- South west view of Melton Constable, engraving by Samuel & Nathaniel Bucks, 1741 (© Crown copyright: UK Government Art Collection, AA75/02222)
- Brown's lake at Melton Constable (Reproduced from OS 1885 1st edition 6" to the mile map by kind permission of Ordnance Survey
- Melton Constable drawn by Repton, Armstrong's 1781 'The History and Antiquities of the County of Norfolk, Volume VII'
- Watt's 1782 engraving of Melton Constable published in 'Seats of the Nobility and Gentry' (Private collection)
From 1764 Lancelot 'Capability' Brown remodelled the estate and created a new lake for Sir Edward Astley, at Melton Constable.
By a contract of July 1764 Capability Brown was employed by Sir Edward Astley to carry out major improvements to his estate. The work included creating a large lake, pleasure gardens and kitchen garden, as well as draining the land and laying out plantations.
Melton Constable Park lies about 10 kilometres (6.2 miles) south-west of Holt, near Fakenham in Norfolk, and covers about 180 hectares (445 acres), with around 6 hectares (15 acres) of gardens and pleasure grounds.
Brown’s plan for Melton Constable Park has not survived. There is a contract between Brown and Sir Edward, dated July 1764, which sets out the agreed works in seven articles. The work was to be completed by June or July 1768. The total payment was to be £2,280 (almost £4 million in 2015). Sir Edward was to provide the carts and wheelbarrows and up to six able horses, as well as all the trees and shrubs needed.
A gothic makeover?
Brown’s account books show that Sir Edward did pay the total bill, in nine instalments, and that Brown signed off on the project in October 1768. There was a further payment of £207 (about £350,000 in 2015) to Brown in December 1769. This may have been for supplying plans for various buildings – a temple, aviary and gothic summerhouse.
It may also have included work to give the existing Bath House a 'gothic' makeover. In the 18th century crenellations were added to this Tudor building, and the windows given an arched shape, making it look more like a temple on its raised position overlooking the park. So if Brown did create a temple it was probably this, but the work is not mentioned in the contract and no other evidence has yet been found.
Article one of the contract covers the creation of a new lake at Melton Constable. The land wasn’t really suited to creating such a large water feature – there was no natural valley or big watercourse – so this was a huge project. Today it covers 6.3 hectares (15 acres) and is nearly half a kilometre long.
It is difficult to know how much the current irregular shape of the lake differs from Brown’s design, as his original plan has not survived. It is certainly very different in style from the winding sheets of water he designed at other estates. In an Ordnance Survey drawing of 1816 the lake appears to be two rounded expanses of water, each with an island, and strip of land in between that almost separates them, but this is not thought to be accurate.
Lying just over 0.8 kilometres (0.5 miles) from the house, the lake was too distant to be supplied from the old fish ponds north-west of the hall. Instead Brown used a small watercourse which ran across the southern side of the park. The contract also called for a “plug”. This was the sluice gate placed in the dam which Brown created at the east end of the lake, to let the water run off into the Blackwater Beck.
Also unusual is that the lake at Melton Constable is too far from the house to have given the owner the best views of his "new piece of water” from the reception rooms. It would have worked much better as a destination for Sir Edward and his guests once they were out in the park.
Roads and plantations
The third article of the contract concerned creating roads and draining land within the park. It is not easy to tell exactly how much of this Brown did. He is very likely to have designed the new drive from the west gate to the front of the house that is shown on the county map of 1797. The other 'roads' were probably private drives around the park to enjoy views of the newly designed landscape. There was also a second approach to the hall, coming from what was then the south-east entrance of the park.
The second article refers to plantations in the park and garden. Engravings and maps show that much tree planting had already been done at Melton Constable before Brown arrived. He added belts of trees around the boundary of the park, though he left a drive through them with 'windows' in the planting to give views across the lake. He would also have put small groups of trees in the open parkland as eye-catchers or to frame a feature.
Kitchen garden and menagerie
It has been suggested that the kitchen garden was there before Brown and that he didn’t create it, as covered by the fourth article. However, a survey in 2015 showed that he did build a new walled garden. The north, east and south walls have been dated to the 1760s and the western side belongs to a 17th-century enclosure.
Paths from the kitchen garden led into Brown’s surrounding pleasure grounds, which were separated from the parkland by his ha-ha (sunken wall). This was probably a freestanding fence in a ditch during Brown’s day, but it was later made into a more substantial brick wall within the asymmetrical ditch.
Under the fifth article, Brown created the site for a new menagerie at Melton Constable, with gravel paths for visitors. The contract refers to “planting the necessary trees and shrubs” here, but that probably meant the screening belts of trees to the north and west. Menageries were very fashionable in the 18th and 19th centuries, though here it probably housed birds and not other exotic creatures.
Melton Constable today
The estate remained in the Astley family until it was sold to the Duke of Westminster in 1948. There were several sales after this and the park and house were finally split in the mid-1980s. Melton Constable Hall is listed Grade I (Historic England) and the gardens are listed Grade II* (Historic England).
Brown’s improvements to the landscape can still be seen – notably in the view back towards the hall across the lake. The work he did in shaping the parkland up to the house was lost during the later addition of Victorian gardens.
Sally Bate (Editor), Capability Brown in Norfolk, Norfolk Gardens Trust, 2016 www.norfolkgt.org.uk/
Historic England: historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000533
Parks & Gardens UK: www.parksandgardens.org/places-and-people/site/2261