The un­know­able Ca­pa­bil­ity Brown

Country Life Every Week - - In The Garden - Charles Quest-rit­son

HAVE a story about Ca­pa­bil­ity Brown. When I was a teenager, I lived in Northum­ber­land at Kirkharle, the vil­lage in which Brown was born. Ac­tu­ally, the vil­lage has dis­ap­peared al­most com­pletely, now re­duced to two farms, some es­tate cot­tages and a wing of Kirkharle Hall (the rest was de­mol­ished).

We lived in what was called Kirkharle Manor, but was re­ally the old vicarage and peo­ple would ven­ture down the road to see the lit­tle church of St Wil­frid’s. I en­joyed go­ing to wel­come them and would show them the parish bap­tismal reg­is­ter, which re­vealed a fact that peo­ple seemed not to know: Lancelot Brown had a twin sis­ter.

Un­for­tu­nately, my knowl­edge of his life was very lim­ited and he was ac­tu­ally born in 1716, whereas the twins were born in 1707 and were clearly dif­fer­ent chil­dren. How­ever, I some­times won­der how many peo­ple still think that Ca­pa­bil­ity Brown was a twin.

We were very proud of our lo­cal boy made good. We knew for cer­tain that he had land­scaped ev­ery es­tate for miles around be­fore he went south to make his for­tune. The av­enues that led to the Browneswin­burnes’ house at Capheaton, we said, were par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing be­cause he’d planted them be­fore he got the hang of this land­scape idea of his. And Walling­ton, if only the Na­tional Trust re­alised it, was en­tirely sur­rounded by one of his mas­ter­pieces. As for Kirkharle it­self, Brown had planted all the clumps of beech trees when he came back to visit his old mother.

IAlas, all such sto­ries were but leg­ends. We were all very ig­no­rant of the life and work of our vil­lage hero and, in 1966, the 250th an­niver­sary of his birth passed with­out com­mem­o­ra­tion.

How dif­fer­ent are the jam­borees that cel­e­brate his 300th an­niver­sary this year. It was time for me to go back, I de­cided, to see how things have changed. The Kirkharle es­tate has be­longed to the An­der­son fam­ily since the early 1800s. Last month, I called on John An­der­son, who in­her­ited it in 1971 and has turned it into a model of ste­ward­ship and sus­tain­abil­ity.

In about 1980, when sort­ing through his grand­fa­ther’s pa­pers, John chanced upon a plan by Brown to con­struct a ser­pen­tine lake in the Kirkharle park­land. In her ex­cel­lent new book, Ca­pa­bil­ity Brown and his Land­scape Gar­dens (Pavil­ion, £20), Sarah Ruther­ford dates it to about 1770. The work was never be­gun, but the dis­cov­ery fired John’s imag­i­na­tion un­til, even­tu­ally, he saw an op­por­tu­nity to carry it out.

The first scoop of earth was taken in 2009 and the to­tal cost was about £150,000, but dig­ging a lake is not as costly as one might sup­pose: the most ex­pen­sive task was con­struct­ing an all-weather track around it. Large oaks and sim­i­lar plant­ings com­pleted the pas­toral scene and wild­flower mead­ows, no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult to sus­tain, have been es­tab­lished fairly suc­cess­fully. Pub­lic ac­cess is free from dawn to dusk.

How­ever, the re­ally in­ter­est­ing thing about the lake is that it looks just as all Brown’s land­scapes did when first dug and planted. We’re used to think­ing of his parks all fully grown and ma­ture. Kirkharle still has the raw­ness of new­ness. The banks of the lake (ac­tu­ally two lakes con­nected by a cas­cade) need more re­in­force­ment and more trees must be planted this win­ter.

John has a very clear vi­sion of how it will look 100 years hence. I stud­ied the plans while he ex­plained how the lake and the plant­ings re­late to what re­mains of Kirkharle Hall and to the wider land­scape. It wasn’t easy to project the whole de­sign far into the fu­ture, but it oc­curred to me that Brown’s clients must have wres­tled with the same prob­lem—how would it look when their great-grand­chil­dren came into their in­her­i­tance?

I re­alised that their con­fi­dence in Brown’s abil­ity to de­liver a work of art was a mea­sure both of his great­ness and of the landown­ers’ cer­tainty that their de­scen­dants would one day in­herit their es­tates. Which makes a visit to Kirkharle—the new­est of Brown’s land­scapes—all the more fas­ci­nat­ing to do now.

And the bap­tismal reg­is­ter? Well, the orig­i­nal is now in the Northum­ber­land Ar­chives, but John told me that the real Lancelot Brown was bap­tised in St Wil­frid’s on Au­gust 30, 1716. Last week­end, the church was filled to ca­pac­ity with his ad­mir­ers, cel­e­brat­ing his birth 300 years ago.

Charles Quest-rit­son wrote the RHS En­cy­clo­pe­dia of Roses

There are leg­ends aplenty about Brown’s in­volve­ment with land­scapes such as Walling­ton, close to his Northum­brian birth­place of Kirkharle—but they must, at the very least, have pro­vided in­spi­ra­tion

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