On Wednesday I was in Birmingham for the annual Historic Landscapes Assembly organised by The Gardens Trust. It marked the launch of a significant report they had commissioned about Capability Brown, so although I don’t normally cover current events here I thought I’d use my 200th post to spread the word.
I can hear the collective groan going up – yes we know the man was a genius but we’ve just had a whole year of him and are beginning to get a bit B… off. But the report wasn’t about him but the conservation challenges and opportunities facing many of his designed landscapes, which are currently being collectively considered for possible World Heritage Status.
This report was written by Dr Sarah Rutherford and Sarah Couch , both experienced landscape historians with expertise in the conservation of historic landscapes and in the planning issues they face. Much of the text of this post is taken directly from their work, and you’ll find the link to the whole document at the end.
But why is the report necessary? Surely we know that Brown’s surviving sites are precious and need to be looked after like any other great work of art? If that’s the case why are there as many as 6 Brown parks, as well as a whole string of buildings in landscapes associated with him, on Historic England’s Heritage at Risk Register?.
Brown’s work has a worldwide resonance and far-reaching recognition. Over 200 of his landscapes have survived 250 years. They have been cherished, sustained and then augmented with later important historic design layers and many have had to accommodate great change. Only a handful have been completely destroyed, mostly around London; more survive as fragments. But while they are appreciated in general terms, the detail and skill of Brown’s designs are little understood, which makes them vulnerable to harmful alteration and neglect. The authors identify 8 essential features of Brown landscapes which make them potentially susceptible:
Grazed parkland: Parkland is easily lost to arable production; it forms the essential ‘soft’ landscape of pasture and planting which is more fragile than the better protected ‘hard’ built landscape.
Parkland trees: Carefully positioned clumps and belts of favoured grand species such as beech and oak are now at least 250 years old and ageing. Species may succumb to invasive new pests and diseases as well as climate change.Their loss and inappropriate replanting change the character, structure and views.
Distant views: Screened and framed by buildings and planting, key views designed into, across and out of a landscape park are vulnerable to overgrown vegetation, new planting that does not follow Brown’s scheme, new building and loss of framing planting. As buildings get taller, distant buildings can have unexpected damaging consequences for Brown’s vision.
Great lakes: Lakes are Brown’s hallmark but they are a constant draw on resources, particularly from siltation, engulfing by reeds and scrub, changes in hydrology and requirements of the Reservoirs Act, which may lead to invasive works to banks and dams with clearance of designed trees and ugly reinforcement of dams.
Winding drives: Drives, with their progression of views, are vulnerable to destruction and changes in planting and may fall out of use, altering the intended access.
Large kitchen gardens: Walled kitchen gardens are ideal places for filling with cars, houses, garden centres or other buildings, but this destroys impressive, walled spaces and the intention of a large productive garden.
Park and garden buildings: Brown’s buildings, both functional and ornamental, are not well researched and have not always been valued. Often they have no viable economic use and are left to decay. Farm buildings and dwellings are also under-recorded. Brown’s great renown as an architect of country house estates has receded.
Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of his buildings survive including magnificent country houses such as Claremont (Surrey, listed Grade II, park Grade I), Croome Court (Worcestershire, Grade I) and Broadlands (Hampshire, house Grade II, park II*) and lesser estate buildings such as chapels, stable blocks, orangeries, summerhouses, many walled gardens and lodges. A few have been lost, such as Clandon Park stable block, but many survive, albeit it not widely recognised. The rare D-shaped kitchen garden designed by Brown at Berrington Court (Herefordshire) is not even listed.
Setting: Because views were designed outwards to distant landmarks, a landscape park’s setting extends well beyond its hard boundaries. Insensitive development in its setting can cause profound damage.
The whole issue is exacerbated by a problem which affects the whole of the public sector and in particular those areas which are non-statutory like parks and gardens: the skills drain. The scarcity of expert advice is a worsening threat, with a lack of resources to assess planning applications competently, both in local authorities and in the voluntary sector, particularly the Gardens Trust and County Gardens Trusts. The appropriate specialist advice from local authorities, as well as Historic England, is not always available. Historic England now have just 5 landscape architects for the whole country and local authority Conservation Officers, especially those with landscape skills, are increasingly rare. Added to this, many sites struggle with a shortage of skilled horticultural and landscape management teams.
But that’s merely the tip of the iceberg. There are many other challenges and threats:
The first is: who owns the site? That might not seem terribly important but Brown’s parks were designed for the families of wealthy private owners living in the country house at their core. The parks were united by a single design, ownership and management. Their design unity was underpinned by economic unity. Agricultural depressions during the nineteenth century, the First World War’s impact on both estate workers and the families of estate owners, and the introduction of death duties and taxation targeted at the wealthy after the second World War, have all delivered significant blows to that unity.
Houses have been demolished and estates have been subdivided and often partially redeveloped as a result. Only 62% of the 209 Brown parklands are now in private hands with other owners as varied as mineral extraction companies, educational institutions, prisons, charitable trusts, hotels, local authorities, and multiple private owners of housing developments.
All forms of ownership pose potential difficulties. Privately owned estates face major economic pressure. Parkland sensitively managed as an agricultural estate provides a relatively low economic return. Maintenance of lakes, buildings, walls and centuries-old trees and woodland is expensive and many owners require their part of a Brown landscape to be economically self-supporting
While ownership by charities and trusts might appear less problematic there are different issues. The National Trust owns 18 Brown sites and is a great national saviour of Brown landscapes. However even they are under enormous pressure to increase visitor numbers. Accommodating large and relentless numbers of visitors even in a large Brown landscape such as Ickworth , Croome, or Berrington is damaging, because of the swathes of car parking and related infrastructure, extensive visitor facilities or even the seemingly innocent proposal for cycle tracks.
For institutions like schools whose core purpose is not heritage, the landscape is commonly seen as a sacrificial element in achieving their core goals when they upgrade facilities, enlarge campuses and car parking, or build new accommodation. This is often a war of piecemeal attrition.
Public ownership is not necessarily any better. Local authority-owned country parks and public parks have often been managed for recreation and nature conservation rather than the historic design and have suffered from lack of funds. One example is Wimbledon Park, a rare Brown urban park which faces conflicting demands from sports, leisure, nature conservation and heritage as well as development in its setting.
Divided ownership is another risk albeit of a different kind. Sales and subdivision are not subject to planning control and there is evidence that sites are changing hands more rapidly. There seems to be no effective mechanism or incentive to owners to develop joint Conservation Management Plans or masterplans for divided sites.
And of course there are the obvious economic pressures. Whether from mineral extraction or golf courses or more commonly, housing and other so-called “enabling development” The value of a landscape park is often now based on its development value, rather than traditional agricultural value of Brown’s day. The perception is that it can no longer sustain itself without changes in use. A new purchaser may buy a park with a major ‘conservation deficit’ (ie serious dilapidation) without the means to remedy it, and so needs to find ways to fund a backlog of repairs to buildings: Brown’s landscape often loses out to the more heavily protected historic buildings, hosting ‘enabling’ development to fund their repair.
It used to be golf courses that were seen as the major threat. Fairways, bunkers and planting, club houses and parking did serious damage to Brown’s concept. Luton Hoo, a Grade II* Brown masterpiece, is a case where even the relatively sensitive hotel and golf course conversion damaged the unity of Brown’s design. Golf is now in recession, with clubs closing rather than opening but who if anyone will restore the damaged landscape if the course closes?
Hotel use in extensive grounds often appears appropriate. However, while promoting the beautiful Brown setting to customers, the ancillary facilities, such as a spa, large scale parking and access, golf and sports facilities, conference facilities and staff accommodation add up to major adverse effects.
Renewable energy developments are the latest potential challenge. Brown parks have been threatened visually within and beyond the boundaries by large scale energy installations including a wind turbine at Knowsley (Lancashire, Grade II); a solar park at Mamhead (Devon, Grade II*) and a wind farm at Byram (Yorkshire, unregistered).
Changes in regulations can also have unexpected effects. The Reservoirs Act has meant many dams have to be remodelled often causing major physical and aesthetic damage whilst long term neglect of lakes and water courses, leads to silting up and overgrowth, and then pressures to retain the consequential newer habitats.
The most obvious threat to all green space is housing development. Relentless housing applications of all scales have threatened Brown’s parks, which are regarded as attractive and lucrative green field sites. At Doddington developers tried to achieve this as enabling development when the mansion was converted into a hotel.
Furthermore many parks, because of their size, are constantly the target of planning applications, especially those in multiple ownership and high-pressure development areas. The result of a steady trickle of what may appear relatively minor changes is creeping, insidiously growing to a point where it causes major irreversible damage to the fabric and design, including views and setting. No-one monitors this incremental change and its effects.
There are other more subtle and slower threats. The layout and landscaping of a park are not fully covered by designations and controls. Small buildings, fences, hedges, ad hoc and inappropriate planting, hardstanding, lighting and paving surfaces and agricultural changes are often development which do not require planning consent.
Intrusive noise both on site and beyond, such as increased traffic, can undermine a site’s character and natural qualities. There is no protection against loss from natural causes, such as loss of historic or ancient trees to age or disease or lack of management, nor from simple neglect or apparently minor changes in management such as changing grazed pasture to arable, the over-use of fertiliser and pesticides, re-wilding, or not re-planting trees.
To conclude: It cannot be said too many times: Brown’s parks have sustained serious damage and many remain in great danger of still further harm. Some of his designs are all but destroyed and many are still at serious risk.The purpose of planning is supposed to be to ‘help achieve sustainable development’ but too often there is little evidence of Brown’s landscapes being protected. If we have this problem with parks we know are by Brown, then other landscape parks by less well known are even more vulnerable.
To download the report, or read it in full go to the website of The Gardens Trust