Published by the Yorkshire Gardens Trust, Noble Prospects: Capability Brown & the Yorkshire Landscape tells the story of Brown’s work in Yorkshire, from his first known consultation at Harewood in 1758 to new projects at Stapleton and Byram just a few months before he died in 1783.
- Roche Abbey, pen and ink/watercolour by Samuel Hieronymus Grimm © Museums Sheffield
- Roche Abbey, photo © Simon Warner
In 1774 Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown was employed to transform the site at Roche Abbey for the 4th Earl of Scarbrough.
Capability Brown’s working relationship with the earl, owner of Sandbeck Park, began with his visit to Yorkshire in 1760 and an initial contract that has not survived. In a second contract, of 12 September 1774, the earl turned his attention to improvements at the ruined 12th-century Cistercian Roche Abbey, around 400 metres to the west of Sandbeck Park, near Rotherham, South Yorkshire.
Raising the ruins
The contract instructs Brown:
"To finish all the Valley of Roach Abbey in all its Parts, According to the Ideas fixed on with Lord Scarbrough, (with Poets feeling and with Painters Eye) beginning at the Head of the Hammer Pond, and continuing up the valley towards Loton on the Morn, as far as Lord Scarbroughs Ground goes, and to continue the Water and Dress the Valley up by the Present Farm House, until it comes to the separation fixed for the Boundary of the new New Farm. N.B. the Paths in the Wood are included in this Discription and every thing but the Buildings."
The ruins lie in the bottom of the valley of Maltby Dike, where it joins Hooton or Laughton Dike. Here Brown created Laughton Pond, using the earth to raise the level of the ground around the ruins. The dike was diverted so that the foundations of the ruin could not be seen, but the abbey was made to appear as though it was rising dramatically from the earth.
Manpower and horsepower
The 1774 contract sets out what would be needed to carry out the improvements. The earl would supply four suitable horses, with carts and harnesses, as well as rough timber and wheelbarrows. He was also in charge of buying trees and shrubs for the site. Brown was to be paid £2,700 (around £4.3 million in 2015) for his designs and to supply men for the job, working under foreman Adam Mickle.
Only one of the three valleys planned to centre on the abbey ruins had been finished by 1776. Brown’s involvement with the earl ended suddenly in 1779 – in an argument over money. The earl accused Brown of making too much profit, and the dispute over payment of the outstanding £1,500 (£2.3 million in 2015) continued until long after Brown’s death in 1783.
Adam Mickle and his son (also named Adam) continued to work on creating walks around the abbey until around 1782.
Roche Abbey after Brown
Roche Abbey continued to be a popular spot for Victorian tourists, but some historians felt that Brown’s improvements had made future investigations of the site more difficult. Viscount Lumley (later the 10th Earl of Scarbrough), did carry out excavations between the late 19th century and the 1930s, and had "practically all Brown’s work removed" from the area immediately around the ruins. However, Laughton Pond and its cascade remain and Brown’s vision for the valley as a whole can still be appreciated.
The Roche Abbey ruins are now an ancient monument in the care of English Heritage, while the rest of the site remains in private ownership.
Information courtesy of the Yorkshire Gardens Trust and the New Arcadian Press.
For an extended and fully annotated account please see: Karen Lynch, ‘Capability Brown in Yorkshire’, in Dr Patrick Eyres (Ed), Yorkshire Capabilities: New Arcadian Journal 75/76, 2016 www.newarcadianpress.co.uk
For a lavishly illustrated account of Brown in Yorkshire please see: Karen Lynch, Noble Prospects: Capability Brown & the Yorkshire Landscape, Harrogate: Mercer Art Gallery & Yorkshire Gardens Trust, 2016 www.yorkshiregardenstrust.org.uk
Historic England list entry: historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1001161
English Heritage aerial view: historicengland.org.uk/services-skills/education/educational-images/roche-abbey-maltby-op13304
Parks & Gardens UK: www.parksandgardens.org/places-and-people/site/2902