The ha-ha: designed to have the last laugh
Farm animals, event horses and even partygoers have been caught out by this ingenious landscape feature
Daniel Pembrey traces the history of this intriguing landscape feature
“You will hurt yourself, Miss Bertram,” cries Fanny Price in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park; “you will certainly hurt yourself against those spikes; you will tear your gown; you will be in danger of slipping into the ha-ha”.
So Fanny Price implores Maria, eldest daughter of Sir Thomas Bertram, not to be led astray into the wilder sections of the park by the quick-witted Henry Crawford. It is just one example of the potent symbolism that the sunken wall, or ha-ha, has provided down the centuries.
Funnily enough, ha-has were designed to allow in the wilder sections of the landscape to the formal gardens (or to the country house itself), by removing physical barriers. They made the dream of uninterrupted land ownership more real.
The sunken wall appears to have its origins in the gardens of the French aristocracy. Claire-voies – the open gateways created in France to allow longer sightlines – were seminal in dissolving boundaries between formal and informal gardens. King George I presided over the first steps towards similar long views here in Britain but it was the horticultural reign of “Capability” Brown that saw the ha-ha take hold – in no small part due to the delight often induced. “Capital stroke!” declares Horace Walpole in his 1780 essay On Modern Gardening, before explaining how the name came about to express people’s surprise at finding “a sudden and unperceived check to their walk”.
pride and pemberley
Just seven when Capability Brown died in 1783, Jane Austen came to know many of the grounds designed by him. Chatsworth features a ha-ha and is believed to be a model for Pemberley, Mr Darcy’s Derbyshire seat in Pride and Prejudice. And just when did Elizabeth Bennet come to see beyond Mr Darcy’s hauteur? “It has been coming on so gradually, that I hardly know when it began,” she recalls. “But I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds
at Pemberley…” Austen was too perceptive not to grasp Capability Brown’s rearranging of nature in the cause of his “place making”; entire villages might be moved, rivers dammed, lakes created and slopes “humoured” into undulations.
Interestingly, Elizabeth Bennet’s revelation at Pemberley is shown to us as much by the landscape descriptions as anything – the widening panoramas, the vistas opening up: “They entered the woods, and bidding adieu to the river for a while, ascended some of the higher grounds; when, in spots where the opening of the trees gave the eye power to wander, were many charming views of the valley, the opposite hills, with the long range of woods…”
Not everyone was enamoured with the “nature as garden” idyll. “Even before the 18th century ends you have commentators such as William Marshall saying that if you want nature, you must go to America,” explains Brent Elliott, historian at the Royal Horticultural Society. “At the beginning of the 19th century, Humphry Repton – who regarded ha-has as Capability Brown’s great gift – insisted that gardens should be seen to be works of art, not nature, and 30 years later John Claudius Loudon, the most influential garden writer of the period, was decrying the worship of nature as being falsely directed. We even have records of landowners planting ha-has with ornamental shrubbery. It was a reaction against the idea of visual deception.”
This backlash was compounded by the increasing challenges of estate ownership: the agricultural depression after 1870; the parcelling of land and break-up of country homes in the next century. None of this was conducive to the preservation of old acreages or long views. And yet, the usefulness and appeal of ha-has never vanished.
Ha-has could provide invaluable drainage, especially with the audacious scale of water engineering on some Brownian estates. Spoil earth from, say, the widening of the River Cam at Audley End, could be put to good use by building a “reverse ha-ha” – a gently sloping embankment with an invisible drop-off, as seen from the house (the road it hid at Audley End has since been raised).
But the great benefit of the ha-ha was the ability to animate and enliven the visible parkland. The ha-ha prevented animals
from entering the formal or kitchen gardens. Other discreet obstacles could be circumnavigated; a lake might freeze over in winter providing firm passageway to animals. By employing a ha-ha, grazing sheep or cattle could be brought into close-range view of the house, without risking vegetables, formal plants or indeed human beings.
In ornamenting the landscape so, one animal was privileged. Deer had become a status symbol well before Brown’s days. In 1723, the Black Act made the sale of deer on the open market illegal in a bid to discourage poaching, given how sought-after venison had become. Simply put, great landowners required a deer park and visitors were keen to estimate their size – the number of agile creatures contained. The sunken wall needed to be tall – eight feet in the case of Petworth. “It is good ground for the trees and they will be safe from the deer,” the Duke of Rutland’s amanuensis remarks about the planting of Lucombe oaks above the ha-ha at Belvoir, in a letter dated 1782. So was implanted in the minds of British gentlemen and women the ideal of the country seat as large house set in enhanced nature – and so, in both form and function, the invisible barrier of the ha-ha became a defining feature.
How relevant has it remained? The National Trust became serious about ha-has in the 1970s. “We needed to be brought kicking and screaming into the 18th century,” shares Richard Wheeler, the organisation’s national specialist in garden history. “Formal gardens with their surrounding walls had typically been too much to maintain, were deeply unfashionable and needed to be reconnected with the surrounding parkland. It was this unity of landscape in those 18th-century designs that made them so important, then and now.”
The ha-ha at Burghley provides the backdrop to the first and last jumps
Restoration of the ha-ha at Stowe began in 1989 – “a colossal undertaking; sevenfoot tall plus foundations and the strength needed to hold up the earth,” remarks Wheeler. “So far, we’ve done 2¾ miles. We’ve got a mile to go.” Another restoration project is underway at Kedleston Hall, where there is a parkland walk with shrubbery and ha-has on each side. Explains Wheeler: “Robert Adam designed it after he took over responsibility for the design of both house and gardens, to unify the whole.”
The National Trust is not the only organisation to prioritise this ingenious feature. Burghley House Preservation Trust completed a 12-year project to restore its
ha-ha in 2012, just weeks before the special Jubilee visit of Her Majesty The Queen to Burghley Park. “The sunken wall was built by Capability Brown during his renovations under the auspices of the ninth Earl in the 1760s,” recounts Miranda Rock, house director and a direct descendant of the first Lord Burghley. “Designed to keep the deer herd out of the gardens, the ha-ha is a now stunning focal point for visitors to the park, which is open year round, free of charge.”
Indeed, the ha-ha at Burghley provides the backdrop to the first and last jumps of the famous cross-country course at the Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials; both “picture” jumps are designed to frame the view of the grand Elizabethan house.
Badminton also features a ha-ha, both in its grounds and on its horse-trials course. Pippa Funnell became the first person ever to win the Rolex Grand Slam of Eventing in 2003. She separately won Badminton in 2002 and 2005.
“Ha-has have often been a feature jump at events,” Funnell comments. “However, they can cause problems.” She recalls vividly the ha-ha feature at Badminton during the 1990s and early 2000s. “One year my horse, Sir Barnaby, dithered before it and the judge called ‘first refusal’ – two fences from home. The ha-ha was difficult because you didn’t know what you were dealing with until you were on top of it. Barnaby was a cautious horse and came to a complete stop to take a look. It pushed me out of a top six placing overall that year and cost me a lot of prize money.”
The “ha-ha” feature at Badminton – like the rest of the cross-country course – grew out of the landscaped gardens. Here, too, we shouldn’t underestimate ha-has’ capacity for surprise. From inebriated wedding guests taking a night-time wander to quad bikers on a tear, they are famous for catching out the unwary. While ha-has were designed to prevent animals leaping them, it may well be the case that two heads are better than one: how to approach them in parkland, while mounted?
piglets might fly
Stephanie Marland is a crime-fiction writer living in Buckinghamshire who grew up around horses and who has jumped ha-has and open ditches, notably on her cherished horse Piglet. “I’d drop his speed a few strides out to make sure he could understand the challenge,” reports Marland. “Piglet was good at scoping out the terrain, so if I set him up, rebalancing him and getting him into a shorter, bouncier gait with the right forward impulsion, it tended to work out.” Perhaps piglets can fly after all but it’s not for the faint-hearted, Marland warns: “Taking them at a gallop, you need to be an experienced rider on an experienced horse.”
And what of that most experienced of riders, Rupert Campbell-black? Naturally the devilish fictional star of Jilly Cooper’s Rutshire Chronicles has a ha-ha at Penscombe Court, his country estate. Penscombe has seen more than its fair share of raucous goings-on and, after one memorable party there in Riders – at which Campbell-black leapt a sofa (indoors) on his horse, Revenge – the Master of the foxhounds drives home straight into the ha-ha.
“Rupert’s grounds were inspired by my own,” explains Cooper. “We have a ha-ha in at the bottom of a long lawn, where hunts came to have big parties, danced rather too energetically and tended to fall into it. At some point, a three-foot wall was built for their protection; I always thought it may be rather jolly to restore it to its original condition.”
For ha-has may be one sporting landscape feature that are destined to have the last laugh.
Daniel Pembrey is an author and freelance writer. His latest novel, Night Market, is out now, published by No Exit Press: @Dpemb
Above: restoration of Capability Brown’s ha-ha at Burghley was completed in 2012 Left: at Kedleston Hall, the ha-ha runs around the house creating an “island”
The ha-ha at Petworth (left) is unusual as the stone retaining wall rises above the bank; the ha-ha at Stowe (right) might have been the first such structure in England