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Restoring Capability Brown's vision at Burghley

Written by Dr Paul Stamper, English Heritage

Burghley Lion BridgeBrown's Lion Bridge, the design  for which was decided in 1773. Crossing the west end of the lake, it is a key feature of the landscape around the house. Copyright: Dr Paul StamperBurghley House, near Stamford, is one of England’s most spectacular country houses. Built for William Cecil, Lord High Treasurer to Elizabeth I, work started in 1555 and continued for 30 years. It remains the jewelled focus of Burghley’s designed landscape, and still home to the Cecils almost 500 years on.

From the time of the house’s construction it was set within a deer park, a newly fashionable concept which gave privacy and the opportunity to create a designed and appropriate setting for the Cecils to live and entertain within. The first park was modest, some 55 ha, but in the early 17th century was extended to 186 ha. Then , in1683, John Cecil, the fifth Earl of Exeter, returned from a European tour and commissioned the leading landscape designers and nurserymen George London and Moses Cook to lay out a complex and extensive formal landscape around the house with terraces, canals and a maze to the south of the house and over 5,000 trees radiating outwards in avenues.

Just a half-century or so later, in 1754, that now unfashionable formal landscape was swept away by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown who was brought in by Brownlow Cecil, who had just inherited as the ninth Earl. Terraces were levelled, avenues broken up, oaks planted, and a serpentine lake dug below the house. In all, Brown worked here for 24 years, his longest commission, and clearly one he enjoyed.

Although much of that landscape survives, later planting and changing land management regimes have lessened its subtlety and cleverness, with key views being lost as woodland encroached or plantations were put in. Now, however, the estate’s trustees have embarked on an ambitious ten-year plan to return the park to its late 18th-century condition, bringing house and landscape together again, just as Brown intended.

Work began, in 2013, with the commissioning of a Management Park Plan, which set out a blueprint for what was to come.  This landscape restoration work, taking the 1812 Ordnance Survey map as the baseline, is to being supported, in part, by funding from Natural England’s Higher Level Stewardship scheme which Burghley entered into in January 2014.

Burghley HouseBurghley House, now again seen clearly from across the lake. Copyright: Dr Paul StamperAlready good progress has been made. One of Brown’s great creations at Burghley was a river-like serpentine lake looping around the south front of the house, which was then doubled in extent in the late 18th century. As well as keeping its cellars dry, this created perhaps the best close view of Burghley House, from across the lake. However, this view had become hidden by scrubby woodland which had grown up within a deer fence put up in the 1970s to keep the park’s fallow deer away from the water. This has now been cleared, and now the deer graze up to the lake’s edge. Elsewhere in the three areas of parkland – low, middle and high – other areas of secondary woodland and plantation have started to be felled to open up other vistas, especially of the house.

Elsewhere in the park oak trees are being replanted to put back lost elements of Brown’s scheme, these having been grown from acorns harvested at Burghley itself to maintain continuity.

Another early and very visible piece of restoration has seen 120 ha of the high park which had been under arable cultivation put down again to permanent pasture. Veteran trees surviving from Burghley’s formal landscape, and indeed from the centuries before that, can once again be seen as intended, rather than marooned in ploughland. A roadside hedge which was planted just 15 years ago to screen from view this unsatisfactory state of affairs is being removed – and replanted elsewhere!

Burghley silt trapOne of the lower silt traps, showing its stone-walled sluice, the encroaching ash trees, and the lake beyond. Copyright: Dr Paul StamperThe underlying concept of Brown’s ‘natural’ landscapes was that they denied the hand of man in their creation and maintenance. The enlargement and reforming of Burghley’s Great Pool into a serpentine lake was a long and expensive undertaking, to which Brown brought considerable experience as a drainage engineer as well as an understanding of the underlying geology. And out of sight, west of the lake, he put in what we would today call some essential infrastructure, a series of nine silt traps to prevent the lake gradually clogging up soil washed down off arable land. These traps comprise a sequence of artificial pools running down the stream which feeds the lake, each with a stone-walled sluice to hold silt back and allow it to settle.  These would be dug out every year of so, and the silt carted off to be spread on the land. Under the Management Plan the traps are being restored, with damaging ash trees removed and the stone walls repaired.

Through the generosity of the family, much of Burghley’s parkland is freely accessible to visitors. Lying immediately outside the wonderfully atmospheric Georgian town of Stamford, it well repays a visit – indeed repeated visits, as one of England’s great designed landscapes is gradually restored.

This article was written following a tour of the park with Peter Glassey, Head of Forestry, Park and Gardens in December 2014.

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For those wanting the fuller story of Brown’s long engagement at Burghley, Jane Brown’s The Omnipotent Magician: Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown 1716-1783 (2011) is recommended.

More information about Burghley and visiting can be found here.