garden tales from a Brit abroad
The year 2016 will mark three hundred years since the birth of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, and plans are being put in place to celebrate this greatest of England’s landscape designers. Today I visited his birthplace, at Kirkharle. It was here in this small corner of Northumberland that Brown first learnt to appreciate and understand the countryside that was to inspire his work.
First signs at Kirkharle aren’t promising. The small house where Brown was born is now a car park. The grand Hall, for which he designed the grounds, was largely demolished in the nineteenth century, leaving just a wing that became a farmhouse. Since then, a major road has sliced the small estate in two. In any event, Brown’s design was never installed.
And yet Kirkharle proved a delightful half-day visit. The old agricultural barns and byres that surrounded the farmhouse have been saved from dereliction and turned into the Kirkharle Courtyard, a collection of small workshops, galleries and a nice little café all branded under the Capability Brown name, and accompanied by a small but informative exhibition about Brown’s work at Kirkharle and elsewhere. Most interestingly for me, the unrealised Brown plan for the grounds at Kirkharle has now been installed. Starting in 2010, his distinctive proposals for a serpentine lake, groups of broadleaf trees and conifers, undulating turf and carefully composed vistas were finally laid out in the fields behind the courtyard. Unlike the painstaking installation of another unrealised Brown plan at Heveningham Hall, the work at Kirkharle is more a modern interpretation of his intentions than a close rendering of the original plan. But it seemed to me a commendable exercise to take a fairly slight Brown project and consider how the great place-maker might have laid out the grounds if he were alive today. The site is developing well and a circular walk encourages its exploration, with helpful – if woefully ungrammatical – signs.
Of course such a project does not come cheap, and a mass of sponsors and supporters has been necessary to fund everything from the restoration of the barns and the exhibition to the newly laid-out lake. I wish the Kirkharle Lake and Courtyard project well. The tercentenary of Brown’s birth in three years is an important opportunity to revaluate Brown’s contribution to British, and indeed international, landscape history; this thriving little venture at his birthplace in Kirkharle can only help the celebrations.