John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, purchased the estate at Luton Hoo in 1763 and employed Capability Brown to landscape the park.
- Part of Brown's plan for Luton Hoo, reproduced from Metropolitan Museum, New York
- Luton Hoo from the west, watercolour by Adam Callander, 1783 © Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Lancelot 'Capability' Brown improved the park and created an unusual octagonal walled garden for John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, at the Luton Hoo estate.
Between 1764 and 1779 Capability Brown, with his foreman William Ireland, landscaped the park at Luton Hoo, Bedfordshire, which is on a hilltop facing the east side of the Lea Valley. As well as the octagonal walled garden, Brown’s scheme included damming the River Lea to create huge lakes, moving the main road and creating plantations to frame the views. Over this 16-year period the former Prime Minister Lord Bute paid Brown the enormous sum of at least £11,663 (nearly £18 million in 2015), and possibly £1,627 more, for work at Luton Hoo. The exact sum is unclear as Brown also received payments from the earl for his work at Highcliffe in Dorset. A small part of Brown's plan survives, showing the planting south-east of the house (above), and is now held in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
Before Lord Bute bought Luton Hoo, the estate had been inherited by Francis Herne in 1751. Payments made to Brown by Herne in 1756 and 1757 were probably for earlier improvements to Luton Hoo.
Brown's original plan for the walled garden at Luton Hoo was for a site next to the lake. Instead, an octagonal walled garden covering 2 hectares (5 acres), plus a further 5 acres of slip gardens, was built on a plateau south-west of the house, at the high point of the park. It faces south-east to benefit from the morning sun and has a central wall that runs south-west to north-east across it. The extra walls were designed to take maximum advantage of the sunlight trapped by the south-facing walls.
A map of 1826 shows the octagonal garden, which included a conservatory, within a rectangular enclosure of outbuildings, paths and other structures. Brown created other walled gardens that were not rectangular in shape – Brocklesby Park, near Grimsby, has a five-sided walled garden.
The earl was a renowned botanist and the walled garden housed his extensive collection of plants, which was second in importance only to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, which he helped to found. Plants also featured in the Flower Garden Wood, which provided a shelter belt for the Walled Garden and in the garden designed by Brown to the south-east of the mansion.
The main feature of the park is the River Lea, which Brown dammed to create two serpentine lakes running north to south, close to the eastern edge of the estate. The two lakes appear as one, about 2.4 kilometres (1.5 miles) long, with two cascades and small wooded islands. The main road was moved beyond the lake and hidden by a dense belt of trees.
Brown created lawns in a series of gentle undulations, and is thought to have developed or added new plantations on the hillside, east of the park. George Wood and Hardingdell Woods frame the view east from the house. As at the Ashridge and Beechwood estates in Hertfordshire, Brown’s planting included many beech, oak and ash. At Luton Hoo he was able to use the fine beeches already established there in his design.
Luton Hoo today
In 1999 the mansion (listed Grade I, Historic England) and part of the estate were sold to a hotel chain. The farm and walled garden remain in private ownership. In 2017 the walled garden is part of a major project to revive it and open it to visitors.
Information courtesy of Bedfordshire Gardens Trust: bedsgardenstrust.org.uk
Luton Hoo Estate: www.lutonhooestate.co.uk/walled-garden
Capability Brown website: www.capabilitybrown.org/news/brown-and-bute-luton-hoo
Historic England: historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000578
Sarah Rutherford, ‘Capability Brown and His Landscape Gardens’, National Trust Books, 2016, pages 85, 96, 113, 124, 162
Dorothy Stroud, Capability Brown, Faber & Faber, 1975, pages 133-134