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Restoring and managing Kirkharle: a perpective from owner John Anderson

Article Index

  1. Restoring and managing Kirkharle: a perpective from owner John Anderson
  2. Philosophy
  3. Jewels in the crown
  4. Brown’s life and philosophy
  5. Restoration of the barns
  6. The lakes
  7. Kirkharle today
  8. Looking ahead
  9. Celebrating in 2016
  10. All Pages

The following is taken from a talk by John Anderson about Kirkharle Estate.

"The earth was not given to us by our fathers; it is lent to us by our children."

This old Kenyan proverb is an apt phrase in which to recount the story of Capability Brown’s lake at Kirkharle, for it places a direct responsibility on those of us lucky enough to own land rather than the vague aspiration of wanting to leave land in a better condition than one found it.  This sentiment has always been in the forefront of my mind since inheriting the Little Harle in 1971 on the death of my maternal grandfather; at that time I was intent on making the Army my career, but with no one to live in the family home and care for the estate, I very reluctantly decided to leave in 1975 and enter agricultural college to learn a new business; my best decision was to marry my wife Kitty in 1976, as she has not only created a loving and happy family, but she has been very much my partner in helping to transform the estate and farm into what it is today.  Without her drive, skill and interest, I would never have succeeded; indeed the creation of the lake and parkland is very largely of her doing.

Kirkharle with buildingsKirkharle Hall by Edward Swinburne (b.1765) of Capheaton. Copyright: John AndersonWhen we took over, the estate was very run down; my grandfather had worked on the principle that he would take very little money out of the land, but equally spend very little on it.  This philosophy was vividly represented in his attitude to trees where he never cut any woods down but equally never planted any; as such the woodlands were dying on their feet; admittedly, it was in many respects wonderful to be surrounded by some mature specimen trees, but it was sad to see so many rotten in the trunk and with limbs shed.  The Estate and Farm desperately needed investment, but after old Death Duties, money was in very short supply.  Fortuitously, in an agricultural sense, we had joined the Common Market and with the importance of the CAP, farmers were encouraged through a mix of subsidies and grants to invest in the development of their farms to ensure security of food supply.  I was also lucky to be able to take a neighbouring 300 acre tenancy into hand, with the retirement of the outgoing tenant, to double my home farm acreage to 600.  Over the intervening years and in similar circumstances, we have acquired a further 3 farms taking our total acreage up to some 1500 acres, all within a ring fence.  On this land, we have a suckler herd of 110 cows, a ewe flock of 1600 and an arable acreage of some 450 acres (wheat/barley/OSR). Interspersed between the fields are a number of small woodlands, predominantly mixed hard woods, and individual hedgerow trees.

Kirkharle-aerial viewPhilosophy 

Aerial view of Kirkharle Hall with farm buildings. Copyright: John AndersonMy whole philosophy in running the Little Harle Estate, of which Kirkharle Courtyard is an integral part, is encapsulated in the words Stewardship and Sustainability.  Stewardship, without in any way wishing to appear pompous or patronising, means that I have been entrusted with the care of the land, the properties and those people who work and live there; it is a huge privilege as well as an enormous responsibility.  I have always disliked the word Landlord, given all its connotations, preferring instead the term lifetime custodian.  It isn’t an easy task balancing many conflicting issues and inevitably wrong decisions are made on occasion.  However I have always been guided in my thinking by the accrual of long term benefits rather than short term gains, for I count myself extremely lucky to be living on land shaped and created through the efforts of my forebears; I am most anxious that future generations of the County continue to enjoy the same.  I am not a preservationist by nature, preferring to be a conservationist; for we have to live in the real world where there is some acceptance that things can be changed for the better, rather than adhering to the notion that the past must be protected at all costs.

One of the most important aspects associated with stewardship is the creation of jobs to replace those lost over the years from agriculture.  It is salutary to think that my Farms used to employ some 12 people when I inherited; now the Home Farm only has two, with contractors to help out at busy times. Though I know my bank manager would have much preferred me to convert the Kirkharle steading into a Courtyard development, to have done so would have only contributed to the countryside becoming even more of a dormitory area for those who work in our urban areas; rather I wanted to provide job opportunities for those who live in rural areas and want to work there as well.  I find it personally gratifying that some 35 people now have full or part time employment at Kirkharle, with some 16 living within 5 miles.  I am particularly pleased that we are able to offer many young students from the local area their first experience of paid work, an opportunity otherwise likely to have been denied them.

‘Sustainability’ is to ensure that what is being undertaken can be continued without putting undue pressure on resources; in the case of farming, this largely relates to fuel, fertilisers and sprays.   Though I am not an advocate of organic farming, I do place great emphasis in working harmoniously with nature rather than always pushing it to the limits.  I have just made the decision to return to the old crop rotation where a grassland break is a constituent part of arable cropping.  This lessens the use of fertilisers and sprays which in turn leads to less pollution of water resources.  It is a policy with which I am sure Brown would have agreed.

 However one must never lose sight of the fact that to be sustainable one also needs to be profitable; for otherwise one will always be dependent on the State to survive.  Given the health of public finances, this is an unrealistic assumption.

Kirkharle St WilfridsJewels in the crown

St Wilfrid's Church. Copyright: John AndersonRecognising the continuing decline in agricultural fortunes and with the Government encouraging farmers to develop income streams other than through primary production, in the middle of the 1990’s, I realised that I had a number of jewels on the Estate; principally St Wilfrid’s Church, Loraine’s Monument and Kirkharle Farm steading.  St Wilfrid’s is a Grade I listed church, dating back to the early14th century  and despite the ravages of both time and fashion, still retaining the simplicity of a stone, wood and plain glass construction. Robin Dower's notes: The Farm steading was within the curtilage of Kirkharle Hall, home to the Loraine family from the 15th century  to 1833 when it was sold to my ancestor Thomas Anderson following the collapse of the North Tyne Bank, brought about by the Napoleonic Kirkharle Loraines monmumentLoraine's monument. Copyright: John Andersonwars, that caused the Loraines to go bankrupt. Only a wing remains of the original Hall, it having been demolished to provide more of a mansion house at Little Harle Towers, family home to the Andersons ever since.  To the north of the wing lay an imposing set of farm buildings that had long fallen into disrepair by virtue of not being fit for modern agricultural purposes. Indeed they were mostly obscured by the erection of modern cattle courts and a silage clamp.  If these lovely traditional buildings were to be saved, a new purpose had to be found. Jewels alone, though beautiful in their own right, are nothing compared to those placed in a proper setting where they can be shown off to all; rather than gold, it was the wonderful landscape surrounding Kirkharle that I wanted to become the gold crown in which these jewels could be shown off to full effect.  However this landscape too had suffered from the ravages of time and the intensification of agriculture.  Many of the parkland trees had died or been blown down; stone walls were starting to fall down; water features had been lost, with most of the land in continual cropping or sown down to ryegrasses.  It didn’t justify its listing of Grade II Parkland.

Yet, conscious of this place being where Capability Brown was born, my dream was to recreate a living monument to him as a reminder to all that from the small corner of rural Northumberland arguably the nation’s greatest landscape designer emanated.  With the Government providing generous financial encouragement, I knew that this was the moment to turn that dream into reality.

Brown’s life and philosophy

Lancelot Brown was born at Kirkharle in 1716 before being baptised in St Wilfrid’s Church on 30th August that year; after attending school in nearby Cambo, he left aged 16 to work as gardener to Sir William Loraine before moving south in 1739 to Wootton in Oxfordshire and a year later to Stowe, working for Lord Cobham.  Thus started an illustrious career that was to encompass designing some of England’s greatest landscapes Burghley, Holkham, Harewood, Longleat, Sheffield Park and Blenheim Palace’s lake but to name a few.  In 1767 he purchased Fenstanton Manor in Huntingdonshire where he lived until he died aged 67 in 1783. (Not all agreed: Robert Owen, a poet, declared he wanted to get to heaven before Brown so he could see it before Brown had improved it)

Harewood House 1818Harewood House 1818. Source: Parks & Gardens UK With no formal training, it begs the question as to how Brown acquired such knowledge that enabled him to become such a famous landscape designer; my belief is that he gained so much of this on his daily walk to Cambo School; no quick dash in mother’s car or in the school bus, but rather a 3 mile trudge each day there and back throughout the school year.  You will know from your own experience how much more you observe when walking, whether it be of your surroundings or the wildlife around you.  Brown would have become very conscious of the lovely Northumbrian countryside that lay before him as well as the wild native flora and fauna that added interest; he will have been aware of the many people working the land whether it be on haymaking, ploughing, tending stock or mending stone walls to name but a few of the farming activities taking place.  Most importantly, he will have seen all these things throughout the year and how the seasons affected both the appearance and activities of each.  Trees changing colours to losing their leaves, birds arriving in the Spring to migrating in the Autumn, wild flowers in the meadows coming into bloom before being scythed down and made into hay.  All this must have had a powerful and lasting impact on this young boy; it made him appreciate their many differing aspects and the importance of the living environment.  His ability to create a great variety of landscape in one place, that represented both beauty and interest, is what marked Brown out from his contemporaries.  I would contend that much of this was gleaned on his way to and from school each day; part of the path, alongside the northern edge of the lake, is built on the track he is likely to have walked.

Kirkharle stone barnRestoration of the barns

One of the stone barns before restoration. Copyright: John AndersonIt was in 1997 that we started the long process of preparing plans and seeking planning permission to develop the Courtyard; initially, this only involved the creation of one workshop to accommodate Stephen Robinson Gay, a local cabinet maker who had outgrown his premises nearby.  However as matters progressed, a Coffee House was planned, only to be joined shortly afterwards by a Jam and Chutney maker and Denis Kilgallon, a ceramic sculptor.  No sooner that they were in at the beginning of 2000, when I was approached by a number of other small artisans for workshops; with the Stone Barn in an advanced state of dereliction and recognising it had either to be demolished or restored, I decided on the latter; this was occupied in 2005.  Stephen by this time had outgrown his original premises and wished to move to bigger premises; with the Coffee House also requiring more of a preparations kitchen to cater for growing numbers, I took the decision to convert one of the modern cattle courts.  Though still of use agriculturally, I had come to realise that farming and tourism don’t make for easy bed fellows. Kirkharle stone barn restoredThe fallout from the foot-and-mouth disease epidemic, when we nearly had to shut the whole complex, by virtue of my surrounding neighbours’ stock being culled, still haunted me.  Stone barn restored and used for craft workshopsI also realised that 25 ton articulated lorries at harvest time being loaded with grain were not exactly conducive to our visitors’ safety.  With that shed now developed, this only leaves the other half still in its original state; should demand exist and financial resources allow, it would be good to complete the Courtyard by developing this building as well. 

The lakes

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 of Kirkharle Brown planBrown plan of Kirkharle showing a lake design. Copyright: John AndersonBrown’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 Kirkharle lake planModern plan for a lake but following Brown's original idea. Copyright: John AndersonEngland 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.

Kirkharle bridgeThe new bridge based on a similar design at Painshill. Copyright: John AndersonIn 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.Kirkharle parkland entrance

New parkland entrance gate based on one from the 18th century. Copyright: John AndersonOne 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.

Kirkharle flora boardOne of the interpretation boards by the lake. Copyright: John AndersonOne 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. 

Kirkharle lake 2010Kirkharle today

The lake at Kirkharle. Copyright: John Anderson I would like to remind you that Kirkharle is but a piece in a much larger jigsaw; its importance lies not just in the tangible way it marks Brown’s life, but also by virtue of it acting as an interface between the rural economy and the wider general public. Unfortunately over the years, farmers have increasingly become disengaged from their ultimate customer, the consumer. As such the effort and care that goes into producing high quality food hasn’t been adequately appreciated; neither has it been reflected in the price at the farm gate. With a much keener interest in cooking and the quality of ingredients, together with a growing concern as to the security of food security, this lack of perception is starting to change. Equally farmers and landowners have not been good at encouraging people to enjoy the countryside, almost viewing land as their total private preserve; yet we depend on customers buying our food, as well as being willing to subsidise its production. We need to realise that by way of return, we must be perceived as looking after our precious landscape, as well as the living creatures and plants that go to make it so interesting and enjoyable; and above all, people need to feel welcomed.

Kirkharle will never represent one of Brown’s greatest works; its modesty rather pertinently reflects that we are in an age of austerity. However its creation is a statement of hope for the future; with free public access the intention is that people of all ages and abilities can visit and witness its development over the years; in so doing, we hope very much they will enjoy the experience. It is what Lancelot Capability Brown would have wanted with his vision all those years ago.

Looking ahead

Whilst  the lake and associated planting and paths installed in 2010 are proving a great success and are visited by a great number of people each year, in true Brown tradition, the landscape requires further ‘tweaking’ in order to increase its authenticity and strengthen Kirkharle’s links with Brown. Plans under consideration for further improvements include a ‘cascade’ which could be constructed between the two lakes, thus creating one larger body of water. Additionally, both ends of the lake could be extended to give a more authentic look and some of the lake edges could be ‘shuttered’ in order to create a cleaner visual edge.  It is our hope that these works will be undertaken this year (2015) or in 2016.  

Celebrating in 2016

Brown baptised plaqueMemorial plaque in St Wilfrid's Church. Copyright: John AndersonOn 30th August 1716 Lancelot Brown was baptised in St Wilfrid’s Church, Kirkharle. The parochial church council of this beautiful, ancient, Grade 1 church is planning a festival weekend to mark this anniversary on 26th – 30th August 2016.  Events will include a flower festival, concert, lecture, fete and service of thanksgiving. Throughout the year Northumbria Gardens Trust and our Kirkharle community group are planning a number of events  including theatrical productions, poetry readings, guided walks, tree planting, Georgian antiques valuation and food and flower fayre. Our aim is to provide opportunities for a wide range of audiences, both young and old, to learn more about one of Northumberland’s most famous sons – ‘The Shakespeare of Gardening’ - and come to appreciate the value of our beautiful English landscapes.

2016 sees the tercentenary of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s birth at Kirkharle.  As a result there are numerous plans afoot both nationally and locally to mark this very special year.  For more details of the National Festival see Sign up for the newsletter to keep abreast of all the activities. It will be a year not to be missed by anyone who loves our beautiful English countryside.