Foots Cray Meadows

Foots Cray Place, Sidcup, Bexley, DA14 5BP
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Overview

Lancelot 'Capability' Brown designed the Five Arch Bridge and serpentine lake at North Cray Place, now part of Foots Cray Meadows, for Thomas Coventry.

Thomas Coventry (1713-97) inherited the estate at North Cray in 1778 and hired Capability Brown in around 1780. His scheme included smoothing and widening part of the River Cray to create a ribbon-like lake, with the Five Arch Bridge, weir and sluices. Brown also landscaped the parkland, with clumps and enclosing belts of trees, making a series of walks and drives around the estate. North Cray Place borders the River Cray, which flows north into the River Thames just north of Dartford, Kent. 

Brown’s account book shows that he was paid £1,300 (nearly £1.9 million in 2015) in 1781-82 for his work at North Cray. His client was the cousin of the 6th Earl of Coventry, who had hired Brown to landscape the estate at Croome, Worcestershire from the 1740s onwards.

There is no plan of what Brown did at North Cray, but maps and illustrations from before and after his work show how the estate changed. The Andrews, Dury and Herbert county map of 1769 (see online) shows that there was a formal landscape at North Cray before Brown. This included pleasure grounds with paths and water features, extending north-west from the house as far as North Cray Wood.

Lake and Five Arch Bridge

One of Brown’s major achievements at North Cray was the reshaping of the River Cray to create a ribbon-like lake. He designed the Five Arch Bridge, which was mainly brick and included a weir on its north side. Other Brown bridges at Temple Newsam, Yorkshire and Compton Verney, Warwickshire, were built in stone and more elegant in their design. It is thought that Coventry, who was described by writer and essayist Charles Lamb as “a hoarder rather than a miser”, was keeping a close eye on the budget here.

Brown would have needed all his skills and experience in earth-moving and drainage at North Cray. The Cray is a chalk river with wide, shallow sections of gravel. To create a watertight lining Brown probably used a mixture of wet clay and sand or puddling clay. He may also have been dealing with low water levels here as a result of work at the Foots Cray estate, on the other side of the river. The bridge, weir and two islands gave the lake an unusual 'neck', which looked elegant and maintained the water level.

Brown's planting

The tithe map of 1838 and the Ordnance Survey map of 1858-73 show Brown’s planting reaching maturity. The neighbouring Foots Cray estate had earlier undergone some semi-naturalistic landscaping of the water and open parkland. Brown borrowed this as part of his wider landscaping, as he planted clumps and enclosing belts of deciduous and coniferous trees in the parkland. These were used to control views, as with the main approach drive to the house, and to screen off North Cray village.

The maps show that Brown screened the ornamental gardens east of the house, using a belt of planting to the south and a brick wall against the road to the east. He also created a series of walks and drives around the estate. There was a circuit walk from the house, leading south-west through a belt of trees, designed to take in the lake, parkland and North Cray Wood.

Though neither Brown nor his client lived to see the results of this mastery of the landscape, Coventry was probably influenced by Brown’s long-running work at Croome.

North Cray Place today

Brown’s work at North Cray can still be seen in the ribbon-like lake, spanned by the Five Arch Bridge (now listed Grade II, Historic England). The weir and parts of the brickwork sluice have survived. There are a few mature deciduous trees in the park, as well as some mature cedars of Lebanon, now within gardens of 20th century housing, which may date to Brown’s era.

A large section of the park to the south has been lost to housing development in the 20th century. The local authority bought the remaining parkland at North Cray and joined it with Foots Cray Place to create the public parkland of Foots Cray Meadows. The ‘new’ lake is now a nature reserve and lovely in its own right, but the shallow river downstream of the bridge is incredibly popular with young families who all know that "if its hot, you head for 5 arches…"

Sources

Geraldine Moon & Mike O'Brien, 'North Cray Place & Brown's influence on nearby estates', Capability Brown in Kent, Kent Gardens Trust, 2016 www.kentgardenstrust.org.uk

Andrews, Dury and Herbert map: www.oldmapsonline.org/en/Kent

Capability Brown's account book, page 149: www.rhs.org.uk/education-learning/libraries-at-rhs/collections/library-online/capability-brown-account-book

NOTE: Please note that the modern equivalents of prices given on the Capability Brown website use the equivalant labour cost shown on www.measuringworth.com, rather than the real price (calculated on the increase in inflation), and therefore differ from the figures in the original research by Kent Gardens Trust. This is based on the research by Roderick Floud published in RHS Occasional Papers 14.