Wandering along the tranquil River Wye at The Weir Garden

Sitting down yesterday, enjoying a DIY cup of coffee at the The Weir Garden (a few miles west of Hereford), I commented to my wife that we had to be thankful for the eccentricities of the former owners of many of the National Trust’s properties.

I’d picked up a copy of the Trust’s Spring 2017 magazine and there on the cover was a photo of an exceedingly eccentric individual: the 5th Marquess of Anglesey, Henry Paget (whose country estate was Plas Newydd on Anglesey that we will visit in September on our way to Holyhead, and a week’s tour of National Trust properties in Northern Ireland). They could pander to their eccentricities because they were wealthy. And many of them spent their wealth—often to their ruin—in developing large houses and estates, and filling them with the most wonderful artefacts. That’s what we can enjoy today thanks to the work of the National Trust.

A Weir Estate is recorded from the reign of Henry VII in the late 15th century. But the Romans were there over 1000 years earlier, and the remains of a villa or temple have been excavated on the banks of the River Wye that flows past.

The Weir Garden was originally laid out at the end of the 18th century, but it wasn’t until the 20th when wealthy Roger Parr became owner did the garden really flourish. He revitalised the walled garden, installing a state-of-the art (for the 1920s) glasshouse. The house is now a nursing home, and has been ever since the estate became the property of the National Trust in 1959.

The south-facing Garden is certainly worth a visit, and must surely show different ‘faces’ at different times of the year. There are few formal parts—a small rock garden surrounded by elegant Acers—but mostly the garden, laid out on the steep slopes along the river below the house, is woodland with oaks, London plane trees and a few tulip trees dominating the landscape. And as the paths weave their way through the woodland, there are vistas over the River Wye east and west. What a river; fast flowing, but clear as a bell, and no doubt full of trout and other fish. There is a report of an eight foot sturgeon having once been caught in the vicinity in the 19th century.

These photos (and a short video) are my take on The Weir Garden in early July, according to the locations indicated on the map above.

(2) Rustic hut

(3) Rockery

(4) Viewing bridge

(6) River meadow and (7) River wall

(10) Roman ruins

(15) Walled garden and Foster & Pearson glasshouse

Rooms open to the sky

Norman. Medieval. Tudor. Georgian. ‘Modern’.

Greys Court is a National Trust property a few miles west of Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire. Owned by the Trust since 1969, and most recently the family home of the Brunners (first baronet and industrialist Sir John Brunner was co-founder of a chemical company that merged with others in 1926 to form Imperial Chemical Industries – ICI – in the UK). We spent three hours at Greys, taking the noon tour (that covers just the ground floor rooms) but returned later in the afternoon to explore the house more thoroughly including the library and bedrooms upstairs.

There has been a dwelling here for almost 1000 years. Greys Court today is an attractive brick and flint Tudor country house that underwent some embellishments during the 18th century. From the front of the house there are views over the Chilterns countryside.

Greys Court was erected by Sir Francis Knollys, a courtier under Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Elizabeth I. In 1724 it became the property of the Stapleton family who lived there until 1937 when it was bought by Liberal politician Sir Felix Brunner (third baronet and grandson of Sir John) and his wife Lady Elizabeth. She was the granddaughter of the famous Victorian actor Sir Henry Irving. Lady continued to live at Greys Court until her death in 2003.

The house is full of Brunner memorabilia, not the property of the National Trust. Photography is unfortunately (from my blogging perspective) not permitted inside the house. The plasterwork ceiling in the downstairs reception room dates from the 18th century when the height of the room was increased, and a crenellated two floor semicircular extension was added, clearly.

But the exteriors are delightful, and the small but exquisite garden excites the senses. Because Lady Brunner developed the gardens to explore, to entice, to delight, they were set out as a series of ‘rooms’ connected by gates or doors that invited the visitor to open and see what lay on the other side. One can walk through a wisteria arbour, 150 years old, wander between the silence of the White Garden (under the Great Tower), and check out the orchard and vegetable plots, all surrounded by brick and flint walls.

Outside the garden is a brick path maze (no hedges!), ‘symbolizing the journey through life’, dedicated by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, in 1981.

In the grounds there is a Tudor wheelhouse with a donkey wheel, drawing water up some 200 feet, and still in operation until 1914.

At the entrance there was a hand-written welcome sign to the property extolling the friendliness of the staff. And they were!

 

Croft Castle – spanning the dynasties

Just over seven weeks ago, on a sunny early April morning, we headed west from our home in Bromsgrove in northeast Worcestershire, to visit the National Trust’s Berrington Hall in Herefordshire, about 8 miles due south of Ludlow (that’s in Shropshire).

Yesterday, on what was probably the hottest day of the year so far, and without a cloud in the sky, we headed in the same direction, to another National Trust property, Croft Castle and Parkland, just five miles northwest of Berrington Hall. This was our second visit; Croft Castle was one of the first properties we visited in June 2011, just after becoming members of the National Trust.

The main entrance of Croft Castle, and the Church of St Michael

What is particularly remarkable is that Croft Castle has been the home of the Croft family for about 1000 years, and was listed in the Domesday Book in 1086. The Croft family has made many contributions to the annals of British history, under the Plantagenets, during the 15th century Wars of the Roses, Tudor and Elizabethan England, the Civil Wars of the 1640s, and through to recent decades. The Croft baronetcy was created in 1671. The castle itself is a somewhat eclectic mix of architectural styles that reflect its long history.

South face

Much of the interior has an 18th century feel, although some of the rooms on the ground floor must have been used as family rooms when the Croft family were in residence continually. Today the family retains some rooms on the first floor, not open to the public. In fact, during our visit there was only one room on that floor open, the Ambassador’s Room overlooking the main entrance, that has been ‘returned’ to its First World War decor.

Just opposite the main entrance to the castle stands the small church of St Michael. Inside, there is the grand tomb of Sir Richard Croft and his wife Eleanor. Sir Richard fought at the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross, just a few miles away from Croft Castle, in 1461 on the Yorkist side. He later became a high ranking member of the household of Henry VII (who usurped the throne at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, defeating King Richard III, and establishing the Tudor dynasty).

The castle is surrounded by some 1500 acres of parkland, and the National Trust has set out some well marked walks for visitors to follow. We basically took the Blue walk up to the Iron Age fortress of Croft Ambrey (that dates from about 550 BC), covering almost 4 miles before we returned to the car park, a well-deserved sit down, and picnic lunch under the welcome shade of the magnificent beech and oak trees surrounding the castle.

The Blue walk passes through a grove of pollarded Spanish chestnut trees (panted in the late 16th century) that are said to have come from ships of the failed Spanish Armada.

The 360° views from Croft Ambrey are truly stunning: south to the Black Mountains of South Wales; east to the Malverns in Worcestershire; northwest to Clee Hill; and west into the border hills between England and Wales. The climb (not steep) to the summit is really worth the effort. Despite the heat of the day, there was a pleasant breeze taking the edge off it.

Croft Castle has a particularly fine walled garden, and a glasshouse area. The garden covers some six acres, with many rows of vines in its northeast corner. Having now visited quite a number of National Trust properties, my wife and I are in agreement that this walled garden must be one of the nicest in the Trust’s portfolio.

Since our first visit in 2011, the National Trust has made a number of operational changes to how it manages the property. There is now a free flow for visitors through the house, and photography is permitted throughout. In 2011 I was told off—in no uncertain terms—by one of the volunteers for deeming to take a photo of some panelling detail. The Trust is much more relaxed about photography nowadays, except where there are restrictions (for personal family or copyright reasons) at some houses.

The Hall

The Library Anteroom

The Library and Turret Room

The Drawing Room

The Blue Room

The Oak Room

The Dining Room

The Staircases, Gallery, and Courtyard

The Ambassador’s Room

No such problems yesterday. The staff were most welcoming, particularly the lady who greeted us at the main entrance. The tea room appears to have been expanded, and the toilets have been upgraded – clean as ever at National Trust properties. Last time there was a water shortage, and visitors had to queue up to use portaloos!

Croft Castle is just an 83 mile round trip from home – almost one of our local National Trust properties. Perhaps it does not yet have the finest collection of furniture and paintings (compared to many others), but the rooms have a homely feel. And the parkland of course is stunning, with space for everyone to enjoy. The walled garden is Croft’s ‘jewel in the crown’. Well done to the two full-time gardeners (assisted by volunteers, of course) who keep this garden so well maintained.

 

 

 

A Restoration idiosyncrasy . . .

What special events occurred 1967? The BBC made its first TV broadcast in colour, and set up BBC Radio 1, 2, 3 and 4; the QE2 ocean liner was launched on the River Clyde; singer Engelbert Humperdinck had several top selling singles of the year; and The Beatles released the iconic album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

These were just a few highlighted on little signs either side of the footpath from the car park to Sudbury Hall, a National Trust property in Derbyshire, just north of the Staffordshire-Derbyshire boundary, the River Dove (see map).


But, as we reached the end of the footpath, we encountered the important ‘Sudbury’ fact. Occupied by the same Vernon family since it was built in 1660 by wealthy London merchant George Vernon, Sudbury Hall was bought by the National Trust when the Vernons were forced to relinquish ownership in order to meet death duty liabilities. The Sudbury Vernons were distant cousins of the Vernons of Hanbury Hall (the closest National Trust property to our home in Worcestershire).

Sudbury Hall is a Restoration architectural paradox, idiosyncrasy even: an exterior that harks back to an earlier Jacobean period, disguising sumptuous interiors more typical of the 1660s and early 18th century.

Adjacent to the hall is the Parish Church of All Saints in the Diocese of Derby, with some lovely stained glass windows, and impressive memorials to various generations of Vernons.

The hall is aligned west-east, with the main entrance on the north side. While it has a layout of an earlier building, a large entrance hall, even a long gallery on the first floor facing south, nothing quite prepares you for the flamboyance of the staircase (in the northwest corner), the ceilings and decorations of the saloon and drawing room(s) on the ground floor, and those of the long gallery.

Although George Vernon employed local craftsmen in much of the construction of Hanbury Hall, he did seek out some of the most talented to realise his vision of ‘the good life’.

Much of the plaster ceiling work was carried out by London craftsmen Robert Bradbury and James Pettifer. This is what I found about Bradbury and Pettifer on the website of the Woodcarvers Guild Ltd:

Two London plasterers of this period – the 1660s – whose work was similarly accomplished, were Robert Bradbury and James Pettifer. We know Pettifer trained under the London plasterer Arthur Toogood, who was Master of the Plaisterers [sic] Company in 1663.

Their best work outside London is at Sudbury Hall, Derbyshire, where they plastered ceilings in 1675-6. These are densely and richly decorated wall panelling and oak panelling and deserve close attention. The house was begun for Mary Vernon in the reign of James I, but was far from finished when she died in 1622. It then stood empty as a partly completed shell until after the Restoration, when Mary’s great-grandson, George Vernon, completed it. In doing so, he had the good sense to use excellent carvers, plasterers and painters.

In 1675-6 Bradbury and Pettifer provided the ceilings of the drawing ­room, the parlour, the staircase hall, the well, the Queen’s Bedroom and that of the 138-ft long gallery. They charged at the rate of 6s a yard and whilst to some eyes their decorations are florid and all-enveloping, the exuberantly fashioned wall panelling and oak panelling ornament was at least confined to the spaces provided in the design. Just enough was allowed to stray beyond the limits set down by the moulded ribs to give a natural effect. In fact, the delicate swirling work, most of it moulded but carefully arranged so that it appeared to consist of many different parts, was positioned with such skill that Laurence Turner wrote in his book on decorative plasterwork in 1927 before the discovery of the accounts, ‘the four well modelled amorini in the corners of the [staircase] cove [are] evidently by an Italian modeller, for no English plasterer could have developed so suddenly the ability to model the human figure …’ In the seven compartments of the long gallery ceiling and its frieze, there are curling flowers and foliage, shells, emperors’ heads, horses galloping from cornucopias, and dragons and wild boar in unlikely proximity to each other. Exquisite wood carving is everywhere.

In the Saloon, family portraits are set in panels carved by Edward Pierce (or Pearce), who also carved the balustrade on the magnificent Great Staircase. The ceiling panel in the saloon and elsewhere are paintings by Louis Laguerre in the Baroque style, which were commissioned by George Vernon a couple of decades later.

The Entrance Hall
Somewhat reminiscent of a medieval hall, Sudbury’s entrance hall has a stone flagstone floor, and stone arched doorways. The walls are covered by several full length portraits. And on three tables are seven exquisite Sèvres porcelain figurines dating to 1860, depicting a boar hunt.

The Great Staircase
Leaving the Entrance Hall, nothing quite prepares you for the magnificence of the staircase, from floor to ceiling, with its intricate carving (apparently in lime wood, and painted white), the paintings on the walls, and the elaborately decorated ceiling. It must rank as one of the most impressive that we have seen in any of our National Trust visits.

The Saloon
An elaborate doorway (mounted with a bust that looks suspiciously like William Shakespeare), you enter the saloon, a room with life-size portraits on all walls, and a smaller painting of the hall’s creator, George Vernon, above the door.

The Long Gallery
This came as a complete surprise. Long galleries were typical of much earlier houses. At Sudbury it extends the whole length of the house and faces south overlooking lawns and the lake. The quality of the plaster work is unparalleled. Currently there is little furniture on display, but at the east end is a beautifully painted 17th century Flemish cabinet with biblical scenes, by Frans Francken II. The frieze around the walls is punctuated by various images, and that on the west wall is apparently of King Charles II. Off the long gallery is a small library, with its own gallery. This opens on to the top of the staircase, and passes right into the Queen’s room.

The Queen’s Room
Over the two doorways are almost identical paintings, almost certainly Dutch, depicting contemporary flowers and fruits. The fireplace is pretty impressive.

Drawing Room(s)
I’ve left the pièce de résistance until last. Leading off the saloon is the drawing room, now divided in two, according to the original 17th century floor plans. It was opened into a single rooms during the 19th century. And why is it the pièce de résistance? Surrounding a full length portrait of a lady is an intricate and quite magnificent wood sculpture, depicting all manner of plants and game animals, carved by renowned Dutch-British sculptor Grinling Gibbons.

This is a special carving. But who was the favored lady? Someone special (nod, nod, wink, wink)? This is indeed a remarkable tribute to someone near and dear. If I remember correctly what one of the volunteers told us, she was the sister-in-law of the wife of George Vernon.

Although the National Trust has owned Sudbury Hall for 50 years (and first opened to the public in 1972), refurbishment of the interior is still a ‘work in progress’. Most of the rooms are still lacking furniture. In this respect, the property reminded me of another National Trust property, Dyrham Park near Bath that we visited in August 2016. Not only had Sudbury Hall to be made safe, but decisions were taken—and still being taken—on how to redecorate each of the rooms. And decisions taken are not to everyone’s approval, as the obituary to the 10th Lord Vernon (referenced earlier) indicates.

Museum of Childhood was opened at Sudbury in one of the extensions to the hall. This is a separate entrance to the hall. We enjoyed an interesting 45 minutes viewing all the exhibits bringing back memories of our childhoods, particularly with the various books and toys on display, and also from our daughters from 1978.

In the 1950s and early 1960s I used to pass in front of Sudbury Hall from time-to-time, travelling with my parents from our home in Leek to visit my father’s sister who lived just beyond Burton upon Trent. Until the early 1960s, my paternal grandparents lived in the village of Hollington, just a few miles north of Sudbury. This is Jackson-Bull home territory. In those days the main road, much quieter then, passed immediately in front of the hall. Now, the hall and village of Sudbury are fortunately by-passed, but there is nevertheless a continual roar of traffic from nearby and very busy A50 from Derby to Stoke on Trent.

It was a bright and sunny day when we visited Sudbury last week, but with a biting northerly wind. Nevertheless, our visit to Sudbury Hall was a delight, and quite unexpected in terms of what we saw. The volunteers were most helpful and knowledgeable, adding to the enjoyment of our visit. Sudbury Hall is definitely worth a visit if you are in the vicinity—and even if you are not.

 

 

 

In search of bluebells

Last weekend, our younger daughter Philippa and her family came down from Newcastle for the Bank Holiday. A few days ahead, she asked us if we knew of or had visited any bluebell woods close to home. Apparently, Elvis, her elder boy (who will be six at the end of September) had told her that bluebells were his favourite flower and wanted to see some growing in the wild. Maybe his teacher had been talking about them recently.

L to R: Felix, Philippa, me, Steph, Elvis, and Andi

Steph and I have been members of the National Trust for several years now, and we’ve had hours and days of enjoyment. Regular readers of my blog will know that I usually write something after a visit to one of their properties, the most recent being a visit about three weeks ago to Berrington Hall in Herefordshire.

There are three NT properties quite close to our Bromsgrove home: Hanbury Hall (our ‘regular’), Croome Park (a little further south, near Worcester), and Coughton Court, just 10 miles away in Warwickshire, east beyond Redditch. And each has its bluebell wood. But the one at Coughton is just a little special, composed almost in its entirety of the native English species, Hyacinthoides non-scripta. Very little if any of your invasive Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica) here.

The bluebell is such an iconic woodland species. Just imagine that blue carpet spreading under the wood’s leafy canopy. And at Coughton, the bluebells are mixed in places with cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) and red campion (Silene dioica).

The native bluebell’s future is threatened in many places because of the spread of the Spanish bluebell that is widely grown in gardens. When garden waste is dumped irresponsibly then bulbs can be discarded as well. It hybridises readily with the native species, and once that has happened, stands of native bluebells are irrevocably changed.

We arrived at Coughton just on 11:00 (opening time) and the car parks were already filling up. I think everyone had the same idea: a walk through the bluebell wood, around the gardens, or the various walks around the estate. We made our first visit to Coughton Court in 2013, and then again in June last year when I was recovering from my accident.

Our walk took us around the bluebell wood, along the River Arrow (lots of ramsoms here, Allium ursinum), around the bog garden that is just beginning to come to life (the Gunnera will be spectacular later on in the season, although it and other plants had taken a slight hit from a frost overnight), and finally round the walled garden.

And for little boys, there were plenty of opportunities for fun besides looking at—but not picking—bluebells.

In front of the entrance to the hall the gardeners had planted a beautiful display of tulip beds, and along the newly-raked gravel paths around the lawn, the trees stood like soldiers at attention, having received a recent ‘haircut’ in readiness for summer visitors.

 

‘Georgian grandeur on a human scale’

This is how the National Trust describes Berrington Hall, a late 18th century sandstone Neo-classical mansion overlooking the rolling Herefordshire landscape a few miles north of Leominster (see map). Designed by London architect Henry Holland, Berrington Hall was built between 1778 and 1781 for Thomas Harley.

Thomas Harley, by John Hall, after Henry Edridge, stipple engraving, late 18th century.

The estate also has a particular claim to fame. The park was the last to be created by landscape designer Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (who was also Henry Holland’s father-in-law).

Last Tuesday, Steph and I made our second visit to Berrington; we were first there in September 2011, the year we joined the National Trust. It was a beautiful day then, as it was this week. The weather forecast had promised a better day if we travelled westwards. Berrington Hall is 37 miles almost due west, and a little over an hour by road, from Bromsgrove in north Worcestershire.

We arrived not long after 10:30, and already the car park was quite full. After heading off to the tea room for a refreshing cup of coffee, we enjoyed a long walk around the park before heading back to the car for a quick picnic lunch, and then into the house itself.

We followed the route due south of the house towards and around the bottom of the lake, past the Boat House, around George’s Plantation, and back to the house.

Berrington Hall is not large compared to some 18th century mansions we have visited. Indeed it is quite modest, somewhat austere in appearance. But it sits so comfortably in its landscape, facing southwest, that it was always meant to be there. Eighteenth century landowners and their architects certainly knew just where to begin construction to the best effect.

A grand Triumphal Arch now hosts the National Trust entrance office, and a driveway approaches the house from the rear, before circling around the front of the house to reveal a majestic portico supported on four large pillars, strategically spaced never to block any of the windows.

As was Capability’s intention, the house is best seen from different advantage points in the park, as is the park from the steps of the house.

Brown knew how to exploit the view of the parkland from the house to best effect. It was no laughing matter. He placed a ha-ha just in front. A ha-ha is ‘a recessed landscape design element that creates a vertical barrier while preserving an uninterrupted view of the landscape beyond. The design includes a turfed incline which slopes downward to a sharply vertical face, typically a masonry retaining wall. Ha-has are used in landscape design to prevent access to a garden, for example by grazing livestock, without obstructing views‘.
 

The ha-ha at Berrington is one of the finest. The landscape just floats away, uninterrupted, from the house, the only evidence of its presence being a change in colour between the short grass of the terrace and the fields beyond, that is clearly seen in the video clip below.

On the rear of the house is a courtyard, a stables block (with clock), a dairy, and laundry. Most of the buildings now accommodate facilities for visitors: the tearoom, toilets, a shop, and the like, as well as offices.

Inside the house, the atmosphere is one of restrained elegance. None of the rooms is particularly large, unlike many other houses we have visited. Nevertheless, there are flashes of flamboyance: in the mouldings around the doors, on the architraves, and particularly the ceilings which are most elaborately sculpted and painted.

The staircase, and the first floor landing surrounding the staircase on three sides, is rather stunning, all marble pillars reflecting the natural light from the cupola.

We encountered our biggest surprise, however, when we entered the dining room on the ground floor. In September 2011 the dining table was laid out as though dinner was about to be served. On the walls are paintings reflecting the battles of Admiral Lord Rodney, whose son, George, married Anne, the daughter of the man who built Berrington Hall, Thomas Harley. On his death, Berrington passed to the Rodney family.

On this visit, the room was almost in darkness, with just spotlights focused on a sculpture, War & Pieces, that extended the length of the table. Created by Dutch artist, Bouke de Vries, this is how the sculpture is described in the National Trust brochure:

War & Pieces is a striking piece, nearly six metres in length, inspired by the grand seventeenth century sugar sculptures found on the dining tables of the wealthy. By the early eighteenth century, sugar had been replaced by exquisitely crafted porcelain depicting allegorical, classical or architectural scenes that displayed the host’s wealth and taste at their banquets.

Between the eighteenth and nineteenth century, it became popular for banquets to be held for generals and their officers on the eve of great battles.

War & Pieces is an envisioning of one of these war banquets showing deconstructed porcelain figures engaged in a deadly struggle with a giant central mushroom cloud composed of skulls, ‘frozen Charlottes’ (a nineteenth century mass produced child’s toy) and presided over by figures of the crucified Christ and Guanyins, the Chinese goddess of compassion.

The piece is composed of broken antique porcelain and glassware, as well as parts of plastic children’s toys and sugar, bringing together the notions of modern warfare and art with those of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and making us reconsider our perceptions of beauty and the usefulness of broken objects.

War & Pieces

The scene of war on the table is echoed by the maritime battles depicted on the walls by Thomas Luny (1759-1837). Admiral Lord George Brydges Rodney (1718-1792), the naval hero of The Seven Years War and the American Wars of Independence, is celebrated in these paintings. Rodney was the youngest captain in the British navy and is, arguably, the tactician who first attempted the manoeuvre called ‘breaking the line’ which was used to such great success in later British naval victories. At Berrington, his grim engagements with the French and the Spanish upon his ninety gun ship of the line, The Formidable, in the 1780s are highlighted by Luny’s paintings. The Formidable is the ship depicted on the plates on the dining table that surround War & Pieces.

The handles of the knives are shaped like AK-47 rifles! Comments in a visitors’ book reflected the wide expression of opinions about this sculpture. I thought it was an inspiring commentary on the futility of conflict.

Berrington also has a large walled garden, planted with heritage apple trees that I have commented on and illustrated elsewhere in this blog.

All in all, a very pleasant second visit to Berrington. And it would be remiss of me to finish this particular account without mentioning the extremely friendly staff and volunteers who contributed to our overall enjoyment. The two ladies in the ‘dressing-up room’ on the first floor kept us entertained with their descriptions and demonstrations of the intricacies of 1770s and 1805 fashions!

Here is a short video I made of our visit.

Majesty in the landscape . . . and it was all in the mind’s eye

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.

Croome Court

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.

Stowe

Berrington Hall

Calke Abbey

Dudmaston

Dyrham Park

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.

The Long Walk at Hanbury Hall, with George London’s Semicircle (of trees) on the left

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.