Friday, 15 June 2012


Designed landscapes offer a relaxation zone where people can, if they choose drift into serenity, to imagine an old world where Mother Nature once ruled the land and ordinary folk toiled to make the best of it. Many people I suspect access our countryside and estates wishing only to savour the here and now, whilst also remaining respectful of conservation - wishing not to see it changed or spoilt in any way - and rightfully so. When looking at these landscapes however, time has in many cases fudged the boundaries between carefully designed and planted areas, and those that have received later layers of planting, be they natural or introduced. Either way, the elements generally merge to form a complete and seemingly natural landscape, and are embraced and enjoyed by one and all.

Compton Verney-October 2011-Gary Webb.
The unfortunate fact is that for many people, it is hard to distinguish what was originally meant to be in a landscape, how it was supposed to look, and what indeed has crept in to confuse the scene. In some cases they were destined to be transient, with their current form now entirely appropriate for modern use. Unfortunately however, with passing time it’s all too easy for the amazing efforts of earlier land owners and workers to go totally unnoticed, and therefore un-appreciated, sadly.
Stowe-Gothic Temple Gary Webb.
Despite this, a good deal of our naturalistic landscape parks and gardens are managed beautifully, retaining an age old appearance whilst still allowing modern visitors to enjoy them in a variety of ways; from country walks to rock concerts. However, how many of those current visitors really know how precious these landscapes are, really know how they have evolved, or even try to understand how they work? Surely there must be lots of people who might be encouraged to visit, and therefore support the maintenance of a landscape if we could work out which method of engagement suited them most, be it on hard copy, with audio trails, through events or through mobile technology.

Maybe people need landscapes to be more transparent, or to have the stories of these places teased out more effectively – and which landscape doesn’t have a story or three! By interpreting our artistically designed landscapes more effectively, somehow showing how they were conceived, paid for, looked after and so on, then surely we'll make them more interesting – just think of the rise in interest for visitors who enjoy the ‘behind-the-scenes’ tour, where they learn what it was like for the servants, the gardeners and labourers in the wood-yard etc.

Croome-Temple Greenhouse-November 2001-Gary Webb.
Landscapes do present something of a challenge where interpretation is concerned, and even seasoned ‘landscape’ gardeners sometimes find it difficult to really tell the designed aspects of a landscape from natural ones, so the public at large can surely be forgiven for also miss-reading our landscapes, thereby not fully appreciating, or indeed enjoying the full benefit of each experience. Too many signs are generally unwelcome, maps can be confusing, and plant labels can make or break a visit for some people. It’s obvious however that there isn’t necessarily one hammer to crack all the nuts, so to speak. It might be more complex and time consuming, but interpretation just has to work on a variety of levels, for a variety of people, and has to be cost efficient. There is thankfully a huge amount of technology and experience out there, and also thankfully; a great many willing and enthusiastic people that can move us forward.

Ampthill-June 2012-Volunteer stationed to explain what lies before us.
The question is how or what can we do to turn things around, and turn things around we must if we are as a nation to extract the best from these landscapes, truly value them as works of huge cultural importance and in turn help support them financially. There are so many landscapes with rich histories, connections with various designers, and are in variable states of repair. Well, if your local landscape has a connection with one designer in particular, then a way forward could be offered below…

An event held this week could very well set us on our way to understanding and enjoying some of our designed landscapes more than ever before, an event that gathered together some key people from the landscape and garden industry to begin planning for a tercentenary celebration of someone who is already a V.I.P. in the landscaping world, a V.I.P. who could and should be better known and understood for the contribution he made - which literally changed thousands of acres of estate and countryside in England. The person in question has I believe been largely miss-understood by the nation, quite possibly due to the complexity of his work, and partly because he generally failed to formally describe his techniques, some of which remain a mystery. Some people choose to label him a vandal, as he collects the blame for sweeping away villages, formal gardens and a good chunk of our nations trees – but that debate will keep, for now.
The man of history I refer to is of course our very own Northumbrian landscape gardener Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. Now, I realise that in his introduction I use the words ‘gardener’, and ‘history’, which are words that can tend to caress the ‘Off’ switch of many people, quite possibly some of the very people who presently access our parks, estates and woodlands in the name of recreation. The said parks however, hold lots of fascinating stories that are relevant to so many different people, yet they are locked away in the past most often, and are all too easily overlooked. If this happens for much longer, many of those landscape gardens will erode just a step too far, and may be lost forever. One way of preserving and protecting these places is to look at their creator more closely, to unravel the mystery and mastery of his technique, and hopefully in the process raise the importance and relevance not only of the man, but of each place he touched.

‘Capability Brown 1716-2016, Celebrating 300 Years’

An early style tent from Past-Tents, as may have been found at Ampthill.
One way, as discussed at the event is to look at the man in question as a form of artist, which isn’t as make believe as one might imagine. To view Brown as an artist means we have to interpret what we see more clearly, and make his efforts understandable to more of the people who visit those landscapes, which I, like many within the gardening world believe necessary if we are to ensure the continuity of these ageing landscape masterpieces. His work was interpreted as art via canvas, but does his work stand up as art itself?
A complete professional throughout his career, Brown travelled the tracks, hills and fields of our land, often on horseback, in all weathers to meet with clients, sell his dreams and transform estates to a new and enduring naturalistic style. It appears he was able to work his charm, via his foremen, to ensure that vast areas of the toughest ground was moved, shaped and sculpted to his specific plans. Brown engineered vast and beautiful reservoirs, raised hills, dug paths and erected buildings. He learned to select and oversee planting that would mature and grace gardens over decades and longer, and even moved trees on occasion, and contrary to common belief, he didn’t sweep away entire avenues, but selectively removed them in places to retain a sense of maturity within a composition. As if this wasn’t enough, he was adept at building long lasting friendships at all levels of society, with people who in return invested heavily, in both money and sweat to turn Brown’s sketched dreams into reality. The quantity of commissions he received beg belief, and John Phibbs from Debois Landscape Group described the spread of Brown landscapes across the English countryside as an epidemic compared to other notable garden designers.

John Phibbs-Debois-explaining how to see the Ampthill landscape-Gary Webb.
The launch of ‘Capability Brown 1716-2016, Celebrating 300 Years’ at Ampthill Park gives us an amazing opportunity to raise the profile of this man and recognise the outstanding contribution he made to English gardening. The launch meeting was packed with interested people, who engaged in buoyant conversation and were full of anticipation for the next few years and beyond. It will be an incredibly exciting year full of opportunity for those who work, own or are connected in some way to a Brownian landscape garden.

Ideas at the meeting were canvassed in connection with planning for 2016, and they were plentiful, realistic and achievable. Indeed there are properties that open currently, and so will find the year not too dissimilar from the present, but there are those which a remain private, and if involved face challenges of varying degree to enable opening in some way. However, there is no intended pressure on anyone to offer more than they are willing or able to, in fact it is much the opposite; there are opportunities for all those who wish to climb aboard. One topical thought that crossed my mind today, whilst considering the geographical spread of Brownian landscapes, is that an Olympic torch style run between all the Brownian sites would itself take the whole of 2016 to complete – now there is a thought, but maybe a carriage would be more appropriate!

So there we have it; a year on which we can focus our attention. If we can raise the profile of an icon and his gardens, we can raise the importance of the very landscapes themselves. This, if packaged correctly must surely help preserve them for future generations. Well, the horses are fed, the carriage is hitched, and quite a number are already taking their seats for a bumpy ride through the park. Are you willing to climb aboard the 'Brownian-Express' ?

Gary Webb.

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