A Capability Brown landscape: Ugbrooke Park
PUBLISHED: 14:58 26 August 2016 | UPDATED: 14:58 26 August 2016
On the 300th anniversary of the the birth of Capability Brown, Catherine Courtenay meets the heir to his most famous Devon garden
Alexander clearly remembers the times when as a child he’d be taken around his home at Ugbrooke Park and his father, Lord Clifford, would show him how the trees were planted.
Owning a garden designed by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown puts the Clifford family in a unique position in the South West, and the magnitude of inheriting something so special certainly isn’t lost on the estate’s heir.
“The most incredible thing is his vision, the ability to know it would look like this,” he enthuses. “Maybe someone said to him, ‘I want my great, great grandchildren to see this’.”
After five years’ working in Australia, The Honourable Alexander Clifford returned to Devon last year to take over the running of the estate which includes an ongoing project to care for and renovate its Capability Brown landscape.
The grounds carry the designer’s iconic landmarks: a sweeping lake, clumps of stunning trees and individual specimens set among sloping hills, with views that lead the eye across to Dartmoor.
These days, visitors approach Ugbrooke from behind the main house. Gates off a lane, take you past a lake, up along a line of trees, before sweeping down to the house past its lavender garden and orangery. It’s beautiful, but it’s not the way Capability Brown imagined his arrival at the house.
To see it with Brown’s eyes, you need to approach from a set of iron gates alongside the A380, a few hundred yards before the official turning for Ugbrooke. An avenue of trees, replanted by the Clifford family to reflect Brown’s original scheme, leads from this gate, across and down a hill. As the road bends to the right, the lake is revealed; continuing around, a large, single tree breaks the view of the lake, causing you to glance to the right and then, finally, you see the house. It feels so natural, your eye passing over the idyllic scene - which is precisely why it’s so clever.
“This isn’t nature’s work, it’s Capability Brown’s work; but he’s understanding nature and how it works,” says Alexander. “It’s the flow I find incredible.” Alexander also appreciates the expansive views and changing of the seasons. Stood by the lake, looking back at the house he points out one of the ground floor windows. “That’s where I have my lunch and it astounds me how beautiful my view is. I get lost in it. It’s just fascinating. Every day is a different day in a Capability Brown park.”
The first to admit he’s not good at remembering the names of the various trees, Alexander nevertheless understands exactly why Brown’s planting works and is training his eye to uncovering the estate’s horticultural history – aided by the many old maps, if not many written details, of Brown’s Ugbrooke work. Plans for work undertaken by Brown date back to 1761 and it’s likely he also proposed designs for rebuilding the old house with architect Robert Adam. Alexander explains how Ugbrooke presented Brown with a unique set of challenges, one of which was the rolling Devon hills which hampered the designer’s characteristic earth moving activities. Then there was the ancient Castle Dyke Camp, a massive Iron Age earthwork which lies on the ridge of the hill, between Ugbrooke and the nearby town of Chudleigh.
“He couldn’t move the land like he did in other places and he respected the history of the encampment. In a way, he was working with the ancient history of the land to influence the future.”
Moving to Ugbrooke from her home in Australia, Alexander’s fiancée Caitlin Blake-Lane was unfamiliar with his landscapes but through studying his work she quickly began to translate them – to the point where she was the one to notice an oddly placed tree.
“It was put there for the millennium,” confesses Alexander, “and it is poorly planted. Capabilty Brown would never have planted it there!”
He’s both fully aware and sensitive to the problems of trying to juggle the estate’s famous legacy and its current needs.
“Brown was building Ugbrooke as a deer park; now it’s agricultural and a shooting estate, it has a different use,” he explains, indicating that whatever changes are made have to “respect the past, but embrace the present and future”.
Pondering the magnitude of why his family would commission someone to design a garden they’d never see reach maturity, he says. “People cared. They did it for their lineage. They wanted their family to mean something, to be here forever and impact on the landscape; it wasn’t about them individually. We are only custodians. We enjoy it now and will look after and enhance it for future generations.”
Spotting a Capability Brown Landscape
Brown and his contemporaries created what’s known as the English Landscape Garden. “It has been described as the art form that England contributed to the world,” says Dianne Long, chairman of Devon Gardens Trust, who has researched Brown’s West Country legacy.
She says, “His landscapes are the epitome of what we often think of as the English countryside. They have a serenity: one can know a lot or nothing about them and still enjoy them for what they are – a beautiful place to be.”
She decribes key features of a Capability Brown landscape:
Belts of trees on the perimeter. Often with carriage drives or circuit walks through them, and often screening less attractive areas. The trees were arranged to flow down the contours as they might naturally, and the belt might have breaks for vistas.
Both clumps and single trees. Trees were mostly hardwoods like oak, beech, elm, also ash and lime; there were also some Scots pine and larch, the Cedar of Lebanon (Cedrus libanii) was used as a focal specimen.
Water in the middle distance. He would dam streams to make a lake or creating artificial rivers where there was no water, disguising the ends with planting. The ha-ha or sunk fence. This was a way to hide the transition from formal lawns to agricultural land.
Brown in Devon
Mamhead, near Dawlish
In 1772 Lord Lisburne wrote to Brown, inviting him, “to come here, as I should be glad to make what improvements the scene is capable of under the Direction of a Genius whose Taste is so superior and unrivalled”. The house was damaged by fire in 1828 and rebuilt. Survivals from the eighteenth century include the orangery, probably the icehouse, kitchen garden, and obelisk erected in 1742 as a daymark for shipping.
The house was built for Arthur Holdsworth a Dartmouth merchant in about 1725. Now a relatively small landscape, Brown is thought to have given some designs in the 1750s for the lawns, plantations and pineapple house; his account for £113 was in the house in the 1920s but its whereabouts is now unknown.
Sharpham, near Totnes
The landscape has characteristics of Brown’s style, but there is, as yet, only circumstantial evidence of Brown having been involved, however, Brown’s eldest son, Lancelot, was MP for Totnes from 1780 to 1784.
Escot, near Ottery St Mary
This has sometimes been attributed to Brown but one of Devon Gardens Trust researcher, Barbie Moul, recently found that Nathaniel Richmond, a notable contemporary landscape designer, sometimes described as an associate of Brown, was paid by Escot’s owner Sir George Yonge.