Capability Brown's Pleasure Grounds
Take a stroll around the Pleasure Grounds on this Capability Brown inspired walk featuring the iconic monuments he introduced.
Capability Brown at Petworth
The Pleasure Grounds at Petworth were laid out in the 16th century and re-developed by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in the latter half of the 18th century. He suggested sites for the Doric Temple and Ionic Rotunda to give impressive views both to and from the structures, introduced a ha-ha between the Pleasure Grounds and in the Park designed sinuous paths from the mansion and around the grounds.
Petworth House & Park, main visitor car park, GU28 9LR
From the car park walk through the Visitor Centre. Above you on the hill is the Ionic Rotunda placed by Capability Brown to evoke the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli. The temple stands above the meadow, formerly a paddock. Several of the trees in the meadow would have been available to Brown. Walk to your right along the path towards a set of gates before turning left onto a grass path between some thorn trees. The path climbs across the wild flower meadow.
The serpentine path passes through Capability Brown’s landscape giving views of the Ionic Rotunda before revealing the mansion. Towards the end of the 18th century many new and exciting plants were being imported from America and to a lesser extent the Far East. As you walk north down the drive towards the Salvin Gates there are examples of Crateagus (thorns), Sorbus and Fraxinus.
To your right as you cross the meadow is a wonderful specimen of the South European flowering ash. This spreading tree has showy panicles of fragrant creamy-white flowers. It was introduced from southern Europe and Asia Minor in 1700. Turn right at the top of the meadow below a bank of azaleas and follow the path to the Pleasure Grounds wall. Serpentine paths like this one designed to give views across the meadow, were one of Brown’s trademarks were to create a more naturalistic feel.
The meadow is full of wild flowers, the coarse grass are effectively kept in check by the semi-parasitic yellow rattle (rhinanthus minor), this plant has small yellow flowers followed by seed bladders that rattle when mature thus its common name. The rattling of the bladder was said to indicate that the meadow was ready to be cut for hay. Prior to Brown the woodland to your left, called the wilderness , was bisected by straight paths known as the birchen walks.
Looking north over the wall you can see a wonderful rolling parkland landscape with a large pond which is fed via covered culverts from springs on the surrounding hills. In the distance is Black Down the highest point in Sussex at 280m. Turn around and retrace your steps to the top of the meadow and then continue on the path climbing the slight rise towards the Ionic Rotunda.
Read more about Petworth Park
The park in front of you used to be common land that was first enclosed in the reign of Henry VIII. In around 1537 Henry VIII erected a banqueting house on Arbour Hill. On Henry’s demise the commoners re-took the land but it was reclaimed by the 9th Earl of Northumberland (Henry Percy) in the 1570’s. The hummocky nature of the park is due to centuries of deer grazing maintaining open grassland. In this environment moles flourish making countless mole hills ‘hummocks ‘which are subsequently taken over by ants. The western and northern margins of the pond are managed to provide habitat for wildlife, beneficial to toads and dragonflies.
The Ionic Rotunda was erected around 1765 on the site suggested by Capability Brown’s 1752 plan. He positioned it on the steep hillside to give commanding views over meadow below and the surrounding pastoral countryside to the east. Looking south east there is an open ride flanked by young lime trees and Irish yews, which evokes the former birchen walks. Walk south along the track re-joining the Salvin Drive and then proceed west towards the house.
On your right as you walk towards the Rotunda are banks of rhododendrons amongst them a North American species with the common name of swamp azalea, it has a wonderful scent when in flower in early summer. The Ionic Rotunda is so called because the column capitals have scrolls or volutes commonly believed to be inspired by rams horns.
Approaching the Doric Temple you will see that to the north it is surrounded by a planting of holm oak (quercus ilex). Records show of Brown purchasing several of these oaks which are native to the Mediterranean. They make magnificent large mature trees which augment the landscape and being evergreen add to the winter garden. Brown sited the Doric Temple to take advantage of the view across the Shimmings valley. In the late 18th century, after Brown’s commission ceased, the Goanah Lodges were built as the focal point to this view. Continue along the Salvin Drive into the courtyard.
The Doric Temple was formerly situated on terraces which were north of the mansion west front. These were part of the formal gardens laid out by George London for the 6th Duke of Somerset (the ‘Proud Duke’). Brown removed the terraces to create the southern slope of Lawn Hill as part of his naturalistic view from the house to the Upper Pond.
Capability Brown although more conservative than most of his contemporaries did incorporate several flowering and scented plants including roses. Planted in the bed around the North Gallery is the White Rose of York. Pause for a moment at the two urns that were acquired by the 3rd Earl in late 18th or early 19th century. The courtyard which separates the Servants Quarters and the mansion has several examples of magnolia grandiflora, they were introduced from North America in 1734 and brought a very exotic flower to Britain. It is evergreen with rusty-brown indumentum under the leaves, large creamy, fragrant flowers are produced in late summer and autumn. If you need refreshment a café and restaurant can be found within the Servants' Quarters.
The south of the courtyard is closed by the Salvin’s stone screen and gateway /porte cochere which replaced the 3rd Earls conservatory in the 1870’s. It separates the main courtyard from the smaller area adjacent to the private south entrance to the mansion.
Retrace your steps taking you back to the car park taking the pedestrian track where the drive curves to the left. To the right of the path Brown designed a continuous planting with the trees as the backdrop and shrubs in the foreground many of which were chosen for flower or scent. These hide the town and road, thus making the Pleasure Grounds seem more secluded. To the left of the path you will see two ancient lime trees, which are covered in mistletoe. Brown used native trees such as these limes to create structure in his plantings.
Return to the visitor car park
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