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

The Field - - Contents - writ­ten BY daniel pem­brey

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.”

deer de­ter­rent

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

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