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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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?

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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?

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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?

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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?

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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.”

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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.

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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!

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

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

Howick Hall Gardens, Northumberland

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There’s  nothing I like better than a well-made cup of tea – well, actually there are quite a lot of things if I’m honest, but it’s still exciting to have a cup of Earl Grey tea in the family home of Earl Grey himself, Howick Hall. It was the poshest tea room I’ve been in.

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Howick Hall Gardens is just on the edge of the Northumberland coast. We’d been walking right by the sea earlier and spotted the Bathing House, completely isolated but amazingly well designed and built so it was perhaps not a surprise to find out later that afternoon that it went with the hall. The ‘teamaker’ was actually the second Earl Grey, and he and his wife, Mary had 15 children. Desperately unhappy at school himself, he’d educated them all at home, at Howick. The Bathing House had been built for them, just one of the innovations to ensure that they flourished in the outdoors, and also perhaps part of a creation of the perfect childhood the Earl must have wished he’d had.

The story of the Earl’s children sums up the charm of the garden for me – it has a very personal and nourishing atmosphere. If I could describe it, I would say it was a ‘slow garden’, but in the best possible way. Although now open to the public, it still very much has a feeling of a family sanctuary. The 65 acres have been developed at different times by different generations. Charles, the Fifth Earl, and his wife Mabel, probably made the most impression, establishing the informal and natural style of gardening you can see now. It’s like a living example of the late 19th century gardening expert, William Robinson, author of the influential The Wild Gardening, and campaigner against Victorian regimented bedding schemes. The resulting garden is a curious mixture of lucky surprise and serious botanical research. For example, the beautiful bog garden began when a pipe burst and it was found that plants seemed to like to grow there.

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However many of the other plant and tree specimens in the garden are the result of specific plant finding expeditions over several decades the family ran in conjunction with the Quarryhill Botanical Garden in California. There are over 1,800 different species to be found in the gardens, all grown from seed collected in the wild from expeditions to India and Pakistan, North America, the Southern Hemisphere and Europe amongst other countries. Many of the expeditions to China and Japan were led by The Royal Botanic Garden at Kew, and a full computerised database is planned to be available on the website at some time in the future. So despite the relaxed atmosphere, this isn’t just what my mum used to call ‘a family doing its best’… In fact, seed is still exchanged from Howick with all the major international botanic gardens.

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So this is less an arboretum than an encyclopedia, or as the website says: ‘A United Nation of trees and shrubs’.

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The most famous Earl Grey was the father of 15 (mentioned above), Prime Minister from 1830 to 1834 and remembered for his work on the reform of Government, possibly the father of British democracy. I don’t know how much time he spent at Howick, but I did read that as a director of the railway company, he had a private halt nearby to make it convenient to get off the train from London! During his time as Prime Minister, his administration also worked to help abolish slavery in the British Empire, and I could easily imagine him walking through his own bit of paradise here in Northumberland as he fought to help others living such a different existence from him.

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The family still live there, albeit in a wing rather than the main house, and on the day we went, the current Lady Howick’s private gardens were on show. Not a bad wing…

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…although we had to watch out for hares. Actually we did see one earlier, quite magic, but it was too fast to photograph! We also saw a red squirrel. Amazing how animals can make your heart stop for a minute. Probably especially when they are in your carefully maintained flower beds.

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It’s hard to imagine the garden looking better than it did in unexpected British sun with the wildflowers in full flower, but I would like to see it in spring too when the tulips are out too – apparently there are drifts so beautiful that Joyce Grenfell (a distant relation to the family by marriage) left money for their upkeep in her will.

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And it was touching to walk through the West Arboretum and visit the church to find the grave of the five French sailors who lost their lives when the steam trawler Tadorne was wrecked on the nearby beach. The family rushed down to the sea to help the rescue parties. There really is history everywhere.

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But what I can’t stop thinking about is the Long Walk, which leads from the garden down to the beach. Apparently, on the first full moon in July after the tenth birthday of each of the 2nd Earl Grey’s children, they were made to run up the Long Walk at midnight to bring back a flower of the Grass of Parnassus which only grew at one spot on the cliff. Presumably this was designed to build up character.

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I couldn’t quite work out whether, for a child, this would be extremely frightening or exciting! It would make a great story though.

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So here’s a piece from Wind in the Willows on Mole’s night time adventure in the Wild Woods.

There was nothing to alarm him at first entry. Twigs crackled under his feet, logs tripped him, funguses on stumps resembled caricatures, and startled him for the moment by their likeness to something familiar and far away; but that was all fun, and exciting. It led him on, and he penetrated to where the light was less, and trees crouched nearer and nearer, and holes made ugly mouths at him on either side.

Everything was very still now. The dusk advanced on him steadily, rapidly, gathering in behind and before; and the light seemed to be draining away like flood-water.

Then the faces began.

It was over his shoulder, and indistinctly, that he first thought he saw a face; a little evil wedge-shaped face, looking out at him from a hole. When he turned and confronted it, the thing had vanished.

He quickened his pace, telling himself cheerfully not to begin imagining things, or there would be simply no end to it. He passed another hole, and another, and another; and then–yes!– no!–yes! certainly a little narrow face, with hard eyes, had flashed up for an instant from a hole, and was gone. He hesitated–braced himself up for an effort and strode on. Then suddenly, and as if it had been so all the time, every hole, far and near, and there were hundreds of them, seemed to possess its face, coming and going rapidly, all fixing on him glances of malice and hatred: all hard-eyed and evil and sharp.

If he could only get away from the holes in the banks, he thought, there would be no more faces. He swung off the path and plunged into the untrodden places of the wood.

Then the whistling began.

Very faint and shrill it was, and far behind him, when first he heard it; but somehow it made him hurry forward. Then, still very faint and shrill, it sounded far ahead of him, and made him hesitate and want to go back. As he halted in indecision it broke out on either side, and seemed to be caught up and passed on throughout the whole length of the wood to its farthest limit. They were up and alert and ready, evidently, whoever they were! And he–he was alone, and unarmed, and far from any help; and the night was closing in.

Then the pattering began.

 

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And here’s a poem about the different side of gardening!

Maybe it’s better to go wild than be corseted
in bedding displays, stamped on and bruised
for your smell, deadheaded. No wonder thorns
protect tender buds, sap weeps, tendrils wave,

and was this why Eve took a chance, left paradise
before stagnation seeped into half-starved soil
just as every year, the bravery of the lone tulip
snaps a true gardener’s heart in two?

Garden: Howick Hall Gardens, Alnwick, Northumberland, NE66 3LB – Website here.
Month visited: July 2013.