Celebrate England's Year Of The Garden

Lancelot Brown’s work has won many admirers including filmmakers – so you may well recognise Luton Hoo, its grounds and mile-long Lime Tree Avenue from productions such as War Horse and Gosford Park. This Bedfordshire country house was transformed into a 228-room five-star hotel in 2007 during a £60 million restoration. The neoclassical mansion dates back to 1767, but as work was done on the house, ‘Capability’ Brown was enlarging the grounds and damming the River Lea to create two picturesque lakes.

Now spanning 1,000 acres, the massive project of returning the estate to its former glory included restoring the gardens, gravel pathways, ornamental ponds, formal lawns and boxed hedges. A key feature is Brown’s octagonal walled garden, which provided flowers, fruit, vegetables, herbs and honey to hotel guests. Another is a brick ha-ha.

‘Brown often used ha-has in his designs,’ says Evans. ‘These are dry ditches, or sunken fences, which divide formal gardens from landscaped parks without interrupting the view. They are often used to keep livestock off certain parts of an estate. The phrase “ha-ha” is also how laughter is written in English,’ she adds, ‘so it’s also an amusing play upon words.’ lutonhoo.co.uk

Highclere Castle
Synonymous with TV’s Downton Abbey, this Victorian mansion is the Berkshire home of the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon. Built in 1842, it is set in 1,000 acres of beautiful parkland and gardens designed by Brown, punctuated with 18th-century ‘follies’ – whimsical buildings constructed primarily for decoration.

Lady Fiona, the Countess of Carnarvon, says: ‘The views from the lawns south to Siddown Hill are breathtaking. It is something about the serpentine expanse leading your eye and the trees framing the views. The flat tops of cedar trees float across the woods, which are mainly beech and oak. Then, leaving the park, visitors pass by the Temple of Diana and Dunsmere Lake, a key part 
of the vision for the park.’

So, what is she most excited about this year? ‘In May we have a week devoted to Brown, his work 
and aspects of the park here,’ Lady Fiona says, ‘revealing his story and the way he planned to lead you through the landscape. It will be fun to explore it all and share the history.’ The event Capability Brown at Highclere (15-22 May) includes a castle and garden tour.

And what about Downton Abbey? ‘Most of the garden scenes in the TV drama are filmed here, even if they pretend it is somewhere else in the series,’ Lady Fiona confesses. ‘You see characters in the wildflower meadow or Maggie Smith sitting in the secret garden. They did some scenes – I think with Lady Edith – at Jackdaws Castle, which is an eye-catching folly for visitors to explore. The hunt scenes are filmed in the park, so you get a chance to see more of the wider landscape, too. I remember discussing where best for someone to fall off and get wet!’ highclerecastle.co.uk

Blenheim Palace 
The birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill, this 18th-century Oxfordshire palace was built in English Baroque style by architect Sir John Vanbrugh. By 1764, its gardens needed a revamp and Brown was enlisted. Visitors can delve into the story in a new exhibition, Capability Brown and the Landscape (from 13 Feb).

‘Brown had the park surveyed in 1763,’ says Blenheim’s head of education, Karen Wiseman, who put the exhibition together. ‘He had much to work with: 2,000 acres of park stocked with a variety of trees, a lake, a canal system, avenues of trees, and formal gardens – largely the work of the famous gardener Henry Wise and much admired, sketched and painted,’ she says. ‘He took the decision that the canals had to 
go and they were sunk beneath a great lake. To create it, Brown built a dam – an extensive piece of civil engineering. While the dam was under construction, site workers dug and shaped the land, lining the lake with layers of puddle clay.’ Brown widened the river, added cascades and some ha-has and ruthlessly swept away a highly regarded formal garden, the Great Parterre, making way 
for a lawn and panorama.

‘Brown planted trees at particular places to hide and reveal views of the palace,’ says Wiseman. ‘He imagined the duke travelling by horseback, so from this height the views were designed to be their best.’

So, what is the best vista? ‘From the top of the cascades there is a magnificent view down the foaming water to where the flow slows and meanders on towards Bladon,’ Wiseman says. ‘And the lakeside walk down to the cascades provides a wonderful view back up towards the bridge. One day the bridge had a soft mist surrounding it, so it appeared to hover above the lake and, as I turned, a kingfisher was sitting in a giant cedar tree staring back at me.’  blenheimpalace.com

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