I’ve always known that late 17th/ early 18thc gardens and landscapes have a special quality about them, but a visit I made last month proved it beyond doubt. So to get the New Year off to a flying start let me tell you about Bramham, a Grade 1 listed landscape in Yorkshire, which has hardly changed since work started there in 1698.
Bramham’s entry, or rather entries, because there are over 20 separate listings for buildings and garden features as well as the house and whole park, listed by Historic England, is factual but rather dry. It simply doesn’t convey anything of the mix of grandeur and intimacy, awe, wonder and amusement or the silent but powerful “genius of the place” you encounter when walking around.
Nicholas Pevsner in his Buildings of England was impressed too: “if ever house and gardens must be regarded as one ensemble, it is here. Bramham is a grand and unusual house, but its gardens are grander and even more unusual.”
As usual the photos are mine unless otherwise attributed
The story of Bramham really begins in 1676 when Robert Benson, a babe in arms, inherited land from his father, a prominent Yorkshire lawyer. His mother remarried well, and in 1691, aged just 15 Robert was sent off to Cambridge, and then in 1693 on the Grand Tour to Italy and France. He came back full of ideas about Italian architecture and French garden design which, when he came of age, he slowly proceeded to put into practice at Bramham.
The house was built between 1698 and 1710. Unfortunately the description on the Historic England listing is incomprehensible to anyone who isn’t an architectural specialist and I can’t find a simpler one. Suffice it to say it is neither baroque nor typically Palladian in style but instead a wonderful amalgam of the two, with perhaps echoes of Chatsworth. All sorts of famous names have been suggested as architects or garden designers from William Talman and Giacomo Leoni to George London and Andre Le Notre, but the only one for whom there is documentary evidence is Thomas Archer who is known to have received payments from Benson in 1699 and 1700. It’s quite likely that Archer’s involvement was minimal given that it was expected that a gentleman should be able to design his own house and grounds, so it’s more than likely that Benson himself was the driving force behind the development of the estate which took place in the next 30 or so years until his death in 1731.
During that time he also developed a political career, entering Parliament as early as 1702 as a moderate Tory ally of Robert Harley, later Earl of Oxford. He rose rapidly to become Chancellor of the Exchequer and a Privy Councillor in 1711 before being raised to the peerage as Baron Bingley in 1713. The same year he was appointed ambassador to Spain although he never actually left England as he lost office after Queen Anne died in 1714 and George I replaced the Tory administration with a Whig one. He was also a director of the South Sea Company and an officer of the Royal Africa Company, which together enabled him to become immensely rich.
He left one legitimate child, a daughter Harriet who inherited a reputed £100,000 in cash as well as Bramham. A few months after his death she married George Fox, (later Fox Lane after inheriting land in Ireland in 1751) and they continued to ornament the estate but without altering the layout.
George Fox Lane was also MP for York but elevated to the peerage taking the same title as his late father-in-law, becoming the second Lord Bingley in 1762.
After that, time and Bramham largely stood still.
As their only son Robert died childless aged 36, Bramham was inherited by a spendthrift nephew, James Fox (later Lane Fox), who felled woodland and sold garden ornaments as he ran up huge gambling debts. It was soon almost over for the estate, when in 1828 a fire swept through the mansion while the family were away. Although some of the contents were saved the house was rendered uninhabitable and there was no spare cash to rebuild. Instead they left the remains standing and moved to nearby Bowcliffe Hall.
Bramham’s fortunes were slowly restored by George Lane Fox, known as “The Squire” who worked all his life to pay off his father’s debts and safeguard Bramham’s future, but it was not until 1906 that his grandson another George, a Tory cabinet minister and later Lord Bingley, called in the architect Detmar Blow to restore the mansion after 80 years of dereliction. The work took 8 years and is largely invisible from the exterior, with the exception of the central door on the north side. Soon afterwards the gardens, which were clearly in good shape, featured in Charles Holmes, The Gardens of England in the Northern Counties, as “a unique example of garden-making ; there is no other place of the same character in England.”
Bramham today is very much a working estate, and although the park is open to the public, things are handled very differently to every other stately home I’ve ever visited. Visitors turn off the main A1M and then enter the grounds via a long gated estate road. This runs through woodland, past estate cottages and Bramham Biggin, a large 17thc house altered by James Paine in the mid-18thc and now empty, before skirting round the parkland and arriving, almost unexpectedly in a courtyard at the far side of the house.
Passing by outbuildings you reach the estate office, pay for admission or show your Historic House membership card, and a door is unlocked to let you through several outhouse rooms to the colonnade at the side of the main house. From then on you are immersed in the very early 18thc.
It doesn’t take long to realise that most of the parkland, although highly geometric in layout is, by and large, not axially aligned with the mansion. The Parterre Garden directly in front of the mansion is the exception. Its level ground is cut into the hillside, and backed with a stone wall complete with a dragon-headed fountainhead that was once fed with water from a reservoir, known as Queens Hollow, slightly higher up, via a cascade.
As we’ll see Bramham is a garden that revels in water, in a wide range of ways and forms, almost always highly successfully. In this instance however things weren’t quite so simple.
In 2012 there were archaeological investigations of the cascade which, according to an estate plan of 1728, “falls 21 feet on thirty steps”. It failed to work consistently because of an inadequate water supply, and so was modified by the removal of almost all the steps and their replacement with a stone-capped culvert. However, this too seems to have failed and the culvert and cascade were covered over by the end of the 18th century. The Parterre has a sundial, two large columns and six urns all contemporary with the house and all listed.
The main axis of the whole garden- known as the Broadwalk – runs at right angles to the house. At one end, and close to the house, is the Chapel which was originally built as an orangery, for Lord Bingley’s daughter Harriet sometime between 1750 and 1762.
Designed by James Paine it has an Ionic columned portico, and peering through the window I could see some fine stucco work inside. There is also a lovely memorial to Harriet. The orangery was converted into a chapel at the same time that the house was being restored just before the First World War. In 1911 it had a garden nearby, although I couldn’t see any sign of it.
The other end of the Broadwalk stretches far into the distance, ending with an obelisk on a wooded hilltop . To reach it we’re going to follow a circuitous route round the formal gardens and their beech avenues or allees. It’s interesting to note the differences in height and training styles between 1911 and today, particularly the way that many of the hedging trees had been trained or allowed to grow into arches.
A long beech-hedged allee leads into the parkland from the chapel, meeting up with others in a diamond shaped opening around a life-sized statue of an unknown nymph or goddess.
Further on, at another intersection of several more allees, is the Four Faces Vase, 20ft high on a grand rusticated pedestal. A young woman’s face represents spring and a skull-like face representing winter.
From there, following the path between extremely tall beech hedges, and with a view out into the distant fields, an odd angled corner leads to the early 18thc Tuscan columned Open Temple.
It was built around 1750 and is credited to James Paine and faces down another avenue known as Quarter Mile Walk.
Further out the formal gardens are separated from the open fields beyond by a ha-ha, which runs for about 400 metres, and a bastion. This is reminiscent of Castle Howard which is roughly the same vintage. The bastion sits at the head of an extraordinary piece of water – the T-pond.
This consists of a long canal which joins, at an unusual angle, another wider rectangular pond at a slightly lower level. When the upper canal is full water flows over what is normally the footpath across the dam. Dug out in the 1730s the T-pond suits the phrase from the Roman poet Horace, which was so popular at the time, dulce et utile or both useful and beautiful.
Since the water is usually still it reflects the sky and its surroundings like a mirror, but also catches the light and reflects it back into the surrounding woodland.
The T-pond has a practical use too acting as a reservoir for the cascades which we’ll reach shortly, but also apparently supplying supply water to Queen’s Hollow, and thus the smaller cascade that ran into the Parterre garden.
There are views back to the house, while on the other side of the T-Pond, now standing in open grassland is an octagonal Gothic Temple.
The design for this was taken straight from Batty Langley’s Book of Gothic Architecture of 1742, but was probably built by local craftsmen for Harriet rather than being designed by Paine or another architect. [For more on Langley see these previous posts]
It still has original benches and mirrors inside but in a rather bizarre twist of fate it was adapted into a water tower in 1907, when the roof was removed, concrete beams installed in the ceiling and a huge cistern placed under a new roof.
In the Victorian era the Gothic Temple was surrounded by formal flower beds and a bowling green. For more about it see a lovely blogpost by the Folly Flaneuse who clearly knows Bramham well.
Its at this point that one realises quite how extensive the Bramham designed landscape is. Walking down from the Gothic Temple to rejoin the Broadwalk you reach the Obelisk Pond, although sadly these days it has lost its obelisk. It is another of the features inspired by what Bingham must have seen in French gardens, but is merely the first of a series of stone-walled pools that descend down a steep hill, with water flowing freely down from one to another through more dragon’s head fountains. Below the lowest pool are the remains of a long cascade. At the very bottom the water would have flowed away down the valley.
The Broadwalk continues – although it requires a climbing up a very steep bank on the other side – along a tree-lined walk before eventually reaching the Round House, a rotunda attributed to James Paine.
It sits atop a deep stone lined ha-ha, and was perhaps inspired by Kent’s temple of Ancient Virtue at Stowe.
Behind it, forming the long stop on the very long vista from the house is the obelisk erected in memory of Harriet’s only son Robert. It stands high on the rise, with ten different rides radiating out into the surrounding woodland known as Black Fen.
But even that is not the end of the landscape features because tucked away down one of these rides, and close to the open fields, is another temple-like shelter, known as Lead Lads Temple although the lead statues which decorated the roof, and after which it is named have long since been stolen. It’s a fairly plain structure dating from the 1750s and has recently been patched up.
The sun was going down as I headed back to the house following the same route as far as the Obelisk pond. It’s a very steep drop back down into the valley and back up to the pools the other side, although that’s not quite so obvious in the photos, but you can see the rocky remains of the long cascade, now covered in fallen leaves.
Had I had longer I could have taken a longer route, known as Lord Bingley’s walk, through woodland and around an open field. Maybe next time!
From the Obelisk Pond and taking the Boardwalk back to the house you pass the Museum, probably the latest and perhaps the quirkiest of the garden buildings. It has a date stone of 1845 and is in the early Gothic style.
It was probably built to house the collections of George Lane Fox, who despite being an inveterate gambler was also a cultured man. The contents included ‘specimens of Birds, Fish, Reptiles, Fragments of Animals, Organic Remains, Minerals, Shells, Fossils, Coins, Armour, War Implements, and a great variety of Miscellaneous Articles, highly valuable to the Antiquarian’. After his death in 1848 his heir tried to dispose of the collection but it failed to sell and so remained at Bramham until 1859 when it was donated to what became Leeds Museum where parts of it can still be seen. The museum building itself has recently been restored. The Folly Flaneuse has written a full account of the museum and its history which I highly recommend.
There is a large walled kitchen garden close to the house, & then perhaps the only incongruous features in the landscape, a small rose garden on one side of the house and an area of stone slabs and some low shrubs on the other. I suspect these were part of Detmar Blow’s “improvements” when the house was being restored but the as the guide sheet notes “the area is in poor condition and is due for renewal.”
Bramham is an extraordinary survival, but what is better still is that it is respected and conserved with love, and has been for generations. The George Lane Fox who invited Blow to restore the house died in 1947, and the house was inherited by his eldest daughter, Marcia, and her husband Francis Jackson,who in the best aristocratic tradition changed his name to Lane Fox. Usually known as “Colonel Joe”, he and Marcia started a programme of conservation including not only the repair of the buildings, ponds and stonework, but the replanting of trees on a grand scale.
They set the tone for future generations because this work has continued ever since and looks set to carry on.
What Bramham also proves is that places, especially gardens and parkland, change quite rapidly. Comparing the photos from 1911 with those of today gives a lie to the idea that places can be conserved unchanging. They simply can’t, but this doesn’t matter unduly if the attitude and principles underlying restoration and conservation remain true to the spirit of the place.
While thinking of how to conclude this post I couldn’t help comparing Bramham with other great estates, with Gibside of a similar vintage and scale coming to mind first. Both are now “safe”, but it is no disrespect to the National Trust to say that while Bramham would be protected and preserved in the their hands, it would not be, and could not be, quite so special. Gibside, like other Trust properties, is on a different route to being guarded for future generations, one which involves maximising visitor numbers and income and adapting the site to cope with that. It is probably a price worth paying to conserve such a wonderful site. However we should be grateful that Bramham does not need that, and while the wider park is used for horse trials and the Leeds Festival which attract large crowds and bring in income, long may its unique designed landscape stay accessible to all, but in the hands of such careful and sympathetic owners.