Red squirrels at Wallington would be a familiar sight to the young Lancelot Brown as he walked several miles to school in the Wallington Estate village of Cambo each day from his home in nearby Kirkharle, and as much part of the landscape as the trees, lakes and streams he was later to manipulate to create the ideal of the English landscape we see in his work today.
- Appuldurcombe House © Isle of Wight Gardens Trust
- Freemantle Gate, Appuldurcombe © Isle of Wight Gardens Trust
- Engraving of Appuldurcombe by Watts, 1780
In 1779 Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown enlarged the park and created new views around the house at Appuldurcombe on the Isle of Wight for Sir Richard Worsley, the 7th Baronet, enhancing Worsley’s own recent improvements.
In 1779 Sir Richard Worsley asked Capability Brown to enhance the park at Appuldurcombe. Sir Richard had been improving the estate since the early 1770s, building the impressive Freemantle Gate on the northern edge of the park and two eye-catchers – an obelisk and Cook’s Castle. Brown’s proposals are thought to have included enlarging the park, creating new plantations and designing views that framed the beautiful English Baroque house and took full advantage of the downland setting. He also designed a new carriage drive, formed a seasonal water feature in the form of a reverse ha-ha, and created a new walled kitchen garden to the east of the park.
Brown’s account book shows one payment of £52 and 10 shillings (about £76,000 in 2015) from Sir Richard in 1781, which was his standard fee for a masterplan. Capability’s eldest son, Lancelot Brown Junior, had visited Appuldurcombe in January 1778, when he viewed the obelisk. It is possible that his father was with him on that visit. Capability’s visit to Appuldurcombe may also have fitted in with his work at Cadland.
The Appuldurcombe plan thought to incorporate Brown’s proposals is unusual in being drawn over a survey of the estate done by William Watts in 1773. The new design was done in watercolour and it has been speculated that this was the work of Brown’s surveyor Jonathan Spyers.
Framing the views
Brown's plans included enlarging the park from the boundaries shown on the John Andrews map of 1769. The western side of the park was extended, by moving the wall enclosing the deer park further west to the bottom of Appuldurcombe Down.
The natural landscape was helpful to Brown in designing new views. The surrounding downland created a bowl-like setting for the park and its grand house, which had been built in the early 18th century by Sir Robert Worsley, Sir Richard’s great-uncle. Brown used new planting to enclose the area around the house and to frame views to the 70-foot (21 metres) granite obelisk, built in 1774 in honour of Sir Robert, and the sham medieval ruin of Cook’s Castle. As author William Gilpin later wrote, “Views of the sea, and various parts of the island, are judiciously opened about the house”.
Brown used trees of different sizes near the house and along the circuit drive, probably adding to the mature trees that were already there. By contrast, the lawn around the house was left open. He created two groves directly to the south of the house, designed to stand out in the wide panorama of the park. They also framed the main focus of Cook’s Castle.
A serpentine drive was a trademark Brown feature, and the one through the park at Appuldurcombe starts in the north at the triumphal arch (later called the Freemantle Gate) built by Sir Richard. This carriageway ran to the south-east, keeping the house out of sight until the big ‘reveal’ at the end. Beyond the house the carriage drive climbed up towards the obelisk which afforded views of the English Channel and Cook’s Castle. Along the northern edge of the deer park there are memorable views of Godshill and its medieval church.
Lake and ha-ha
Although Appuldurcombe does not have a grand water feature, Brown does appear to have proposed the creation of a shallow lake in the valley, on the east side of the park to enhance the main view from the house. It is thought that his plan was for a water meadow, with controlled flooding in season to give a lake effect from the house while also improving the drainage for farming. It’s possible that Brown tried to dig out and dam a tributary of the River Yar, but this may have been abandoned because of technical or financial issues.
Brown seems to have improved the drainage of the pasture areas of in the south east part of the park by designing a reverse ha-ha in the valley below the house to the west of the proposed lake. This feature was a stone wall bordering a stone-lined ditch that may have been fed by a spring.
Another feature on Brown’s plan was his walled garden, away from the house on the eastern boundary of the park. Surrounded by four brick walls, three clad in stone, the kitchen garden, orchards and outbuildings were all screened by a thin belt of trees so as not to interrupt views of the park. Sir Richard’s notebook for 1780 includes more than 280 fruit trees that were probably for the walled garden. This may have been at Brown’s suggestion, as he had gained a lot of experience of fruit-growing by this late stage of career.
Brown's time working at Appuldurcombe coincided with the outbreak of a society scandal between Sir Richard, his wife Lady Seymour (nee Fleming) and his erstwhile friend George Bisset, who he encouraged to have an affair with Seymour. The plan was rather too successful as the new couple eloped. Sir Richard then attempted to sue Bisset for a vast sum for having 'damaged' his wife. The court case was a cause celebre in the press and ended with Sir Richard being awarded compensation of only one shilling after being humiliated in court. Read more here.
Appuldurcombe after Brown
By the mid-19th century the park at Appuldurcombe had been split into fields and many of the trees had gone. From the early 20th century the house was empty for long periods suffered bomb damage in 1943. The shell of the building is listed Grade I and is managed by English Heritage Trust (Historic England), along with the inner park.
The landscape park at Appuldurcombe is registered at Grade II and is in private ownership. The Freemantle Gate is still standing, but Cook’s Castle was pulled down in the mid 20th century (the spot is marked by a plaque), whilst the obelisk, struck by lightning in 1831, was partially rebuilt in the 1980s. The walls of Brown’s kitchen garden remain, and visitors can still walk along some parts of Brown’s serpentine drive, enjoying the views he created.
Isle of Wight Gardens Trust Brown Festival 2016 papers by Vicky Basford, Kate Harwood, Steffie Shields and Phillip Masters: www.iowgardenstrust.co.uk/
Historic England: historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000926