- 1887 OS map showing Shortgrove, 1st edition 25" to the mile, Reproduced by courtesy of the Essex Record Office
Lancelot 'Capability' Brown created the pleasure ground at Shortgrove Hall for the Earl of Thomond.
Brown was first employed in 1753 to remodel the grounds and work continued into the 1760s under a series of contracts. Shortgrove Hall is a park of around 176 hectares (435 acres), lying 8 kilometres (5 miles) south of Saffron Walden in Essex. Brown began by creating pleasure grounds with gravel paths. He built two ha-has (sunken walls), laid new lawns and remodelled the approach to the house. He is also thought to have widened the River Cam on the western edge of the park.
Contracts and payments
Records of Brown’s time at Shortgrove, include contracts from 1753 and 1754 and payments to his account at Drummond’s Bank. There are also letters between the earl and his bailiff from the 1760s until 1772, which describe the progress of the levelling and planting work.
The bank records show that Brown presented a bill of £63 (almost £112,000 in 2015) for making Hole Pond in 1758. Between 1760 and 1764 he was paid another £1,470 (£2.5 million in 2016).
Percy Wyndham had inherited the estate from his uncle in 1741, and took his surname O'Brien and the title Earl of Thomond in 1756. As part of his scheme of improvements to the house and grounds he hired Brown to remodel the formal gardens that had been laid out in the 1720s. The first contract was dated July 1753 and concerned designing the pleasure grounds south and east of the house, bringing in the new area of Butt Field.
The contract refers to moving “as many of the Trees as are thought proper in the Garden as likewise those in the Butfield and to plant[ing] all other Trees and Shrubs that are thought necessary to be planted in this Design”.
Brown was also asked to build about 2 kilometres (1.25 miles) of gravel paths. A parish map of 1786 shows a curved pathway linking the pleasure grounds with Butt Field. A ha-ha was built to enclose the neighbouring Fort Acres field to the north-east within this design. The contract uses the term “fosse” or “sunk fence” to describe this 5-foot ditch and wall.
Brown created a new layout behind the house by building a 10-foot high brick wall, bringing Dovehouse Court into a bigger kitchen garden. At this time an irregularly shaped section of the old formal garden was also included in the new pleasure ground.
In November 1754 Brown was hired to build another ha-ha. He was asked to construct a circular sunken fence with brick walls “from the end of the Sunk Fence that enclos’d the Garden” to join the iron railings on the office side of the house. This curved ha-ha can be seen on the parish map of 1786. This area of the pleasure ground was laid with turf and gravel to a “proper and corresponding Level”.
The second contract also covered the remodelling of the approach. Trees were removed from the wide avenues of elms that gave views from the house to the River Cam, softening its line. These were replanted as clumps elsewhere, to make “promiscuous [mixed] plantations”. Some of these new plantations were to be thickened up with small trees chosen by the earl.
Brown is known to have created Hole Pond in 1758, as there is a bill for this work. He is also thought to have widened the River Cam on the western edge of the park. A letter from the bailiff in 1763 suggests that there were problems with this part of the project as the “new river” was not holding water. Men and horses were brought in from the fields to fix this “defect in Mr Brown’s work”.
Shortgrove after Brown
The gardens were improved under the ownership of the Smith family during the 19th century. Landscape gardener and nurseryman William Chater developed the old walled gardens in the 1860s and created a rose garden and Italian garden behind the house.
The mansion was destroyed following a fire in 1966 and has since been rebuilt twice. The stables were converted to private housing. The gardens enclosed by Brown’s ha-ha are now laid to grass, but there are still traces of the pleasure grounds along the southern boundary of the garden and spreading into a wooded area south-east of the mansion site.
The south park is now mainly arable, but the outline of Brown’s design can still be seen, as well as the widened River Cam, ha-has and oak and sweet chestnut plantings.
Lancelot Brown and his Essex Clients: A Gazetteer of Sites in Essex Associated with Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown 1716-1783, Essex Gardens Trust, 2015 www.essexgardenstrust.org.uk
Historic England: historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000744