Milton Abbey Church and Landscape

Blandford Forum, Dorset, DT11 0BZ
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Overview

From 1763 Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown created a spectacular wooded landscape for Lord Milton in the valley setting of the Milton Abbey estate. More controversially, Brown also built the new model village at Milton Abbas in the mid-1770s.

In one of his most ambitious pieces of landscaping, Capability Brown created 200 hectares (500 acres) of wooded landscape in a valley setting at Milton Abbey, Dorset. His client was Lord Milton (later Earl of Dorchester), who first hired Brown in 1763. Brown created thick plantings of trees up the sides of the valley, with extensive walks, rides and views. From 1773 he helped Lord Milton to enlarge the estate by removing the old village of Milton. To replace it, Brown designed the model village of Milton Abbas with its attractive streets of thatched cottages, lying out of sight of the house.

Brown’s accounts

Brown’s payments from Lord Milton began in 1763 and a contract was signed in 1764. His account book (see online) shows payments from Lord Milton of £2,052 and 8 shillings (around £3.5 million in 2015) during the period 1763-70.

Brown’s work at Milton Abbey started again in 1773, with at least two visits that year. He was back there in each of the next three years and received four further payments of £105 (about £160,000) each from Lord Milton. Brown noted in his account book that one of these sums was for his designs for the new village of Milton Abbas, but the plan has not survived.

Wooded valleys

The first phase of Brown’s project for Lord Milton was to improve the grounds to the north and east of the house. Milton Abbey lies at the point where three valleys meet, and this was a good starting point for Brown’s landscaping skills. Over six or seven years, Brown sowed more than 500 kilogrammes of Dutch clover on one side of the valley, and planted trees on the opposite side.

Writer Arthur Young visited Milton Abbey in 1771 and described the huge area of grass and woodland to the north of the house: “… a remarkable winding valley three miles long, surrounded on each side by hills whose variety is very great”. He wrote admiringly of the sculptural effect that Brown had achieved with his “hanging woods” and how “they form projections that break forward in great style”.

Through this landscape Brown created a spectacular circuit of 25 kilometres of walks, rides and views. It included features like the Sham Chapel, built by Brown and architect Sir William Chambers (1723-96; Wikipedia), who also remodelled the house at Milton Abbey for Lord Milton.

Model village

From the early 1770s Brown was involved in the second part of Lord Milton’s scheme to create a vast country estate at Milton Abbey. Chambers had originally drawn up plans for pulling down the existing village of Milton, so that the park could be enlarged. However, he fell out with Lord Milton in 1774 when he was remodelling the house in the Gothic style. Refusing to do any more work for the “unmannerly imperious Lord”, Chambers left the project, and the work was completed by architect James Wyatt (1746-1813; Wikipedia).

Instead, Brown’s scheme for Milton Abbas was used. He had experience of this type of redevelopment, as it was not uncommon for landowners to move rows of houses that were blocking their views. At Milton Abbey the destruction was on a much bigger scale – more than 100 houses were pulled down. One tenant, solicitor William Harrison, refused to leave his home, and held out against the redevelopment for 20 years.

Brown’s new village of Milton Abbas was built well out of sight of the house, in a narrow valley leading towards the lake. Typically, he made the new road slightly serpentine. Identical pairs of 36 thatched cottages, painted white, lined the street. He is thought to have planted horse chestnuts between each pair of houses. James Wyatt designed a new church for the village, as the abbey church was kept for Lord Milton’s private use.

New lawns and lake

Pulling down the old village allowed Brown’s men to remodel the landscape to the south of the house and to sew new lawns. They planted trees in what had been pasture land north of the church. Green Lane Cottage, which had been part of the old village, survived, and is still part of the pleasure grounds at Milton Abbey. 

Though Brown continued working for Lord Milton until 1782, his plans for a large lake were not completed. A stream was dammed on the southern edge of the park, near Milton Abbas, but the lake never got as far as the house.

Milton Abbey today

In the mid-1850s owner Baron Hambro employed architect Sir Gilbert Scott to restore the abbey church at the estate. In 1932 the estate was sold and broken up. The house and grounds were bought by Ecclesiastical Commissioners and later a boys’ public school was opened there. The site remains in divided ownership. 

Brown’s work is still evident in the picturesque village of Milton Abbas and the magnificent landscaping of the surrounding valleys, although most of the land is private and cannot be visited. The Abbey church is open to the public, and is currently undergoing restoration.  The landscape at Milton Abbey is listed Grade II*.

Sources 

Milton Abbey www.miltonabbey.org/ with particular thanks to Michael McAvoy

Capability Brown account book at the RHS, page 25: www.rhs.org.uk/education-learning/libraries-at-rhs/collections/library-online/capability-brown-account-book

Thomas Hinde & Turner book extracts

Historic England: historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000721