Great capabilities – Mr Brown’s best-loved gardens

2016 celebrates the tercentenary of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, the landscape designer who reshaped around half a million acres of land in eighteenth-century England.


Lancelot Brown was known as ‘Capability’ because he liked to describe country estates as having ‘great capabilities’ for improvement. Inspired by the English landscape, his ambitious projects involved moving hills, digging lakes and serpentine rivers and creating parklands on an immense scale. The finished results looked entirely natural but were in fact ‘nature contrived’. Brown described himself as a ‘placemaker’ but is considered by many to be the father of landscape architecture. His legacy is being celebrated around the country this year – look out for exhibitions, tours, talks, events and even ‘Capabili-teas’, featuring Georgian-style sandwiches and seed cake. Here are 10 of his best-loved gardens.


– perfect if you’re staying at The Woburn Hotel


Stowe is where it all began – Brown began work here as under-gardener to William Kent, himself a renowned landscape gardener. He became head gardener in 1741 and over the next 10 years, moved vast quantities of earth to sculpt the spectacular Grecian Valley, and naturalised the shapes of the lakes. He used ha-has (hidden ditches) to keep livestock out of the main garden, while making it look as if they were part of the landscape. The National Trust acquired the estate in 1989 and its garden restoration work is featured in a new exhibition, talks and tours.

Sherborne Castle

Some consider Sherborne Castle in Dorset – one of his earliest designs – to be one of Brown’s most charming landscapes: rolling grassland, sweeping lawns and majestic specimen trees set against the romantic backdrop of a ruined castle. He flooded a valley to fill the area between the castle ruins and the new castle (built for Sir Walter Raleigh) with a 50-acre lake that sets the scale for the rest of the surrounding landscape. This year, an exhibition charts his impact and legacy on the garden.

Blenheim Palace

– perfect if you’re staying at Cotswold Lodge Hotel

Blenheim Palace

The birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill, Blenheim Palace is considered to be one of the finest examples of Capability Brown’s work – it was granted World Heritage Site status in 1987. It’s also one of his biggest projects – Brown spent 11 years transforming the 2,000 acres of parkland. Alongside a new exhibition, which features maps, plans, paintings, artefacts and more, visitors can enjoy talks from a ‘gardener from Brown’s time’, horse and carriage rides, a new viewpoints trail and much more.


The 700-acre deer park at Petworth was transformed into a pastoral delight by Brown between 1751 and 1763. He modified the contours of the site, planted cedars and many other trees, added a flower garden and created the serpentine lake – one of his earliest designs. The estate is celebrating Brown’s legacy with talks, walks and an exhibition of paintings by artists including JMW Turner, who painted some fine views of the park. Meanwhile local Embroiderers’ Guilds will exhibit work inspired by Brown, and kids can design their own miniature 3D landscapes.


– perfect if you’re staying at Jesmond Dene House Hotel


Doubling up as Hogwarts in the first two Harry Potter films, Alnwick Castle is known for its contemporary garden, created in 2001. Years before, however, Capability Brown had a hand in remodeling the landscape north of the castle. He flattened land, planted trees and created small hills along the roadside to hide the castle from view until it could be viewed from the most impressive point – an effect that endures to this day. He even managed to slow down the River Aln after a flood in 1771, and built a bridge across it.


Magnificent Trentham has been preparing for Brown’s tercentenary for three years, clearing parts of the grounds in order to reveal Brown’s original parkland and reunite it with his original mile-long lake. Garden historians believe that the original landscape may have been embellished by abundant planting, so a large-scale planting programme has also been started around the lake, introducing annual meadows, woodland planting and North American shrubs and trees – a contemporary take on Brown’s legacy.


– perfect if you’re staying at The Cavendish Hotel

Chatsworth House

Brown transformed the gardens at Chatsworth in the 1760s, sweeping away formal 17th-century terraces and fountains and altering the course of the River Derwent to make way for the landscaped woodland park that remains unchanged to this day. The spectacular vista from the Salisbury Lawn to the horizon looks the same as it would have done in Brown’s day. Visitors can enjoy a short film and Illustrated talk about Brown’s work at Chatsworth followed by a guided walk around the garden on selected dates.

Compton Verney

Compton Verney is best-known as an art gallery, but it is set in 120 acres of Grade II-listed classical parkland designed by Brown. It features his trademark rolling grassland, an ornamental lake, chapel and mature Cedars of Lebanon. Over the years, the grounds were neglected, but the estate has received £2.5 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund to preserve, restore and celebrate the park as part of Brown’s tercentenary celebrations. It is celebrating Brown by putting on walks and talks, Georgian games, Georgian music concerts, and even a costumed Regency Ball.

Royal Botanic Garden, Kew

– perfect if you’re staying at The Lensbury


Capability Brown remodeled Kew’s former baroque gardens to make way for his trademark pastoral landscape. Walk along the Xstrata Treetop Walkway 200m up in the Arboretum canopy and admire the sweet chestnuts, limes and oaks that he planted, and look out for the ‘ha-ha’ that forms a boundary with the River Thames without disrupting the view. Brown also sculpted the neighbouring Richmond Gardens and Syon House.


– perfect if you’re staying at The White Hart Hotel

Harewood House

Brown transformed acres of farmland at Harewood into a romantic, naturalistic landscape that includes several of his signature features, such as a gently rolling landscape, a 32-acre serpentine lake, cascade and encircling carriage drives. The vistas he created were captured by artists including JMW Turner and the pioneering Victorian photographer Roger Fenton, and are celebrated in the Art of Landscape exhibition, which runs from 25 March to 30 October. There will also be a series of guided walks and talks from 4-12 June.

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Veronica Peerless
Veronica Peerless is a garden writer. She contributes to most of the UK’s major garden titles, including, BBC Gardeners’ World Magazine, The English Garden magazine and the Garden Design Journal.

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