The Water Gardens

The Water Gardens restoration preserves a rare and highly significant example of mid twentieth century design by renowned landscape architect Geoffrey Jellicoe


The project creates a revitalised and well-used park with a serpentine woodland walk along the River Gade contrasted with smooth flowing grass lawns to the water’s edge on the other side of the river. The centrepiece of the Water Gardens is its restored flower garden, with massed roses and colourful perennial planting set within a formal grid of beds.

Landscape Design

water gardens restoration by Geoffrey Jellicoe
Photography - Nick Harrison

What factors initiated the project?

The Gardens are a key space in the New Town masterplan for Hemel Hempstead. They occupy a narrow site that runs north to south, buffering the hospital and shopping centre to the east from a main road to the west. Their Grade II listing reflects their civic importance which evolved from the modernist integration of architecture, landscape and planning.

Having restored a new town park at the heart of Stevenage, we were appointed to balance an Environment Agency call to re-naturalise the river to prevent flooding with a conflicting need to preserve unique modernist design.

Reversing environmental decline

Returning the river to its natural state would have erased Jellicoe’s original design destroying the heritage of the park. Poor water quality was caused by silted weirs which blocked the flow of the river, increasing the likelihood of flooding. We introduced fish passes to allow aquatic wildlife to move freely along the water course, removed invasive vegetation at the water’s edge and dredged 3000m2 of silt from the water. In a circular approach, this was treated and added to existing soil to support abundant new planting. Our approach convinced the Environment Agency not to demolish the Water Garden’s heritage features.

How was the planting strategy achieved?

The 1960s planting scheme for the Water Gardens was designed by Susan Jellicoe, Geoffrey Jellicoe’s wife. Over the years, this had been neglected. Through extensive research into historic planting schedules and correspondence, we replicated Susan’s planting design to respect the past, with adaptations that respond to climate resilience, biodiversity, and ease of maintenance.

Three stand out areas have been provided. The flower garden is a high impact showpiece which pops with colour, texture and fragrance. The Serpentine Walk is a wooded contemplative route, and the bank of the lake is planted with marginal plants which bring biodiversity back to the water’s edge.

Nature and heritage restoration

New accessible paths were introduced with three new east to west links that reconnect the town centre. A raised car park with unsightly brick and concrete construction has been screened with ivy improving views across the park and creating a backdrop to the Serpentine Walk.

A set of slender bridges provide a modernist take on those found in formal English gardens. These structures were given a white coating to bring out their elegance, at night they are illuminated, creating reflections in the water which add atmosphere to the park.

Inspired by the serpent like River Gade and the shapes found in mid-century design, we worked with play specialists Erect Architecture to introduce a new playground with angular timber and curved metal climbing frames. Patterns on the floor are inspired by the shape of the river.

How did you secure the future of the park for the people of Hemel Hempstead?

Our statement of principle for the future of the park was awarded with £2.7 million of heritage lottery funding. This allowed us to prepare a ten-year management plan which was taken forward by the Council enabling them to appoint a new full-time gardener, seasonal staff and apprentices.

Our architecture team design a pavilion building which provides a gardener’s office and work area supporting the maintenance across the Water Gardens. The simple metal clad building is topped with a band of white light illuminating the park, highlighting the exit and increasing night time safety.

Communications & Engagement

Photography - Nick Harrison

Why is the interpretation and signage so important to the restored Gardens?

Our communications and landscape team created an interpretation strategy for the park. A richly illustrated 4-meter panel tells explains the evolution of Hemel Hempstead, the history of the gardens, their founder Geoffrey Jellicoe, and his relevance to mid-century town planning. This central feature sign is supported by further signs at key junctions across the gardens, helping people to navigate through the gardens and wider town.

Inclusivity was a key consideration with Dacorum Borough Council requesting interpretation to be featured in Braille alongside raised mapping to aid navigation for the visually impaired. We worked with a specialist facilitator to achieve this on robust signs made from vitreous enamel with embossed powder coated aluminium.