The Capability Men
Jenny Milledge and Kate Harwood organised a memorable Study Day in the elegant surroundings of Woodhall Park (Figure 1) as part of the CB300 celebrations and at the invitation of the current owner of Woodhall, Mr Ralph Abel Smith. In devising the programme, the organisers intended this Study Day to set the work of Lancelot Brown in the context of the contributions of his many contemporaries, hence the title ‘The Capability Men’ and the choice of the garden history speakers, co-authors of the eponymous book.
Figure 1. Woodhall Park Interior
The deer park, first recorded in 1583 and shown on the Norden map of 1598, was extended to 355 acres and a formal avenue planted by 1720. After a fire damaged an earlier courtyard house, Thomas Leverton designed the present mansion in 1777 for the estate’s new owner, Thomas Rumbold. The mansion was built on higher ground nearby, and a magnificent new stable block replaced the courtyard house. Rumbold further extended the park to the west and in the period 1782-1783 had the River Bean widened to form the Broadwater, employing William Malcolm & Son of Stockwell ‘Surveyors, Nursery and Seedsmen’, who would also have supplied the material for extensive new planting . By 1801 when Samuel Smith bought the estate, this planting had matured with serpentine walks threading through the shrubbery, pleasure ground and plantations, and a substantial walled kitchen garden supplied the house with ordinary as well as luxury produce. The turnpike road was moved in the period 1838-1843 by Smith’s son Abel Smith in order to extend the deer park eastwards. The park was enclosed by a brick wall and held deer until the Second World War. Since 1934 the mansion has been leased to Heath Mount School.
The day started with a welcome by Ralph Abel Smith, and an interesting backdrop account of how the role and fortunes of the landowner have changed over the centuries (Figure 2). He gave a forthright insight into the financial challenges of balancing income and expenditure on the estate and hinted at future plans to illustrate how the estate must evolve in order to survive.
Figure 2. Ralph Abel Smith
Figure 3. David Brown
David Brown (Figure 3) developed a compelling argument for viewing the people who implemented the landscape style as the ‘Gentlemen Improvers’. This term encapsulates two preoccupations of 18th Century society – social status and improvement of the land. The men were gentlemen in that they sprang from the middle ranks and were educated, thanks to the teachings of John Locke, in useful skills such as survey drawing and accounting, as well as the classics. The term was first applied to Nathaniel Richmond whose career David examined in some detail. Richmond worked for Brown, appearing in his account books in the period 1754-59, and is a good example of how Brown employed assistants who were already good at their job and soon left to set up on their own. By the mid-18th Century there were about 100 Improvers and David concluded that Brown was perhaps ‘the best of the best’, but that his nickname (derived from land being ‘capable’ of improvement) had been around long before he arrived on the scene.
Tom Williamson followed with a detailed presentation showing that Brown had been very much of his time – neither ahead nor behind the curve. By the late 1760s, the archetypical formula had become established, with a ‘polite’ lawn near the house, a lake in the middle ground taking the dangerous dampness away from the house, and a circuit drive. The circuit drive mirrored changes in society, which had become more relaxed. However, Tom pointed out using many examples that Brown did what he was asked, and so could and did supply Kitchen Gardens, Pleasure Grounds, Flower Gardens, and various buildings. Tom’s presentation (Figure 4) was bedevilled towards the end by a contrary computer, but completely unfazed, he hilariously mimed his way through the last few slides and by common consent got his message across more efficiently than would any Powerpoint aid.
Figure 5. Tom Williamson’s presentation
Figure 6. Woodhall Park Print Room
During the break for a delicious lunch organised by Nikki Slowey and Alison Bowden of Heath Mount School, and prepared by chef Ben Willis, delegates were able to explore the beautiful interiors of the mansion and marvel at the Print Room (Figure 5). In the afternoon, we explored the park, going into areas not normally accessible to the public. The stars of the eastern park for most people were the surviving ‘champion’ oak trees in the former deer park (Figure 6), but it was interesting to see how each generation of the family had left a mark in the landscape in the form of tree planting. Ralph Abel Smith with advice from John Phibbs the Brown expert, had planted trees on the valley sides which descended in ‘teardrops’ but left the valley bottom clear in a manner Brown would have recognised. In the western park, which is even more Brownian, the Broadwater had been breached by the recent floods (Figure 7) allowing a fascinating view of the engineering work involved and highlighting the fact that landscaping requires constant maintenance.
Figure 6. Oak tree in deer park
Figure 7. Broadwater breached by floods
Hot drinks and ‘Capabili-Tea Brownian’ goodies baked by some of the HGT members from recipes supplied by CBF (plus some from Hannah Glass) – rounded off a successful Study Day.
‘Not in My back Yard?’
A Collaborative Approach to Development
In the spacious surroundings of the Riding School 44 delegates were treated to talks on three very different aspects of conservation and development.
Kate Harwood’s first slide (Figure 1.) was a shocking collage of some of the many Hertfordshire houses that have been demolished – the trend, which was nationwide by the 1950s, started as early as the 1930s in Hertfordshire. She pointed out that the house was in reality just the biggest ‘garden building’ and so, once it disappears then the setting often does too.
Figure 1. Some of the lost Hertfordshire houses
Threats come in many different forms and for a variety of reasons. Ignorance can result in misguided restoration, such as at Panshanger where the back-filling of the gravel extraction pits bears no relationship to what was intended by Repton and a huge fence with slots for bird watchers totally obscures one of the most important views. Lack of money and/or care is a problem, along with relaxed planning laws allowing massive extensions to garden buildings, such as The Lodge at Julien’s. The major roads needed to move our increasing population often split estates and Kate cited the A10 at Youngsbury, the A41 at Tring and the A414 at Panshanger as just a few examples. Other threats examined were the massive house building programme, golf courses, fields of solar panels and inappropriately sited wind farms.
On the positive side, Kate highlighted the work of the HGT mobilising the Woodland Trust to restore the dramatic views and rondpoints at Tring Park; persuading the Local Authority to take responsibility for restoring the Flint Fishing Lodge at Brocket Park and, by education and persuasion of the multiple owners, preserving the Bridgeman landscape at Sacombe Park. Heritage assets are irreplaceable and the work of groups such as the HGT and various Friends organisation are vital to balance the power of rich developers by ensuring that Sustainable Development principles are followed.
Anthony Downs, who heads up the Planning and Development side of the Hatfield House estates, (Gascoyne Cecil Estates) presented a persuasive case for a Green Corridor (Figure 2). This would be made up from woodland, grassland, arable land, golf courses, orchards and wildlife reserves. Thus, not only would the free movement of wildlife be assured, but also – by joining existing access with new footpaths/bridleways/cycle tracks – the area would be an important civic amenity allowing easy east/west movement. However, Anthony pointed out that the proposal for Birchall, which has a central green space on land historically used as a dump for London’s rubbish, would block this corridor as the houses and roads are around the outside.
Figure 2. The Green Corridor from A Green Infrastructure Strategy for Central Hertfordshire. pp. 16
As in the post-war era, new houses are needed and two sites for development have been proposed. The Symondshyde development would be along the lines of an estate village using the principles of the Garden City movement with high quality housing, shops, a pub and a primary school. Since it would be developed by a single owner, who lives locally, there would be clear design guidelines – which would be followed. In answer to a question, Anthony contrasted this to a hypothetical situation in which the Cecils sold the land to developers to make a ‘quick buck’ and housing was erected with no thought for anything but the bottom line.
There would be a 1km protected gap between the new village and the proposed extension at Stanboroughbury, which it is hoped would feel as if it were part of Hatfield and not just another urban sprawl. The clear aspiration is to show it is possible to build something of beauty today.
The Danesbury Fernery project (Figure 3) is a shining example of what can be achieved with no money but a great deal of determination and enthusiasm. John Roper, who is leader of the Friends of Danesbury Park Volunteers, gave a beautifully illustrated talk on what had been achieved since September 2015 to restore what was described in 1881 as ‘the best fernery to be found in the Home Counties’. It was designed in 1859 by Anthony Parsons for Danesbury’s owner William John Blake and built by James Pulham & Son of Broxbourne. The chalk pit in which the fernery is situated was so overgrown in 2015 that it almost looked like level land, partly because about two feet of builders’ rubble had been tipped there. The local Council, glad to be spared a £30,000 bill for the restoration, helped by poisoning tree stumps and providing a mini JCB to excavate the worst of the rubble.
Figure 3. Danesbury display
Figure 4. Kate Harwood, John Roper and Anthony Downs
To date the dropping well, gorge, water cistern and basin for the cascade have been uncovered and work is well underway in restoration of the paths. In addition, a 1-metre diameter vase or urn has been recovered – probably Pulhamite. The current focus is to replant ferns to the planting holes and John explained this requires volunteers with a different skill set from the ‘scrub basher’! Research is underway to establish how the Victorians got water to this dry site and how they recirculated it to provide the correct environment for the ferns and atmosphere for the grotto. All speakers (Figure 4) then answered questions.
Figure 5. Andrew Turvey Head Gardener at Hatfield House
After a delicious lunch, we were then treated to a sunlit tour of thegardens with the new Head Gardener, Andrew Turvey (Figure 5). He has only been in post for 9 weeks but already achieved significant changes. This has been possible because the garden is privately owned – so decisions for major changes can happen over lunchtime rather than the weeks or months of due process needed for English Heritage, for whom Andrew previously worked. The late Dowager Countess focused on the formal gardens near the house, but the present Lady Salisbury is developing the informal, more distant gardens.
It was interesting to listen to Andrew’s vision for the development in the garden, which ranged from the small – gravelling unsustainable grass (Figure 6) through the medium sized – planting a Hornbeam avenue to the large scale. One example of the latter was the conversion of a swimming pool to a reflective Lily Pond (Figure 7). Andrew is a very ‘hands on’ Head Gardener and gave a most amusing account of his underwater tree felling activities to clear the island in the Lake! A great deal of manpower at this season is devoted to rose pruning and box hedge clipping, which makes his accomplishments in such a short time all the more impressive.
The Study Day provided a stimulating mix of viewpoints on the different aspects of development and was much enjoyed by the select band who attended.
Figures 6. Unsustainable grass
Figure 7. The new Lily Pond