Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1716-1783) was an English landscape architect during the 18th century, responsible for the spectacular parkland and gardens found in around 170 palaces, mansions and country estates. Visiting wealthy landowners, he often announced their estates had great ‘capabilities’, hence his nickname. The landscape architect extraordinaire almost singlehandedly created the character of the quintessential English landscape, indeed it has been said that it is hard to find an English country house that Brown did not have a hand in designing.
His work, revolutionary in its day, moved away from the traditional French formal style – all clipped and controlled hedges, offset by topiary and carefully constructed flowerbeds – towards the fashionable creation of a green and pleasant land.
Notionally this was to help his clients reduce the astronomical labour costs involved in maintaining the more formal gardens. However his work was all artifice, Brown created a vision of the English landscape apparently untouched by human hand, but the reality was very different.
He may not have moved mountains to create his vision of the pastoral idyll, but he moved practically everything else, and he worked on an epic scale! Brown diverted rivers so that they would follow a serpentine path, constructed artificial lakes that looked as though they had been there for centuries, and demolished and re-constructed hills to create long and undulating green vistas.
If this wasn’t enough he practised architecture, designing and constructing follies, bridges and artful ruins that acted as exquisite visual accents in his romantic landscapes. He planted woods, copses, and lone trees, all designed to perfectly complement the view, to shroud the unpleasant, to guide the eye, and provide focal points. The ha-ha – an invisible ditch that keeps livestock contained – was an important component of his art, helping to create the impression of the pastoral idyll. His obituary perfectly illustrated his art: “where is the happiest man he will be least remembered, so closely did he copy nature his works will be mistaken.”
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Trentham, Staffordshire, for keen photographers
At the heart of pretty Trentham Gardens, situated four miles from Stoke-on-Trent, is a mile-long lake with cascading weir, designed by Capability Brown during the 21 years he worked here. Any visitor today should bring along a camera. There is a wealth of photo opportunities – the Floral Labyrinth is a photographer’s dream. If you need a willing model to pose for you, check out the cheeky chappies at Monkey Forest on the estate. Younger family members will love the fairy trail, and adventure playground with maze and zip wire.
Best for: snap-happy gardeners.
Also good for: shoppers – enjoy some retail therapy at the shopping village on Trentham Estate. There’s a garden centre too.
For more details: Trentham Gardens
Hampton Court, Surrey, for a huge grape vine
You’ll find grapes galore every August on the Great Vine at Hampton Court Palace, 13 miles south of central London. The impressive Black Hamburg vine, measuring four metres around the base and with a rod over 36 metres long, is said to be the largest grape vine in the world – and was planted in 1768 when ‘Capability’ Brown was George III’s chief royal gardener. Capability Brown lived in Wilderness House on the estate until his death in 1783, aged 67. The property now boasts an English Heritage Blue Plaque.
Best for: fruit growing enthusiasts.
Also good for: young historians – a magic garden, puzzle trails and a chocolate kitchen will ensure all the family have fun.
For more details: Hampton Court Palace
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Blenheim Palace. Photograph: Amra Pasic / Shutterstock.com
Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, for big ambitions
If the magnificent Baroque palace at Blenheim, near Woodstock, doesn’t leave you speechless – and it truly deserves its UNESCO World Heritage Site status – then the surrounding striking parkland surely will. Spanning over 2000 acres, the elaborate landscape at Blenheim is considered by many as Capability Brown’s finest work – it’s certainly one of his biggest. Find out more about Brown’s designs on a self-guided trail. Or take a traditional horse and carriage ride so you can view the park as it was intended.
Best for: Brown’s biggest fans – this is his work on a great grand scale.
Also good for: Winston Churchill admirers – the former Prime Minister was born at Blenheim. A memorial garden celebrates his life and legacy.
For more details: Blenheim Palace
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Weston, Staffordshire, for pleasure seekers
For an 18th-century garden to be perfect, it had to include a kitchen garden, orchard, park, pleasure grounds, orangery and menagerie – and ‘Capability’ Brown ensured these all featured in his detailed plans for Weston in Weston-under-Lizard. The pleasure grounds – Temple Wood and Shrewsbury Walk – continue to live up to their name today, and the walled kitchen garden, laid out by Brown, still provides the head chief with fruit and herbs. A fun way to enjoy Brown’s woodland is on Merlin, a miniature train.
Best for: jovial walkers.
Also good for: a weekend stay – accommodation is available in the Temple of Diana. Brown’s menagerie of exotic birds was in the property’s grounds.
For more details: Weston Park
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Stowe, Buckinghamshire, for gardening inspiration
A slow meander around the Grecian Valley in the gardens at Stowe House, Buckinghamshire, will transport you back to the 18th century, to the time when an unknown Lancelot Brown was promoted to head gardener and given his first commission. The result - monuments, temples and breathtaking views over rolling hills, which have inspired gardeners and visitors ever since. One fan, Catherine the Great, was keen to replica Brown’s designs in St Petersburg. While at Stowe, Capability Brown married his wife, Bridget Wayet – the Parish Church is in the gardens.
Best for: National Trust members - see where Brown’s career all began.
Also good for: Greek mythology lovers – find out more about the Paths of Virtue and Vice, and Hercules’ dilemma between good and bad.
For more details: Stowe
Harewood, west Yorkshire, for a spot of romance
Want to woo a special someone? Then head to Harewood, near Leeds, and together take in the idyllic view over 1000 acres of parkland, complete with 32-acre serpentine lake and cascading waterfall. Artist JMW Turner was certainly impressed by Capability Brown’s designs and captured the romantic scene in one of his famous works. Love birds may also enjoy a visit to the Bird Garden, with its parrots, owls, flamingos and penguins. A new farm experience also allows you to meet a family of pygmy goats, pot-bellied pigs and alpacas.
Best for: old romantics with a young Dr Dolittle in tow.
Also good for: telly addicts – Harewood House featured in Brideshead Revisited, and the village of Emmerdale is set in Harewood Estate.
For more details: Harewood
About Lancelot 'Capability' Brown
Born in Northumberland, Lancelot Brown left school at 16 and worked as an apprentice to the Head Gardener at Kirkharle Hall in the same county. At the age of 23 he headed south, and undertook his first landscape commission at Kiddington Hall in Oxfordshire. At 26 he moved into the employ of Lord Cobham as under gardener at Stowe, working with William Kent, one of the founders of the new school of English landscape design.
Brown was Head Gardener at Stowe from 1742-1750, being paid the exalted sum of £25 per year and Lord Cobham allowed him to supplement his income with freelance commissions from the landed gentry. By 1751 he had established a considerable reputation and he struck out alone, and though his style has fallen in and out of fashion over the last three hundred years, he is now regarded as the most celebrated English landscape architect of the 18th century.
Visit the Days Out in the UK section for more wonderful day trip ideas, including the best Royal palaces and medieval castles and our pick of the best National Trust gardens
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