Two years ago we visited Lowther to witness the transformation of its south garden, overseen by Dominic Cole OBE, former chairman of the Garden History Society and now president of The Gardens Trust.
Capability Brown’s Plan
The long series of lawns stretching away from the castle had worn many faces over their 700 years; deer park had given way to Tudor knots, and a French-style parterre had given way to Edwardian iris and rose gardens, as explained by Ruth Thurnhill with the aid of many maps.
Was there a time when the English Landscape Garden style ever made its mark here? Capability Brown certainly came to Lowther, for the entry in his account book proves it. He was invited by Sir James Lowther, but then so were a train of others; plans were pouring in, from Brettingham, Robert and James Adam, not to mention a quite daring one from Francis Richardson. For all the fabulous wealth of the Lowther family, garden improvements in the 18th century seemed not to materialise. Was it the distance, or the poor accessibility to the Great North Road? Certainly a period of neglect following the Jacobite rebellion would have left a garden overgrown and daunting.
Brown’s plan, not quite the size of a billiard table, and stored in Cumbria Record Office, Carlisle, took a completely new look at the topography at Lowther; lines flowed with the lie of the land rather than trying to impose geometry upon it. Brown realised that the glory of the south garden was the limestone escarpment, and so he aligned a long, serpentine shrubbery walk with it; at intervals, breaks in the planting were designed to give glimpses of the wonderful view. The plan shows an open central space broken at intervals by tree clumps, and another serpentine shrubbery walk curving along the eastern rim. Had this plan been implemented, the view back to the mansion framed by arching groups of trees, would have been one of Brown’s best compositions. The north Lakeland hills on the far horizon would have provided the crown.
The natural asset of the river Lowther did not escape Brown either. His clever use of the deep-cut river valley at Alnwick shows how he controlled the water’s flow by narrowing and widening the valley, and thereby gained great variety; still water gave reflection and fast-flowing water gave a pleasing sound. This thrilling sequence was planned for Lowther in the north park; the abrupt curve of the river would have been used to alter the flow and a cascade and bridge built to emphasise the narrowing end of the‘lake’. The little church on high ground is perfectly placed to serve as a focal point in the composition, rather like Hulne Priory which stands high above the Aln valley in Northumberland.
We enjoyed imagining how wonderful the north park might have looked, and so did John Webb. He submitted his plan in 1807, and as a practitioner more used to working in the northern counties, he was more likely to have gained a proper commission. His riverside walks were a hallmark. Our path from the church led across the meadow and through an avenue of 200-year-old sycamore and oak trees, down towards the river where we crossed on a single-arch stone bridge – was it John Webb’s?
We entered woodland on rising ground and followed the ever-narrowing path, upwards and in and out of sun and shade, until we reached a point where the distant house came fully into view; a splendid sight, a glistening whitecastellated ruin, with a green ribbon of open meadow before it. This was a special viewpoint indeed. Clumps of tall Scots pine trees stood sentinel on either side of a wooden seat, so old that it might well have offered rest to William Wordsworth himself. For he wrote about this very walk:
… the most beautiful specimen of a forest pathway ever seen by human eyes and which I have pacedmany an hour, when I was a youth, with some of those I best love. This path winds on under the trees with the wantonness of a river or living creature; … There is a continued opening between the trees, a narrow slip of green turf besprinkled with flowers, chiefly daisies, and here it is … that this pretty path plays its pranks, wearing away the turf and flowers at its pleasure…If I were disposed to write a sermon upon the subject of taste in natural beauty, I should take for my text the little pathway in Lowther Woods, and all which I had to say would begin and end in the human heart, as under the direction of the Divine Nature. Letter to Sir G. Beaumont, 1805.
Lancashire Gardens Trust
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