‘Capability Brown was invited back to Weston Park in 1766 to undertake a second contract,’ says our guide, ‘for which he was paid £1,725.’ Scanning the beautiful one-thousand-acre parkland in front of us, I nod in approval. At that price I might ask him for a quote to landscape my front garden. Then again, at today’s prices that works out at over £216,000!
Three hundred years ago, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown was baptised at Kirkhale, in Northumberland, on 30th August 1716, and so began the life of one of this country’s most famous landscape gardeners. His ‘Capability’ nickname arose after he arrived at prospective clients’ properties and advised them that their grounds had great capabilities. This was a man who knew how to sweet talk potential customers. It worked, because over a 35-year period, Brown worked on over 170 commissions.
Brown first came to Weston Park, on the Shropshire and Staffordshire border, in 1765, when he was commissioned by the then owner, Sir Henry Bridgeman, to create a ha-ha around the south side of the house. ‘A ha-ha, or sunken fence,’ our guide continues, ‘was one of Brown’s trademark designs in his landscape creations, because it enabled him to segregate different areas within the grounds, without spoiling the views.’
It’s a clever technique. From where I’m standing, beside an ornate garden building called the Temple of Diana built for entertaining guests, the ground looks level. The unbroken view stretches across the southern parkland, or pleasure grounds as Brown described them, towards Shropshire’s iconic rolling countryside, made famous by the poet AE Housman, who referred to them as his blue remembered hills. But, as I wander across the tightly-cropped lawn, the ha-ha suddenly becomes visible. It’s a huge ditch, or chasm, preventing deer leaping from one side to the other.
Records from 1658 show that Weston’s parkland comprised two distinct areas, known as the Upper Park, which contained red deer, and the Lower Park for common deer. Although the Upper Park was converted to farmland, it’s the Lower Park that I’m gazing across today. This is what Brown had to work with, and it only emphasizes his amazing landscaping ability, because the trees all sit so naturally within their surroundings. Perhaps Brown’s capability nickname should refer to his ability to imagine what his landscapes would look like several hundred years in the future. Now that’s what I call talent.
Brown’s creations were huge undertakings. They make my front garden titivations look pathetic. ‘The scheme took over two years to complete,’ our guide explains, ‘requiring a complete revision from formal planting to the composure of a natural, harmonious world. Hundreds of workers were drafted in to carry out the work, which called for the excavation of groundworks to carve out the undulated grassy banks, and for the removal of avenues of trees to make way for clumps and scatterings of trees, and the redirection of pathways to change the views they created.’
The Temple of Diana, where we’re now standing, wasn’t created by Brown, although he suggested in his designs that this would be a good spot for a garden room. Sir Henry Bridgeman agreed and commissioned architect James Paine to design and create one. It has to be one of the biggest garden rooms I’ve ever seen. A huge, glazed orangery dominates the frontage, offering amazing views across the parkland, but behind this are three floors of unique rooms, including a circular tea room and an octagonal music room. Originally, it had a menagerie in its grounds, which we might recognise today as an aviary. In the 18th century it was popular for the nobility to keep exotic and colourful birds. It’s recently been refurbished, and can now be hired as self-catering holiday accommodation.
Behind this are the Temple Gardens, home to a stunning collection of tall redwood trees, perfect for escaping from the heat of the sun on a warm sunny day like today. It’s not long before we stumble across the Temple Pool, a vast body of water with a stunning bridge at one end, also designed and created by James Paine. It seems this too has a menagerie, as several ducks, ducklings, coots and moorhens all quack, squawk and chirp their way across the water, in the hope that we’ve come to feed them!
Our path takes us back through the woods, passing some amazing rhododendron bushes. It transpires there used to be many more of these here. ‘We’ve been working very hard to reduce the number of rhododendron bushes.’ Our guide holds out his arm and invites us to look around. ‘We don’t think the Victorians understood, or appreciated, Capability Brown,’ he says, ‘because these bushes grew so large they blocked the views from the paths that Brown had purposefully created. As a result, we’ve had to remove over eighty per cent of the rhododendrons so we could open up the views again.’
Our feet crunch their way along the gravel path, and we pass through a short tunnel, under one of Weston’s many driveways, to emerge outside the main entrance of the house. What’s fascinating about these large houses is how much they’ve altered over the years, and Weston is no exception. Originally, the entrance was on the north face of the building, not the east face that we’re looking at. Stepping into the entrance hall the volunteer guides explain that this used to be library, until the front door was moved in 1868. All entrances should impress, and Weston’s is no exception, with its huge pillars and proliferation of horse paintings hanging on the walls.
These hang here because the 3rd Earl of Bradford was passionate about horses. He was even Master of the Horse to Queen Victoria in the 1870s and 1880s. In addition to being responsible for the Queen’s horses, he also had to organise all ceremonial processions. To the left of an archway, there’s a painting by one of the most famous horse painters of all time, George Stubbs.
Although Weston’s rooms are large, they feel homely. Everywhere I look there are photos of the current Earl of Bradford and his family. The house is no longer the family home, after it was gifted to the nation in 1986, but it feels as though they’ve just stepped out for a moment.
The Tapestry Room must be one of the most luxurious, for on each wall hang silk and wool weft tapestries, with intricate patterns surrounding a central trompe-l’oeil. Handmade in Paris in 1766, they were produced specifically for Weston at the request of Sir Henry Bridgeman.
The award for sheer impressiveness has to go to the Dining Room. When it was created in 1867, several ground and first floor rooms were knocked into the vast space that envelops me now. Big rooms need big paintings, and my eye is immediately drawn to one hanging above the fireplace, which is larger than any plasma television I’ve seen!
It depicts Sir Henry Bridgeman, with his wife, three sons, two daughters, and their music master enjoying a lively evening of entertainment in the Temple of Diana. In front of the large fireplace stands a beautifully decorated table, ready to serve the most sumptuous meal. This is where, on the 16th May 1998, leaders from the G8 summit sat and ate, during an afternoon excursion. A framed photo in one of the Salon rooms shows the leaders in a relaxed mood. None of them are wearing ties, many have their jackets unbuttoned, and Tony Blair has his thrown over his shoulder. Other leaders included American President Bill Clinton, French President Jacques Chirac, and the Japanese Prime Minister, Mr Ryutaro Hashimoto.
Weston’s Drawing Room is an optical illusion. It’s rectangular, but look up at the ceiling and it looks oval. This may be because this used to be the main entrance hall with the front door, until that was moved in 1868. All the portraits in this room are of women, all connected with Weston Park. At the far end of the room, standing on French Pompeian style table is a stuffed yellow parrot. This was alive, when it was given as a present to Selina Bradford, wife of the 3rd Earl of Bradford, by Benjamin Disraeli. It was assumed to be male, until many years later when it laid more than twenty eggs and then passed away rather suddenly!
It’s not long before I’m back outside, this time wandering around the formal gardens, with their ornamental roses and tightly clipped hedges. From here the vista stretches right across Brown’s pleasure grounds and I spot a several deer grazing under the shade of a tree.
Benjamin Disraeli once wrote to a friend saying, ‘You will find Weston beautiful. I marvel whether I will ever see the like of it again. It is a place that always pleased me.’ Standing here, resting against the huge semi-circular balustrade, I nod in agreement. Disraeli’s words sum up the cosiness of the house and the grandeur of Brown’s landscaped grounds perfectly.
© Simon Whaley