A visit to Kirkharle – where Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown began


So, the above might not be the picture of a garden you’re expecting from the birthplace of the man who has been called the ‘Shakespeare of Gardening’ but the house that Lancelot Brown was born in was once situated where this car park now stands.


It’s at Kirkharle Hall in Northumberland which was owned by Sir William Loriane when the Brown’s were tenant farmers on the estate. Lancelot started at the Hall as ‘gardener’s boy’ at the age of 16, and it was from here that he moved to work with Lord Cobham at Stowe. It was the start of a journey that changed much of the shape of British landscape as we know it today.


Although there’s not much of the original hall left and the outbuildings are now a thriving crafts centre, it still retains a strong link with Capability Brown. That’s his portrait in the sign above.


And in fact, the grounds are being landscaped to follow what is thought to be Brown’s first design – rather wonderfully found by accident amongst old papers by the current owner of Kirkharle in 1980.


The place is part commercial, part educational, with the balance – at the moment – just right.


What I wanted out of the trip – aside from a pot of Capability Brown handcream and cashmere socks – was to get a feeling of what shapes an artist’s vision (and in my book, gardens are definitely art). Is it possible to find this out from looking direct at what they might have seen as a child?


This window for example is in the Church where Lancelot Brown was baptised in 1716 and which, as the child of an estate worker, I’m guessing he must have spent much of every Sunday. Did he look at the window and dream of a view just seen through a solid frame?


And then there’s the spot in the Churchyard where his grandparents are buried. Did it give him the idea of seclusion in the midst of openness?

walk to school

Here’s the way he would have walked to his school in Cambo, two miles back and forth every day. Was it just too much of a straight trudge for those little legs, and did he sometimes dream of a more serpentine trail?


I can’t find a record of his school achievements, but I’m guessing grammar was well taught. A conversation with Hannah More in 1782 shows this: “‘Now there,’ said he, pointing his finger, ‘I make a comma, and there’ pointing at another spot, ‘where a more decided turn is proper, I make a colon; at another part, where an interruption is desirable to break the view, a parenthesis; now a full stop, and then I begin another subject.”


But what’s for sure is this monument almost next to his house, and dedicated to one of the Loraine ancestors would have played a large part in a small boy’s imagination. It reads: “In memory of Robert Loraine his ancestor who was Barborously Murder’d in this place by the Scots in 1483”. The monument was established in 1728 (when Lancelot was just 12), and records how Robert Loraine had been coming back from the church when he was attacked by Scottish ‘barbarians’ who cut his body up into pieces small enough to stuff into his horse’s saddlebags and then sent the horse back to the house. Makes me shudder even now. Perhaps it was averting his eyes from this, or even forcing himself to look, that led to his sight breaks in otherwise solid lines.


Oh look, there are still ‘rebels’ who don’t obey the boundaries… (That’s one of Lancelot’s famous ‘ha-ha’s’ by the way. I don’t think the sheep knows that though!) This free spiritedness of the inhabitants of the Northumberland countryside was always bound to create someone who didn’t always follow the rules!


And, of course, clumps of trees and surprises everywhere.


So although – this is becoming a habit – traditionally not a garden, Kirkharle feels an important place to visit for anyone interested in garden history. There’s also the wildlife, the plants, the wild natural beauty.

80 years

And the other people. This couple are in their 80s but had driven here from Newcastle. We’d seen them laughing and talking together in the cafe earlier – they were flirting with each other as warmly as if on a first date so it was wonderful to find out after just how long they’d been married! Garden visiting does this to you, I’m sure…


My research into Capability Brown is personal at the moment. I’m planning a novel about his wife, Biddy Brown, who was born on the other side of the country, in Boston in Lincolnshire.


I’ve visited her birthplace too – and although her childhood house has been demolished too, there is one house of that period left in the square she lived in and it’s known she was close friends with the inhabitants. Look how different it is in appearance from Kirkharle Hall. At the time they met (1737) Boston was the second busiest port after London and Biddy was the sister of a well-to-do merchant, soon to be mayor. I can’t help wondering how much she must have influenced Capability Brown, especially as I learnt that the plant collector, Joseph Banks came from Boston too and although younger, was undoubtedly a friend of Biddy’s family. Did she perhaps introduce him to Brown? So much more to find out!

And so here’s a poem for you – inspired by childhoods, and gardens, and grammar!

Garden Punctuation
Sarah Salway

Peace is the line of a horizon
shaped like the story of soil,
written without breaking the rhythm,
commas and full stops so carefully placed
that all you hear is the swell of the view,

and it’s as green and moist as night grass,
a memory of lying, legs akimbo, watching stars
and you point out the Plough and the Bear,
although you don’t have to do anything
but sink deep into the ground, looking up

as you feel the heft of the land under,
and there’s nothing to see here but green,
the trees gently rock you, air strokes you,
water sparkles, sun warm on your back,
and for this moment, you’re safe,

only the end of day to make for, each hour
planted with capabilities, until later
walking along the path, grass under toes,
you watch circling birds ready to migrate,
in tune with a world that keeps turning.