Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown updated the landscape at Nuneham Park, creating Brown’s Walk and enlarging the house for Lord Nuneham, later 2nd Earl Harcourt.
In the late 1770s Capability Brown was asked to remodel the Classical landscape at Nuneham, 6 miles south of Oxford, which had been laid out about 20 years earlier. Brown planted trees as a screen between the house and the River Thames and created a terrace walk south of the house. Working with architect Henry Holland, Brown also enlarged the house and built a walled kitchen garden to the north-east of the house.
One of the major features of Brown’s design for Nuneham was the creation of a new walk to the south of the house. Brown’s Walk is a looped woodland circuit, covering some of the same ground as a walk that had been laid out in the early 1760s. At the southernmost end of the circuit the view overlooks a small valley, with Brown’s Hill on the other side. Brown wanted to place a Gothic ruin here as an eye-catcher. This wasn’t done, but an eye-catcher was later added when the upper part of the 17th-century Carfax Conduit House (part of Oxford's early water system, now listed Grade I; Historic England) was moved to Nuneham and rebuilt there in 1786.
Between 1779 and 1782 Brown was working at Nuneham with Lord Nuneham and with poet William Mason, who had already designed the flower garden there. During Brown’s time trees were planted to form a screen between the house and the Thames. A ha-ha (sunken wall and ditch) was also built to separate the terraces and pleasure grounds from the deer park.
Kitchen garden and house
In partnership with architect Henry Holland, Brown also enlarged the house at Nuneham, which had been built by architect Stiff Leadbetter (1705-1766, Wikipedia) in the late 1750s. Brown’s plan included a new 3-acre kitchen garden at Nuneham, following a similar pattern to the cruciform design at Ashburnham. It was built out in the park, to the north-east of the house and was divided into three narrow rectangular sections. A house for the gardener was built into the west wall.
The Deserted Village
In the 1760s Oliver Goldsmith (1728- 1774) Irish poet and author of She Stoops to Conquer, witnessed the demolition of an ancient village and the destruction of its farms to clear land to become a wealthy man's garden. His poem The Deserted Village, published in 1770, expressed a fear that the destruction of villages and the conversion of land from productive agriculture to ornamental landscape gardens would ruin the peasantry. The Deserted Village gave the demolished village the pseudonym "Sweet Auburn". Goldsmith never disclosed the real village to which the poem refers, but he indicated it was about 50 miles (80 km) from London and is widely believed to have been Nuneham Courtenay. A number of Brown’s clients used enclosure orders and Acts of Parliament to remove long held Commons rights to land. This is known to have had an adverse effect on the health and mortality of local populations, reliant upon those Commons right for part of their livelihood and food supply.
Nuneham Park after Brown
In the 1830s owner Edward Vernon-Harcourt hired landscape designer William Sawrey Gilpin (1762-1843, Wikipedia) to create Italianate terracing overlooking the Thames. He also altered the gardens around the house and created the arboretum.
After the Second World War the University of Oxford bought the Nuneham estate. The Harcourt Arboretum is now part of the University’s Botanic Garden. The house and part of the park are currently used as a retreat centre for study and meditation and there is some public access to these areas.
Brown’s riverside landscaping can still be seen from the back of the house and from the walk to the south. Some ancient oaks, beeches, ash, box and yew have survived, but some of the views are now overgrown. Brown’s kitchen garden has fallen into disrepair, but the outer walls have been repointed and are still standing.
In 2016 the estate was put up for sale by University of Oxford.
Information courtesy of Oxfordshire Gardens Trust: ogt.org.uk
Historic England: historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000122
Sarah Rutherford, Capability Brown and his Landscape Gardens, National Trust, 2016, pages 156 and 161