The Landscaping of our Valley
Two men were mainly responsible for Staunton Harold as it looks today. The first Earl Ferrers began converting his Jacobean house into a Palladian mansion, and laid out the gardens around it in the geometric pattern of terraces and parterres as we see it on the Kyp engraving of about 1700. The fifth earl, between 1760 and his death in 1779, completed the transformation of the house, and swept away all the garden created by his predecessor. His lawns ran right up to the house, he created a serpentine lake running down the valley, and the vistas to the east and north were turned into a vast parkland, studded with trees.
This was the English landscape style, whose most famous proponent was William ‘Capability’ Brown, born three hundred years ago this year. Brown carried out prodigious works at more than one hundred and seventy properties, but there is no evidence that he was directly involved at Staunton. I suspect that the earl was his own designer, following the trend of the times.
Successive earls made few changes, except for the creation of the ‘Wilderness’ Wood on the eastern side in the early nineteenth century. The tenth earl lived beyond his means and bequeathed an estate much in debt by the time he died in 1911. A deer park spanned both sides of the Serpentine Lake and, as my father told me, when the deer escaped during the First World War, there was neither money nor men to retrieve them. The land to the west of the lake was turned over to the farm tenant, but the eastern side was fenced off, and over the next fifty years became dense woodland. Meanwhile individual trees and clumps in the parkland began to die off, and were not replaced.
Since my family bought into the estate in 1955 we have steadily replanted parkland trees, to a pattern loosely based on the early OS maps. More recently we have thinned out the woodland by the lake and turned it back into parkland. How would ‘Capability’ Brown rate our efforts? He’d say we have left too many trees in the one area, and not planted fast enough in the other. And if he’s around on the 23rd June he’ll be amazed that we ever got into bed with all those foreign johnnies, and declare us quite ‘capable’ of managing our own affairs.