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Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown – Hero or Hooligan?

27th October 2018 | Horticultural Society

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by Philip Draycott for Wickhambrook Horticultural Society

A joint meeting of Wickhambrook’s Horticultural and Local History Societies on the 19th October was asked to decide!

A packed W.I. Hall of members were informed and entertained by the man himself – in contemporary dress, complete with wig. Actually it was Michael Brown, well known speaker and writer on Garden History.

“Mr Brown” told us he was born in 1716 and died in 1783! He was kept at school till he was twenty years old, then employed in the family gardening firm, draining soils, planting and learning the basics of his future world-famous career.

After some travelling and looking at many gardens of the 17th and earlier centuries, his first real job was working under well-esteemed garden designer William Kent (1674 – 1748) at Stowe. This had a marked affect on him and his love of trees, lakes and huge vistas from country house windows. He completed several projects designed by Kent for Stowe.

His reputation spread amongst the wealthy with taste for developing landscapes around them. He did the surveying himself and tools of the trade were shown. Many stately homes benefitted from his plans which always included large areas of grass. The “mowers” were teams of men with scythes or more often sheep, cattle and deer. His opening statement to a prospective new client was “this area and soil have capabilities”, hence his nickname “Capability Brown”.

We can still visit and enjoy his many large-scale gardens at Stowe, Croombe Park, Wrest Park, Burghley, Woodstock Park, Melton Abbas and Castle Ashby to name but a few. Perhaps best known and most impressive is Blenheim “the finest view in England”. Currently work is starting to remove 400,000 tonnes of silt from the lake to return the Vanbrugh Bridge to its former glory after 300 years.

I regard Capability Brown as one of my heroes. Without any doubt England is far richer in many ways for all his efforts. Maybe in his time, some thought what he was doing to our landscape was hooliganism, but time has proved him a hero.

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