The Celebrated English Gardens of Capability Brown

A guide to discovering Brown's famous works, including the gardens of Downton Abbey's Highclere Castle

This year a celebratory festival marks the 300th anniversary of the UK's first ever celebrity gardener: the 18th-century landscape designer Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown.

Brown pioneered a naturalistic style of gardening that was seen as radical in a time of geometric formal gardens. It quickly caught on, becoming world-famous as the quintessentially English look. He transformed both public and private spaces across London the UK, including Althorp in Northamptonshire—the childhood home of Diana Princess of Wales—and Hampshire's Highclere Castle, a major location for the ITV period drama “Downton Abbey”.

Other famous venues he transformed include Warwick Castle, 1,800 acres of parkland at Ickworth House, and London's Syon Park (reopening 14 March).

Ickworth House, UK
Majestic approach to Ickworth House, beautiful all year round (©Visit Britain)

“Brown’s work was ground-breaking,” said Ceryl Evans, director of the year-long Capability Brown Festival 2016. This £1.7 million event, running throughout the year, has a busy program of tours, talks, exhibitions and openings.

“He blended art and engineering, and moved mountains of earth and villages, to create beautiful naturalistic landscapes which are still much admired today. He is associated with more than 250 sites across England and Wales,” said Evans—not counting the many more parks and gardens around the world inspired by his work.

His success is impressive even before you consider it was achieved with just workmen and horses, before mechanisation.

Baptised in the sleepy village of Kirkharle in Northumberland on August 30, 1716, Brown was the sixth child of a yeoman farmer. Despite humble beginnings, he quickly became England's greatest freelance gardener. In 1764 he was hired as the master gardener of Hampton Court Palace under King George III. The nickname arose from Brown's habit of insisting each landscape he surveyed held much “capability” for improvement.

'Capability' Brown 300 anniversary celebration
Lancelot 'Capability' Brown, 18th-century landscape gardner extraordinaire (©Cosway)

Highclere Castle

Synonymous with the BBC TV series “Downton Abbey”, the Victorian mansion Highclere Castle is the Berkshire home of the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon. Lying 70 miles west of London, this was built in 1842, set in 1,000 acres of parklands and gardens designed by Capability Brown. It's punctuated with 18th-century ‘follies’—whimsical buildings constructed primarily for decoration.

Highclere Castle, UK
Capability Brown created hills, planted trees, and altered the landscape of famous gardens (©Highclere Castle)

Lady Fiona, the Countess of Carnarvon, told us her highlights:  

“The views from the lawns south to Siddown Hill are just breathtaking,” she said. "It is something about the serpentine expanse of the green parkland leading you eye and trees framing the views. The flat tops of cedar trees float across the woods, which are mainly beech and oak. Then leaving the park, visitors pass by the Temple of Diana and Dunmsere Lake which is currently being restored—a key part of the vision for the park.

Later this year they are hosting “Capability Brown at Highclere," (15-22 May) which includes an exclusive castle and garden tour, revealing the way he planned to lead you through the landscape.

Highclere Castle, UK
During the Capability Brown at Highclere festival you can get a special insight into the gardens (©Highclere Castle)

“Most the garden scenes in ‘Downton Abbey’ were filmed here, even if they pretend it is somewhere else in the TV series,” Lady Fiona reveals. “You see characters in the wild flower meadow or Maggie Smith sitting in the secret garden. They also filmed the hunt scenes in the park, so viewers get a chance to see more of the wider landscape too.”

Blenheim Palace 

The birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill, Blenheim Palace, 62 miles northwest of London, is an 18th-century Oxfordshire Palace, built in English baroque style by architect Sir John Vanbrugh. By 1764 its gardens needed a revamp and Capability Brown was enlisted. Visitors can delve into the story in the exhibition “Capability Brown 2016”, 13 Feb-2 May.

Blenheim Palace, UK
Brown planted trees to 'hide and reveal' the best parts of the palace's grounds (©Blenheim Palace)

"Brown had the park surveyed in 1763,” said Blenheim's Head of Education Karen Wiseman, who put the exhibition together.  “He had much to work with: 2,000 acres of park stocked with a variety of trees, a lake, a canal system, avenues of trees, and formal gardens—largely the work of the famous gardener Henry Wise and much admired, sketched and painted," she said.

Brown’s work was extensive: He built a dam by sinking the canal beneath a great lake, which was an extensive piece of civil engineering. While the dam was under construction, site workers dug and shaped the land, lining the lake with layers of puddle clay." Clay, which she explains was trampled "by a large herd of sheep" and smoothed by an army of labourers.

"Brown planted trees around the park and lake to hide and reveal beautiful views of the Palace," said Wiseman. "He imagined the Duke travelling around by horseback or carriage, so it's from this height the views were designed to be their best." 

Blenheim Palace gardens, UK
Flowers adorn the gardens at Blenheim Palace throughout the year (©Visit Britain)

Luton Hoo 

The Bedfordshire country house Luton Hoo, 34 miles north of London, was transformed into 228 room five-star hotel in 2007 during a £60 million restoration. The neoclassical Robert Adam mansion dates back to 1767, but as work was done on the house, Capability Brown was enlarging the grounds and damming the River Lea to create two picturesque lakes.

Now spanning 1,000 acres, the massive project of returning the estate to its former glory included restoring Brown designs like the terraced gardens, gravel pathways, ornamental ponds, sweeping formal lawns and boxed hedges. One such key feature is Brown's stunning five-acre octagonal Walled Garden now offering up flowers, fruit, vegetables, herbs and honey to hotel guests.

Another is an ingenious brick "Ha-ha".

“Brown often used Ha-has in his design,” said Evans. “These are dry ditches, or sunken fences, which divide formal gardens from landscaped parks without interrupting the view. They are often used to keep livestock off certain parts of an estate. The phrase 'ha-ha' is also how laughter is written in English, so it's also an amusing play upon words.”

You may recognise Luton Hoo, its grounds and mile-long Lime Tree Avenue from famous productions like “War Horse”, “Gosford Park” and “The Secret Garden”.