Majestic. Standing proudly in the landscape, silhouetted against a bright Spring sky. Many preparing to burst forth with that first flush of greenery that heralds the oncoming summer. Others, still standing, but unlikely to remain that way for much longer. The sap no longer rises as it once did. They will fall where they stand or—more likely—felled as a potential hazard to the public.
Others lie on their sides, like beached ships, slowly rusting away, a pathetic shadow of their former glory.
These are remains of an Oak Plantation planted in the 1720s at Hanbury Hall, a magnificent early 18th century house now owned by the National Trust, just seven miles from our home in Bromsgrove in northeast Worcestershire. A few hundred meters away from these oak trees stands the hall, overlooking a parkland outside the surrounding ha-ha, that the original builder of Hanbury, Thomas Vernon would never have seen. Designed by George London, what we experience today at Hanbury, three hundred years on, as is the case at similar ‘stately homes’ across the country, was just merely a vision in his mind’s eye.
The Hanbury Ha-ha and park
So many who commissioned great houses, gardens, and parks died before their dreams were realised, and long before their visions of a transformed landscape could be appreciated to the full. Only third or fourth generation custodians perhaps would have really begun to appreciate what was originally intended when the house, gardens, and park were laid out. In the beginning each would have been a massive building site and earthworks, and a nascent park with saplings dotted around and about.
Take the exploits of Capability Brown for example, who was responsible in the mid-18th century for the transformation of so many natural landscapes nationwide. Croome Court, southeast of Worcester (and about 15 miles due south from Hanbury), was his very first commission, for the 6th Earl of Coventry, and the ‘river’ that was excavated by hand alone took 12 years to complete. Some of the trees that Brown planted can still be seen at Croome today.
Steph and I have now visited quite a number of National Trust properties throughout England (and Wales) and this idea of vision and imagination is strongly reinforced by examples such Stowe in Buckinghamshire and Berrington Hall in Herefordshire, Calke Abbey in Derbyshire, Dudmaston Hall in Shropshire, and Dyrham Park in Gloucestershire, besides Hanbury and Croome.
A more recent (150 years ago) example is Cragside, near Rothbury in Northumberland, built in the the late 19th century by William, 1st Baron Armstrong and his wife. The mock-Tudor mansion overlooks a wooded valley and one of the largest rock gardens in Europe, carved out of the rugged Northumbrian moorland. At Cragside, the Armstrongs planted more than seven million trees. Today, the house nestles comfortably in this landscape, seemingly for all time.
The tradition of landscape renewal continues under the National Trust. At Hanbury, for example, there are young saplings all around the park, protected (presumably against grazing by deer, maybe sheep) by picket fences. Impressively, the Trust is also recreating the Long Walk leading downhill from the Hall in a northeasterly direction.
However, these full effect of these recent plantings will not be realised for many decades to come. I applaud the continuation, by the National Trust, of this wonderful tradition of leaving something behind in the landscape, just as those who built and nurtured these magnificent properties did, centuries ago.