderson and May), which tracked the numbers of “susceptible, infectious and recovered” individuals, by modelling the dynamics of disease transmission. In recent years the focus has broadened again, to include studies of evolution, biodiversity and conservation, but the Silwood tradition of linking theory, observation and experiment, both in the field and under controlled conditions using growth chambers and greenhouses, flourishes to this day.

History of the land

Compiled by Sir Richard Southwood FRS and J.S. Porter from Hughes "History of Windsor Forest", from S A Rickwood's Manuscript on the Silwood archives and from maps, plans, Bills of Sale and Indentures in the Silwood archives

The Origin of the Name Silwood

From Tudor times, and probably from much earlier, there has been a wood on the site of the present Nash's copse and adjacent areas; this was known as "Selwood", and the adjacent "moor" or open grassland as "Selmore". The latter gave its name to "Selmore Farm", the home of the Farrant family. The derivation of these names certainly comes from either the Old English "sahl" or "sele" or the Old Norman "selia", all of which mean sallow (Salix capraea agg.) i.e. "Sallow Wood'. These trees still grow in small numbers along the stream and the derivation of the name suggests woodland of great antiquity.

The name first appears to have been corrupted to "Silwood" in connection with the house known as Silwood Lodge that was owned by the Grenvilles in the mid eighteenth century. (By this time the woodland itself was often referred to as "Sellmore coppice"). When Sir James Sibbald built the first mansion on the present site in 1788 he called it "Silwood Park", and the name has remained although occasionally subsequent documents spell it "Siliwood" or "Selwood".

Silwood Park Estate

1362: The Manor Sunninghill, a 'parcel' of the royal manor of Cookham, was settled on John de Sunninghill for rent of £20 (there was probably no Manor House at this time; the "Manor" being an administrative unit).

1438: Thomas Haseley passed the Manor to his trustees.

1449: Trustees of Haseley granted Manor to John Norrys (or Norris) of Yattendon and from him, it passed to Henry, Lord Norris.

1499: Prince Arthur, son of Henry VII (and elder brother of Henry VIII), wrote a letter from the "Manor of Sunninghill" to All Souls College, Oxford. He was presumably staying in the Tudor mansion, later known as "Eastmore".

1567: Henry Lane of Cowarth bought the Manor.

1583: Lane sold the Manor, then estimated at 80 acres, to William Daye (or Day) of Eton for £210.

1613: House "Eastmore" specially noted in Survey; in possession of Matthew Day.

1654: Matthew Day raised mortgage of £500 on estate that consisted of 2l8 acres and 9 houses.

1668: Philip Farrant of the Yeoman family who had for generations occupied Selmore Farm and had recently built a new house (probably the present "Silwood Farm") sold it to a Mr Rawlins.

1671: Selmore Farm is incorporated into Manor estate of Day family.

1673: John Aldridge I, described as "Farmer", purchased estate for £552. 10. 0. and lived in manor house "Eastmore". His family had been on the Parliamentary side in the Civil War; they had subsequently been allowed to fell and sell the oaks from Windsor Great Park and had become large timber merchants and tanners.

1737: John Aldridge II died; his eldest son John Aldridge III inherited the Manor and chief mansion Eastmore (believed to have been sited on the area subsequently known as "Pound Hill"; the two ancient yew trees are all that now remain of the garden of this house). The second son, Henry, inherited Selmore Farm, stables, orchards, coppice and Tan Yard.

1764: John Pitt bought the Manor and many of the lands from Henry Aldridge's widow and his son John IV for £2,137.

1767: John Pitt purchased further lands from John Aidridge IV and the sister of Henry Aldridge's widow (Miss Jane Shipton) for £1,697. The lands sold are described as "Sellmore coppice", "coppice fie id" and part of Wapshott's land. Sellmore coppice is now known as Nash's copse and Wapshott's land probably corresponds to portions of Nash's field and Gunness Hill.

1781: John Pitt purchased last remaining piece of land from Aldridge family, a wood belonging to George Aldridge who was presumed to have died in India.

1782: Hon. Henry Grenville leased Silwood Lodge (nr. site of present greenhouses) to Mr Joseph Turner, Yeoman.

1787: James Hartley purchased estate from William Morton Pitt (son of John Pitt).

1788: James Sibbald, a Banker, purchased estate from James Hartley. The main house, Eastmore, was abandoned and a Georgian mansion built on the other side of the estate, on part of the site of the present house, and called 'Silwood Park'.

1792: Silwood Lodge described as a "pretty rustic house" offered for sale.

1807: Sibbald, now a Baronet, arranged to "enclose" into estate part of Beggar's Bush (also known as "Bugbush"); this is the part of the present estate that lies between the house and the Cannon public house. This enclosure involved diverting the main road from Windsor which had passed along the back of the house; permission of the "vestry" (Parish Council) was obtained and they were paid £100.

1811: George Simpson purchased the estate from Sir James Sibbald Bart., and whilst in his possession a picture of the southern aspect of it and a brief description was published in what is believed to be Jones' 'Views of Stately Homes'.

1825: M Forbes, a local man, purchased the estate from George Simpson who had become financially ruined in the bank crash of 1825.

1839: Estate unsuccessfiilly offered for sale.

1854: John Hargreaves, Jnr. purchased at least part of the estate from Mrs Forbes (widow of M Forbes) for £30,000 and at some time afterwards added Silwood Lodge.

1875: Charles Patrick Stewart bought the "Silwood Park Estate", which then included besides the main house, Silwood Lodge, the Oakleigh, Fairfield and a large stretch of ground behind the latter. He paid £80,000.

1876: Silwood Park - built by Sibbald - and Silwood Lodge were demolished and the present house commenced.

1878: Mortgages raised by Stewart: £37,000 on Silwood estate, £6,000 on kitchen garden area (now Silwood Park Nursery), £5,000 on Fairfield and £2,000 on Oakleigh. According to the date on the clock tower the present house was completed.

1882: Mr Stewart died.

1888: Mr Thomas Cordes (a steel master of Newport, Mon. of Huguenot extraction) purchased the estate.

1925: Sir George Dolby purchased the estate from Thomas Cordes's widow. Sir George had considerable financial interests in tea plantations in Assam and also in America.

1940: Philip Hill, the merchant banker, purchased the estate from the Dolbys. During the Second World War the house was occupied by the Army and used as a rehabilitation centre.

1944: On the death of Philip Hill, who had never occupied the house, the estate was put on the market. It included all the Silwood Park estate and farms, together with various houses and plots in Cheapside and Fairfield and others across the London Road.

1947: Imperial College purchased the main house and some 80 acres for £24,000 from the widow of Philip Hill.

1953: Imperial College purchased Silwood Park Farm and adjoining acres from Major Bagshaw for £13,600; the land had previously been in the possession of a Mr Perryman who had purchased it from the Hill Executors. During his ownership most of the major trees in Nash's and Mann's copses and on Hell Hill - that had been woodlands for hundreds of years - were felled and dragged out for timber. No replanting was attempted.

1961: Some acres along Cheapside Road were purchased from Major Bagshaw's estate completing the College's holding.

Ashurst Lodge Estate

1613: The Crown granted 3 acres of waste, known as "Stony Lands" to the Vicar of Sunninghill.

1672: Sir Thomas Draper built the house known as "Brick House". On the death of Lady Draper this passed to her son-in-law, Sir Henry Ashurst Bt.

1740: Left by Lady Ashurst to Mr T Hatch; sold to Captain Fa rrell.

1766: William Farrell (son of Captain Farrell) rated for "Stony Lands, late Ashurst's". Sold to Thomas Birch. Sold to Hon. John Yorke.

1806: Advertised for sale as "many years the residence of Mr Spencer Schutz", who was probably a descendant of Baron Schutz, envoy at the court of Queen Anne and a friend of George I. It was described as having "24 acres of land and many fishponds". However, it remained in the Schutz family and passed to Mr Augustus Schutz.

1826: Sir William Norris purchased the estate and lived in the house for two years (his son, a novelist, wrote a book entitled "My friend Jim" that contained characters named after the district - Lord Sunning, Lord Bracknell etc.)

1838: Recorded as being in possession of a W Ashurst. Many flirther owners.

1874: Purchased by Col. Hollingshead Blundell, MP.

1900: Purchased by another and more famous Member of Parliament - Sir Martin Archer-Shee, after the death of Col. Hollingshead Blundell. The exact date of the purchase is not known, but we do know from newspaper cuttings that Sir Martin was living at Ashurst in 1922.

The sad story of their younger son formed the basis of Terence Rattigan's play, "The Winslow Boy". The second Lady Archer-Shee was an American and returned to the USA during the War.

1948: Imperial College purchased the house and grounds from Lady Archer-Shee; the elder son, who was somewhat eccentric, had withdrawn from the main house and was living in the small upstairs room in the Stable Block, that was later used as a CT room.