Corsham Court

Corsham, Wiltshire, SN13 0BZ
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Overview

Mr Paul Methuen acquired Corsham in 1745. As a member of a family of wealthy Wiltshire clothiers, he could afford to enlarge & ‘improve’ both the Elizabethan mansion house & buy neighbouring land & property to create a country estate. William Simpson's map of 1770 shows that lands had been bought to increase the size of the estate centred on Corsham House. Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown was first invited to Corsham in 1759.

Brown worked as both a building and landscape architect as part of his commission here. He concentrated on the land to the east of the estate as the house is sited on the west side of a deer park bordering the village of Corsham. Brown's intention was to create a pastoral scene at Corsham, incorporating the old deer park, with its principal view from the windows of a Picture Gallery which he also designed. Paul Methuen had inherited a magnificent picture collection from his cousin and godfather, Sir Paul Methuen (1672 - 1757) a well travelled diplomat, and wanted to display them in suitable surroundings. Brown’s plan doubled the bay windows of the projecting wings and the Picture Gallery and smaller Cabinet Room occupied the ground floor of the extended east wing. It was later embellished by architect John Nash (1752-1835).

His plan of 1761 for laying out the Park was comprehensive. Brown separated the Park from the pleasure grounds by excavating of a ha-ha approximately 400 yards from the house & running in a straight line to the North Front. This was to separate the pasture from the deer park without affecting the view from the house. He created a "Great Walk", a path about 1 mile long, with clumps of trees planted along its length and planted specimen trees including Cedars & an Oriental Plane. The private stretch of this path passes into Mynte Wood. Where it is crossed by a public footpath, an ornamental arch of "petrified" stone was built to allow the family & their guests to walk uninterrupted beneath the public right of way. The footpath still passes over the dry arch in the middle of the wood. It links Brown's park with the land to the north, later landscaped by Humphry Repton.

Brown enlarged stew ponds to form a pear-shaped lake on the north east side of the house (which was later filled in), constructed a gothic bath house, and an orangery in the gardens (since demolished). He also sited of a lodge at the end of the North Avenue although this was never constructed. Of the three buildings designed by Brown for the gardens, only the Bath House survives. It was later re-modelled by architect John Nash, who added further gothic adornments. The cold bath is sunk into an arcaded ground floor & a flight of steps leads to a dressing room above. The ogee shaped side archways, the windows, the gothic niches & the pinnacles of the roof remain from Brown's original pavilion. Brown planted a screen of trees around the park to define its parameters & obscure the roads & fields beyond. On the eastern boundary, the view was softened by the planting of a serpentine belt of trees. He retained Elm avenues to north & south of the house, supplemented with further planting to ensure their survival. An established avenue to the east was severely thinned to make way for picturesquely grouped trees, mainly Ash, Oak & Walnut.

In 1795, Humphry Repton was appointed by Paul Methuen's son & heir, Paul Cobb Methuen. His brief amounted to an extension & consolidation of Brown's work 40 years earlier. Repton was not an architect & worked closely with John Nash, whom he had introduced to the Methuens. Nash was to re-fashion the north facing elevation of Corsham Court. Repton felt that such dramatic architecture was best complemented by a contrast of round-headed trees and so planted a large clump of Horse Chestnuts, a Black Walnut, Copper Beeches & Turkey Oaks. These plantings were interspersed with decorative trees including Indian Bean, Cherries & a large fruited Spindle Tree.

The Park Today

During the late 1970s, thousands of Elm trees were felled across the Corsham Estate as Dutch Elm disease took hold. Over the previous hundred years or so, the landscape had been in decline as the lake had silted up & many of the Oaks become stag-headed. All inland water bodies silt up over time & eventually become marshes without intervention. Oak trees, not particularly well suited to the shallow calcareous soils, were prematurely dying back when their roots hit the impenetrable bedrock. Many acres of sheep pasture had been lost to arable cultivation & the shallow rooted Oaks suffered in consequence. The late Sixth Lord Methuen had replanted the north & south avenues with Lime, although it was not until 1998 that a co-ordinated & sustained programme of restoration was embarked upon.

A restoration and management plan was drawn up. Over 500 individually sheltered parkland trees were to be planted throughout the Park. The project got underway in 1999 when the lake was drained to enable 90,000 tonnes of silt being dredged from its basin. This silt was allowed to dry out (over 24 months) before being incorporated back into the land to the north. Since this time all land, previously in arable cultivation, has been re-seeded with traditional grass species and few fertilisers and pesticides are used. The woodland is an important feature of the Park and has also been restored. The woods and copses have been thinned and underplanted with thousands of Oak trees and other native species. They will continue to form the backdrop of this pastoral (but entirely artificial) landscape for generations to come.