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Garden designer Cabability Brown at Ashridge

PUBLISHED: 10:04 27 September 2016 | UPDATED: 10:04 27 September 2016

Brown's Golden Valley (Torsten Moller)

Brown's Golden Valley (Torsten Moller)

Torsten Moller

Continuing the celebrations to mark the 300th anniversary of the birth of the landscape designer Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, Liz Hamilton of the Herts Campaign to Protect Rural England explores his legacy at Ashridge

The influential 18th century landscape designer Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s work at Ashridge is widely regarded as the best and most intact of his surviving work in Hertfordshire. I enjoyed a delightful walk following the National Trust’s leaflet In the footsteps of Capability Brown, which leads the visitor through Brown’s landscape and adjacent areas of the National Trust estate, starting and finishing at the visitor centre by the Bridgewater Monument.

We know that Brown first came to Ashridge in 1759 and was to spend nine years supervising work there for the third Duke of Bridgewater - Francis, the ‘Canal Duke’. From a relatively humble and remote upbringing in Northumberland, Brown travelled south by sea at the age of 23 and soon afterwards was working for Lord Cobham at Stowe in Buckinghamshire, where one of the country’s greatest landscape gardens was being created. He must have impressed Cobham since he was soon promoted to head gardener. He left Stowe in 1751 to work independently, before accepting in 1764 the post of George III’s Master Gardener at Hampton Court Palace, becoming the King’s friend and confidant. Eventually Brown was able to buy his own estate at Fenstanton in Cambridgeshire, where he is buried.

Brown started to work for other landowners while still employed at Stowe and is thought to have completed 170 commissions in his lifetime. This vast output must partly explain why he is better-known than other 18th century landscape designers. He was able to work quickly, surveying an estate by horseback sometimes in little more than an hour, before drawing up plans which either his client’s or Brown’s hired workmen put into practice. In this way he made a fortune - an average commission cost £500 (around £60,000 today) and many earned him more.

An ancient sweet chestnut tree in one of Brown's Ashridge copsesAn ancient sweet chestnut tree in one of Brown's Ashridge copses

Typical Brownian designs were minimalist - elements included scattered trees and sinuous tree belts and clumps, large expanses of water and acres of smooth turf. He laid out carriage drives to enable his clients to view - and show off - their properties, and occasionally added buildings. Often the park appeared to reach right up to the house, with a ‘ha-ha’ ditch and bank deployed to keep grazing animals from wandering too close to the property. When allowed, he cleared away or modified pre-existing gardens and landscape features, and even relocated villages, to achieve his vision of a grand house in a ‘naturalistic’ setting.

Brown’s designs also reflected two emerging 18th century developments. Improvements to carriage design meant landowners could drive around their parks in greater comfort and Brown’s uncluttered expanses of turf were cleared of stones, levelled and drained where necessary to facilitate this. The developing interest in shooting game birds, especially pheasants also influenced Brown’s placing of copses and woods.

At Ashridge, the Duke wouldn’t allow Brown to alter the existing straight-sided grass rides cut through the estate woods, so the Prince’s Riding and others remained intact, but he did allow clearance of much of the woodland close to the house, leaving rounded copses still discernible today. With no surface water in the chalk uplands of Ashridge, Brown was prevented from creating a water feature here - a usual hallmark of his work.

By shaping of woodland and earth, Brown created meandering valleysBy shaping of woodland and earth, Brown created meandering valleys

His best and most intact work lies in the Golden Valley to the north and east of Ashridge House. Here he transformed an unremarkable shallow wooded valley by clearing the trees on the dry valley floor while leaving the upper slopes wooded, with sinuous edges. This made the valley feel deeper, more secluded and meandering. By moving masses of earth he accentuated the meander-effect so the valley appears longer than it really is. While the woodland contains later generations of trees than those Brown worked with; nonetheless the essence of the landscape remains as he intended.

Taste and fashions move on. In the early 19th century the house at Ashridge which Brown knew was replaced by the larger neo-gothic building we see today. The designer Humphry Repton was called in to advise on the layout of new gardens around the house. Despite claiming to be a follower of Brown’s ideas, Repton’s Red Book shows a series of intricate gardens quite unlike anything Brown would have proposed. Many of Repton’s ideas were adopted and some survive to this day, together with the straight Wellingtonia avenue planted in the 1850s when the giant tree species was newly-introduced from North America. I doubt that Brown would have approved.

Some critics regard Brown as a vandal due to his determination to clear away previous landscapes to accommodate his visions, and his work has been labelled dull, repetitive and lacking horticultural merit. It is ironic that had he been working now, the measures rightly in place to protect our heritage would surely have thwarted much of his ambition. Yet his fame rests on his prolific output and his ability to envisage and create landscapes often described as ‘better than nature’. He was truly a master of the one uniquely English garden style.

One of Brown's copsesOne of Brown's copses

Visit Brown’s Ashridge Landscape

Ashridge estate is on the Herts/Bucks border north of Berkhamsted. The National Trust’s visitor centre is at GR971131 on OS Explorer map 181 (for satnavs HP4 1LT gets you to the end of the Monument Drive) off the B4506. Visit ashridge.org.uk for opening times and details of events. The Golden Valley is accessible at all times on foot from Little Gaddesden and adjacent areas.

A Capability Brown exhibition at Ashridge visitor centre, which includes works inspired by Brown’s landscapes created by members of the Embroiderers’ Guild, runs until December 28.

Hertfordshire Gardens Trust website hertsgardenstrust.org.uk has 10 downloadable leaflets describing walks around Brownian and Brownian-influenced landscapes in the county.

Visitcpreherts.org.uk to find out how CPRE works to protect Hertfordshire’s countryside.

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