Restoring and managing Kirkharle: a perpective from owner John Anderson
My wife has long had the idea of trying to replicate part of Capability Brown’s original plan for a serpentine lake, with associated tree plantings in the Kirkharle parkland. We had discovered this lying in a desk drawer in our home following my grandfather’s death. Obviously it is interesting in its own right, but what makes it even more fascinating is an assertion that it could represent Brown’s first ever landscape design, completed before he left Kirkharle to go south ; what is more certain is that its implementation is likely to represent his last to be completed. Nick Owen, a local landscape historian from Wark with a great knowledge ofBrown’s work, was instrumental in encouraging us to pursue the idea of turning his vision into reality. Given the many changes that have occurred since the plan was first drawn, not least the making of the A696 that has bisected the parkland, Nick has had to interpret it to fit the modern context. A major problem was the existence of an electricity power line down the middle of the proposed Lakeland area; quite fortuitously, NEDL wanted to renew all the poles on this particular stretch. Stressing the importance of their removal to the project and with the area already very boggy, NEDL were agreeable to realigning their power line to the south of the site where it is partially hidden by new planting. However Kirkharle Creative, the umbrella group of businesses in the Courtyard charged with promoting it, has proved the key in securing funds that has enabled the project to proceed; by virtue of being a non profit making community group, charities have been happy to provide funds whereas to a private individual, this wouldn’t have been the case. ONE and Natural England have been the major public contributors, with a private donation from myself in both cash and kind. I cannot emphasize enough though the importance of the support of local bodies and the donations from charities in persuading ONE to fund the project. Overall the project will have cost some £150,000, the most expensive single element being the provision of an all weather and fully accessible footpath around the lake. Apart from the money, there was the need to go through all the regulatory hoops; from English Heritage, DEFRA, the District Council, Parish Council and the Environment Agency, all had to be consulted and numerous forms completed supplying all the information (Environment Agency Abstraction/Discharge Licences). To endure such a process, one needed almost infinite patience and a good sense of humour. It took several years from inception of the idea before the first scoop of earth was taken by Scott, the excavator driver, on 18th August 2009. It was an exciting moment for us all.
Work progressed very smoothly at first on the lakes, with good weather during the autumn. However this changed to becoming one of the wettest winters ever experienced. This caused all manner of problems, principally with travelling across the land; we were also unable to plant the trees. The rain soon turned to snow, still preventing the planting of trees; we also experienced major flooding in the lakes thereby necessitating us to lower the level of the ditch. We eventually got the trees planted in less than ideal conditions and much later than I would have wished. Having had too much water, the weather moved to the other end of the spectrum with too little in the early summer. The drought resulted in the loss of many of our oaks despite all our best endeavours in watering; out of the 23 large oaks planted, 20 never came into leaf, as I suspect their roots became frosted after lifting. They are shortly to be replaced.
In the summer, we built the buttress walls at the lake outfalls, rebuilt the bridge piers, put in the bridge (Brown had a similar design for his parkland at Painshill) and finally created the parkland entrance in early September. Michael hand fiddled on an expensive wild flower mixture; a very difficult operation to get right given the need not to allow the grasses to outgrow the wild flowers; by using only native grass species, which are not nearly so vigorous as modern agricultural mixtures, the problem is alleviated to a degree, as indeed does sowing at the end of the season rather than the beginning. However wild flower mixtures are notoriously difficult to manage and only time will tell as to whether we are getting it right. At the risk of creating a rod for my own back, my hope is that if we can establish a whole host of wild flowers these will attract a great diversity of insect life that in turn will sustain a wide range of wild birds. In this respect, the omens are good; my mother one day counted 17 species of bird. I have never witnessed so many swallows, swifts and house martins flying about the lake a few years ago.
One of the criticisms made of Brown was that his work was too bland, lacking texture, colour and visual excitement; I believe this to be unfair as so much of his original work has been subjected to the modern desire of wanting everything to be orderly and pristine. Beautifully mown areas, carefully tended plants and weed free lakes do not make for ideal habitats that nurture wild flora and fauna.
Two years ago, I was listening to the Radio 4 Today programme when it was celebrating the birth of the Wildlife Trusts; reference was made to the late Dame Miriam Rothschild, a great champion of nature conservation. She had been an ardent exponent of the need to protect the habitat if species were to survive. She campaigned to introduce wildflowers to gardens, parks and motorways, producing her own seed mixture ‘Farmers’ Nightmare’! In her own garden at Ashton Wold near Oundle, she mingled the wild with the cultivated – speedwell with cherry blossom, tulips with ragwort and sowing wildflower meadows in place of lawns. “I do not much care for living on a snooker table” she said. In her late eighties she wrote ‘The Ashton Wold garden has come to symbolise a new sympathy with wildlife: the battle with weeds, the conquest of nature is a thing of the past.’ I believe Brown would have had great sympathy with such a sentiment, albeit maybe not to such a great extent as Dame Miriam. Remember the landscape movement, as exemplified by himself and William Kent, was a reaction against ‘power gardening’ a physical expression of the subjection of nature to the will of man. You might recall that around 1700, gardens were formal and labour intensive – lots of gravelled parterres, clipped lawns, hedges and fantastical topiary; further out, broad straight avenues marched to the horizon and beyond. Yet, largely as a result of the South Sea Bubble bursting in 1720, when many fortunes were lost and the upkeep of such gardens became financially unsustainable, this was replaced by a green tide of lawns grazed by sheep and cattle that rolled up to the windows of the houses themselves; clumps of trees softened the straight lines which as Kent said “Nature abhors”. Mark Lutyens, descendant of the famous Sir Edward Lutyens, recently wrote of his prediction that in this climate of austerity, the reaction will be to reject clutter, ostentation and needless extravagance and to expect a return to the pastoral idyll.
This is the intention for Kirkharle where everything will be done to enhance and promote nature around the lakes, even if the area looks unkempt. We have placed out strategic piles of logs and laid stoned areas around the lake edge to encourage the breeding and survival of butterflies, damsel flies and other insects, for they in turn will sustain a great variety of birds. The wildflowers and different species of trees will hopefully provide colour throughout the year. Our wish is very much for this area to be a vibrant living area and in direct contrast to the carefully grazed surrounding fields containing beef cattle and sheep. But it doesn’t stop there, as the newly planted woods will act as corridors to other areas around the farm and like the Carlsberg advert, refreshing those parts where nature wouldn’t ordinarily reach. Brown’s vision wasn’t limited to just a small area where the public can safely walk; rather he wanted people to enjoy the vista as far as their eye could see, as well as all within it. Though the Kirkharle lake element is technically finished, the intention is to continue improving and adding to the experience over future years. We are now looking towards the creation of a cascade on the serpentine lake to mark the Tercentenary of his birth in 2016; a great national celebration is planned.
One of the aspects associated with the lake that my wife has been most keen to develop has been the erection of Interpretation boards along the path informing visitors, particularly our youngest, as to the history of the area; much of this work has involved local schools and their pupils. The panels include the impact of farming on the landscape over the centuries, the birdlife of the area, wildflowers (some of which were painted by Henrietta Loraine when she lived at Kirkharle) and a depiction of Brown’s Vision at the entrance.