The legacy of ‘Capability’ Brown
By Deborah Spring
The remains of Sweet Chestnut Avenue
As well as visiting historic gardens, many of us enjoy finding out about the historic ‘bones’ of wider designed landscapes. In 2016, the Hertfordshire Gardens Trust (HGT) picked up the theme of a country-wide celebration for the 300th anniversary of the 18th century landscape designer Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. It has published a series of ten walks through places in Hertfordshire where Brown had a hand in shaping the views.
On a sunny Sunday four of us chose a walk starting in the middle of Kimpton and took in a four and a half-mile circuit across unspoilt countryside. The mansion called The Hoo was demolished in 1958, but many features of the substantial park that surrounded it are still visible, once you know what to look for. With the HGT leaflet to hand, we had not only a clear description of the walk and a simple map, but also a series of fascinating facts and pictures drawing our attention to details of the lost Brownian landscape.
We paused to admire the irregular avenue of four-hundred-year-old, gnarled sweet chestnut trees that leads across the field in front of the site, once the grand formal approach to the mansion. From the illustration of the house in 1700, we could see that gated developments are not new to Hertfordshire. The eighteenth-century owners valued their status and exclusivity, with large gate piers and high iron gates enclosing the entrance to their property.
Heading uphill after crossing the river Mimram we found an ornamental bridge that once marked the edge of a lake. This had been a typical 18th century alteration to the landscape, created by damming the river. Now it has gone, just a marshy area of ground betraying its former existence as an elegant feature of the park. The lake was part of the work done by ‘Capability’ Brown, at a cost of £150, in the 1760s. As well as the lake he designed sinuous drives, wooded belts and woodland walks. After the mansion was demolished, much of the estate was returned to agricultural use, but the walk still includes wide drives, and well managed patches of woodland, carpeted with bluebells in the spring.
An eighteenth-century bridge
From 1759 to 1768, Brown worked at Ashridge Park, where he oversaw the planting in the Golden Valley and improved the landscape and rides. While Brown did not have direct input at Brocket Park, his influence there can be seen in the designs of his contemporary, one ‘Mr Woods of Essex’, who remodelled the landscape between 1770 and 1774. The historic details of each park are explained as the leaflets guide us through the HGT walks.
Further away, and less familiar to most of us, are the designed landscapes of Woodhall Park, near Watton-at-Stone, and Youngsbury, near Ware. The mansion at Woodhall is now leased to Heath Mount School. The park is open to walkers. The longest walk in the series, this is a five and a half-mile circuit that takes in a grand avenue, the Broad Water lake formed by damming the River Beane in the eighteenth century, and ancient pollarded trees; man-made variations to the landscape dating from the 16th century to the present day.
Of Youngsbury, Brown wrote: ‘Nature has done much; little is wanting but enlarging the River.’ In his usual grand style, Brown did more than enlarge the river Rib: he also added clumps and belts of trees, a new carriage drive and walks, and removed hedges to improve the views. Today a gentle walk of just over two miles meanders quietly through a classically idyllic landscape, with a deer park - now grazed by sheep - mature parkland trees, an arboretum, and views over fields and woodland.
The remaining five walks in the series explore Beechwood Park, Digswell Park, Newsells Park, Panshanger, and Pishiobury.