One of Capability Brown’s earliest works, Stowe Gardens in Buckinghamshire was looking at its best when Brian Spencer visited it during a recent autumn break.
The gardens of Grade 1 listed Stowe House are the idyllic setting for Stowe School. The public school sits at the top of rising ground overlooking grounds that are, as the master gardener Capability Brown probably said, now looking at their best, having matured over three centuries. Our visit coincided with the sturdy beeches being decked in colours ranging from varying shades of yellow to brightest orange; their fallen leaves made patterns on the still waters of ornamental ponds dug by the hands of eighteenth century navvies.
The original estate was built by Sir George Gifford (1498-1557) whose wealth was based on wool. Very early in the fortunes of Stowe, the place became a popular venue for visits of the great and the good. This interest prompted later owners to expand the garden, making it an ideal retreat for politicians looking for somewhere to meet and plot with their confrères, and maybe meet up with their lady friends on the odd occasion.
Throughout the years the different owners all seem to have been able to extend the work of their predecessors, bringing in the top architects and garden designers of their day. Throughout the 1700s the house and its grounds were a hive of activity, starting with architects of their day, such as Charles Bridgeman and then Sir John Vanbrugh, designer of Blenheim Palace. He worked on Stowe for six years until his sudden death in 1726 and was followed by James Gibbs whose speciality was the English Baroque style – a feature that shows itself in both the house and the garden’s stone-work.
Most gardeners will agree that gardens take time to develop. In the case of Stowe, the time lapse was decades, almost running into centuries. Most of the work on Stowe Gardens took place in the mid-1700s. It was during this time that the young Lancelot Brown who had moved to Buckinghamshire as a free-lance garden designer, came to the notice of Lord Cobham at Stowe. He became head gardener, working closely with James Gibbs the architect responsible for the house and William Kent who had already laid out features such as the Elysian Fields, Temple of Ancient Virtue and also the Temple of English Worthies.
It was while Brown was developing Stowe’s gardens that he developed the style which was to give him the nickname ‘Capability’. Continuing Kent’s work, he laid out the garden making it look as natural as possible, in what became known as the Serpentine, or English style. As can be seen at Stowe, the central features are inter-linked winding, or ‘serpentine’ lakes joined by bridges and cascades; all this is surrounded by follies, encircling carriage drives and clumps of trees. All of his work has now grown to maturity, confirming Brown’s opinion of the garden’s ‘capability’.
It was during Capability Brown’s tenure at Stowe that his ideas and skills came to the notice of the fashionable elite of the country and so in 1751 he left Lord Cobham’s employment at Stowe, to spend the rest of his working life advising the owners of great estates of the ‘capabilities’ of their properties.
At the zenith of its popularity, Stowe became the ideal meeting place where politicians came to unwind and discuss strategies with their fellow MPs. Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger rented the estate at one time, making it an early version of Chequers the grace and favour residence of future prime ministers.
Like many grand houses and their estates, Stowe has passed its usefulness as a place where the great and good of society could use their wealth. Due to escalating maintenance costs, Stowe had to be found other uses. The result was that the house became a public school and the gardens given over to the care of the National Trust. While the house and the school’s sports facilities are not open to the public, visitors can stroll round the gardens and parkland on any day of the year. Like visitors from earlier times, the entrance to the 750 acre estate and its 40 listed historic monuments and temples is past the imposing Corinthian Arch and the Oxford Gates; the latter incidentally are built of wrought iron salvaged from a World War One German battleship.
Long before Stowe gardens became a National Trust property, the then current owners realised that it was necessary to provide somewhere for visitors to stay, or at least rest and take some refreshment. The New Inn close by the entrance was built to provide this and it now serves as an entry and information point at the start of a tour round the gardens. Although no longer providing overnight accommodation it does offer excellent meals and light refreshments, all to the usual high standards of the National Trust. The New Inn also houses a useful information section where, along with a note detailing the birds currently seen around the grounds, as well as being the start of walks guided by experienced National Trust staff.
The short Bell Drive leads down to the start of the graded paths that meander over the gently sloping land on either side of the lakes and past monuments and temples. Children are well catered for with the choice of three walks, non-more than 1.3 miles in length. Even for adults, a walk around the garden need not be too exhausting; the following is just one of the strolls on offer and because we did it on our visit, we can say it was most enjoyable.