The Rev Ditchfield & another view of Capability Brown


from The Cottages and Village Life of Rural England, 1912

Today is a post about the  author or editor of around 100 books and articles, who, in the fine tradition of this blog, has partly been chosen because you won’t have heard of him!  He’s also another in the line of gardening clergymen who seemed so prominent in the later 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Rev Peter Hampson Ditchfield was a historian and antiquarian rather than a garden writer but several of his books cover gardens in some depth, particularly those of the manor houses and villages of southern England, including Berkshire where he was a parish priest for 44 years.


from The Cottages and Village Life of Rural England, 1912

He writes, even in the early 20thc, in a rather nostalgic way about what has been lost because of ‘modernity’ but I decided to research him a bit further when I read his rather trenchant views on Capability Brown….

So read on to find what they were, and to discover a little more about rural gardens of all kinds a hundred or so years ago….

from The Old English Squire

from The Old English Squire

The gardens at owlpen Manor, Gliucs, by Sydney Jones from Manor Houses

The gardens at Owlpen Manor, Gloucs, by Sydney Jones, The Manor Houses of Old England, 1909

Ditchfield was very much a man of his times and so you might be able to begin guessing his opinions on Brown and the improvements of landscape movement without reading a single word he wrote. But, if not, then this is from the opening of his chapter on Gardens in The Manor Houses of England published in 1909.

“The ideal manor house is set in a framework that is worthy of it. It fits its site with due orderly accompaniment of garden and terraces. It was planned for use and comfort, but never forgot to harmonize itself with its surroundings and to have a garden full of old fashioned flowers, with clipped hedges and a paved or gravelled walk where the squire and his lady could take the air sheltered from cold winds. It is easier to discover a good manor house garden than one attached to a more magnificent mansion.”

The Terrace Gates at Packwood from Manor Houses

The Terrace Gates at Packwood from The Manor Houses of Old England, 1909

You’ve probably guessed by now that  he might not have been a great fan of Brown and  the next couple of sentences will leave you in no doubt at all. “The country squire a century ago had the good taste not to follow the whims and fashions of his richer neighbours, nor to encourage the efforts of ‘Capability’ Brown’ and other revolutionists to destroy the old pleasaunce and cultivate landscape gardening. This wild mania swept like a pestilence through the land, destroyed gardens wholesale and left the poor house a forlorn object set in a field of formless slopes and serpentine paths without relationship to its surroundings.”

The forecourt gates at Canons Ashby from Manor Houses

The forecourt gates at Canons Ashby from The Manor Houses of Old England, 1909

Ditchfield clearly saw his job as recording the glorious manor house gardens that had survived Brown’s ‘ravages’. The chapter includes praise for the “delightful garden” of Owlpen Manor, with “its velvet lawns and parterres” and “the ingenious way it is divided and arranged [to] form fitting surroundings to this beautiful Tudor house.”

He clearly had a deep love of formal gardens and the rest of the chapter very lightly written includes a  mentions of garden features in a roll-call of what are now National Trust properties – including Chastleton, Packwood, and Canons Ashby, as well as Owlpen which James Lees-Milne rejected on the Trust’s behalf. It might say quite a lot about Ditchfield’s understanding of the national psyche that there is now consensus about the quality of these kinds of sites… although of course there is an equal appreciation of Brown’s work too.

Lead figure from canons Ashby, from Manor Houses

Lead figure from canons Ashby, from The Manor Houses of Old England, 1909

The book gives some nice little vignettes, or  some might say crude simplifications, of garden and architectural history, one being about the loss of the forecourt. “In large houses there were two or three of these courts. You could not drive your coach up to the entrance door because a tiresome forecourt guarded by gates and paved with stone obliged you to get out of your coach and walk in the pouring rain to the door. Our forefathers being practical people saw this inconvenience, and the forecourt was doomed.”

South Wraxall Manor House The garden at South Wraxall Manor House. Pub Orig CL

South Wraxall Manor House
The garden at South Wraxall Manor House. Country Life Images, 1905

He only mentions one “modern” garden and that in connection with topiary. “A few carefully cut yews and box-trees in the form of peacocks are a comely feature of the formal garden, as in the beautiful new garden that Mr E.Robinson Cox has caused to spring up around the old manor-house of South Wraxall in the place of the old garden which time and neglect had almost obliterated.”

South Wraxall Manor House The garden at South Wraxall Manor House. Country Life Images, 1905

The garden at South Wraxall Manor House. Country Life Images, 1905


from Charm

from The Charm of the English Village, 1908

He had already had one blast at Brown in The Charm of the English Village in 1908. He opened the chapter on village gardens with an account of Evelyn’s visit to the manor house in his own home village of Barkham, which ended: “in a word [it] was all that could make a country seate delightful.” Then followed: “Happily this beautiful garden escaped the devastations of wretches such as Capability Brown, Kent and other desecrators, who in cultivating the taste of landscape gardening, destroyed more than half the old gardens in England.

Of course in denigrating Brown’s work Ditchfield was in step with the almost all contemporary commentators.  Brown’s reputation certainly wasn’t as hallowed as it is today. As a recent English Heritage report on Brown noted: “Brown’s reputation remained at low ebb throughout the nineteenth century, as geometric features returned to favour and the taste for a wilder nature took hold.” It cites  Walter Scott  who “memorably described how Brown’s landscapes bore ‘no more resemblance to that nature which we desire to see imitated, than the rouge of an antiquated coquette, bearing all the marks of a sedulous toilette, bear to the artless blush of a cottage girl’.  For the full report see:

Click to access english_heritage_research.pdf

Anti-Brown feeling continued into the 20thc. Thomas Mawson, for example, argued that `had Brown and his followers been content to imitate nature, they would simply have perpetrated so many absurd and expensive frauds, but this imitation did not meet the whole of their misguided practice’.Nor was Gertrude Jekyll any less critical: “The long avenues, now just grown to maturity in many of England’s greatest parks, fell before Brown’s relentless axe, for straight lines were abhorrent to the new ‘landscape’ school. Everything was to be ‘natural’ – sham natural generally, … [and]… when he did attempt anything architectural his ignorance and want of taste were clearly betrayed.” [“The Idea of a Garden”, Edinburgh Review, July 1896, p.176]

And we must remember that most of Ditchfield’s writing was done before Marie-Louise Gothein observed in 1913 that ‘Brown was the original advocate of Hogarth’s line of beauty’ and began the slow process of revisionism that saw Brown’s work as a distinct style rather than a bad attempt to imitate wild nature.  Indeed it wasn’t until 1930 the year that Ditchfield died that Christopher Hussey really began the process of creating Brown’s current high reputation.

So who was Ditchfield? He was born in Lancashire in 1854 and studied at Oxford before becoming a priest in 1879. In 1886 he was appointed Rector of the village of Barkham, near Wokingham where he remained until he died in 1930. Apart from his parish duties he was also diocesan inspector of schools for nearly 20 years.

He was Secretary of the Berkshire Archaeological Society for 38 years until 1929, and edited not only its Journal but also three volumes of the Victoria County History of Berkshire. But it was writing that seemed to occupy the bulk off his free time. Who’s Who said his hobbies were “arranging meetings, correcting proofs and inspecting schools”.

The Terrace at Berkeley Castle from Memorials of Old Gloucestershire, 1911

The Terrace at Berkeley Castle from Memorials of Old Gloucestershire, 1911

Most of his books were celebrations of English country life in every traditional aspect. Titles like Bygone Berkshire, Memorials of Old Lancashire, were joined by Vanishing England and The Old-time Parson, The Village Clerk and The Old English Country Squire. An article about him in 1928 noted he “found time to travel…particularly in his own country, of which he knows all parts, practically every nook and corner.” He wrote about traditional sports and games and old English customs, as well a  few religious works and a book on the romance of mathematics! His obituary in the local paper said “He combined an easy, graceful style with a pleasant manner of imparting useful information, and many of his books have had a very great vogue.”

from Picturesque English Cottages

from Picturesque English Cottages, 1905

from Picturesque English Cottages

from Picturesque English Cottages, 1905

Five years earlier, in 1905, Ditchfield had published Picturesque English Cottages and their Doorway Gardens. This was a celebration of the English rural vernacular, packed with black and white photographs.

from Picturesque English Cottages

from Picturesque English Cottages, 1905

It also came with an introduction by Ralph Adams Cram, an American architect who believed that  that the Renaissance was for the greater part a mistaken direction from the true line of western culture which derived from the mediaeval, particularly Gothic. He regarded the 18thc with “bold and overblown Wren” and the “dying congelations of the Georges”  as “dark days” and “a pit of no further fall”.  The English cottage  had “integrity” and “real principles”, and blended with its setting using”delicate harmonies almost musical in their nature”. I suspect that Ditchfield largely shared these views because there are very few 18thc houses or estates mentioned anywhere in his books, and those only where there was no choice. It would difficult to write about ‘Old Buckinghamshire’ without a mention of Stowe or ‘Old Oxfordhsire’ without a line  or two on Blenheim. But Brown himself does not appear.

from Picturesque English Cottages

from Picturesque English Cottages, 1905

Instead Ditchfield waxes lyrical about the gardens in the villages around him, which “combine utility with beauty”, describing the planting and layout and even their window boxes with obvious pleasure. He is full of praise for the owners: “our villagers are very expert gardeners. They know not the Latin names of plants; they have their own names… which you will not find in the botanical books but are formed of some rustic imagination or quaint conceit , and are very often appropriate and true.”

from Picturesque English Cottages

from Picturesque English Cottages, 1905

His accounts are romantic, imprecise  and short, as he jumps from example to example and county to county rather than being functional or even practical. But it doesn’t actually matter. If he sounds a bit patronizing at times I suspect it is simply a matter of contemporary social norms which given his position as an academic and a parish priest  was probably difficult to avoid.


from Picturesque English Cottages

from Picturesque English Cottages, 1905

In 1910 he published The Cottages and Village Life of Rural England, which includes more on the same theme and with a fair amount of repetition.

He describes the front garden of a cottage as often guarded by a holly hedge “the faithful guardian of this charming plot of ground”. This is an excuse for a little diversionary note about the importance of holly in reminding us of Christmas traditions.  “The planting is usually confined to the strips on either side of the path which are full of old fashioned plants”. The path led to the porch “often rustic woodwork and covered with a mantling vine” Mention of the vine leads to another byway on mediaeval monks and wine.

from Cottages of England etc by PH Ditchfeild, 1910

The Cottages and Village Life of Rural England, 1912

There are stories such as the one about “an old Berkshire dame” who said she could gaze at her plants all day : “They be sa wunnerful an’ there is sa much in ’em”. There are comments on orchards, ponds  and particular plants. Nothing earth shattering in any of them. No great nuggets of gardening wisdom.  But all written with genuine affection and love for the subject – both human and horticultural.

In terms of subjects his books fit in well with those of Gertrude Jekyll, although she writes far more knowledgeably, far more informatively and far more authoritatively about details.

from Cottages

from The Cottages and Village Life of Rural England, 1912

But it is his deep love of the countryside, his belief in the need for green spaces and pleasant surroundings which shine through everything.

He loved London too in Vanishing England [1910] is clear “the great city has no pity” and deplored the destruction of the countryside and old villages for reservoirs like Lake Vyrnwy or shoddy housing developments – garden cities that are gardens in name only.

from Cottages

from,The Cottages and Village Life of Rural England, 1912

He was also full of praise for the National Trust buying up threatened or beautiful land to both preserve it and open it to the public.  The chapter on landscape ends : “we pay dearly for our commercial progress in this sacrifice of nature’s beauties.”

On New Year’s Day, 1928, the parishioners of Berkshire presented Ditchfield with an illuminated address to mark his completion of 50 years in holy orders, 42 of which were at Barkham.  It said “To more than our generation of parishioners you have been both pastor and friend, your literary and archaeological achievements made your name known far beyond Barkham, and your writings have, in a rapidly changing age, done much to –people the past and save them from oblivion the memories of bygone days”.

from Cottages

from The Cottages and Village Life of Rural England, 1912

Not a bad summing up of Peter Ditchfield’s life and work, and one of which I’m sure he would have been proud.

You can read many of Ditchfield’s books at including

Picturesque English cottages and their doorway gardens

The Charm of the English Village:

Vanishing England

Manor Houses of England

The Cottages and the Village Life of Rural England

There is also more information about Ditchfield on the website of the local history society:

from Cottages

from The Cottages and Village Life of Rural England, 1912

About The Gardens Trust

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