As Britain mulls questions of identity and a possible exit from the European Union, 2016 marks an anniversary year for some beloved British icons: the queen, Shakespeare, and gardener “Capability” Brown.
Queen Elizabeth II has celebrated her 90th birthday and the playwright died 400 years ago, two events being marked with national fanfare.
But fans of Brown, the grand master of English gardens who was born 300 years ago, hail him as another stalwart of national identity.
Lancelot “Capability” Brown is credited with creating more than 170 gardens, among them the grounds of Highclere Castle in southern England, made famous as the set of the hit television series Downton Abbey.
Lady Fiona Carnarvon, the owner of Highclere, said that after Brown, gardens became a focus in literature from Jane Austen to Evelyn Waugh.
“It’s been part of our culture, it is part of our landscape and I think it’s a really important part of our heritage today,” she said.
The son of a wealthy farmer, Brown began the study of gardens early, quickly becoming a darling of his time and gardener to King George III.
Along with his colleague William Kent, he broke with the restraints of the classic geometrical French garden to sculpt and re-fashion the landscape in a way so subtle it seems natural.
The grounds of Highclere are a “rare survival of a Brown park — it looks incredibly simple but it is very clever and sophisticated,” said Tim Mowl, a historian at the University of Bristol.
Brown began working on designs for Highclere in 1770, when it was owned by the first Earl of Carnarvon and was still a relatively modest red brick building. The process of transformation would take years.
A tour of the 400-hectare grounds is a journey through a hilly landscape home to 18,000 sheep, dotted with centuries-old cedars, the oldest dating back to 1740.
The dark trees are a trademark of Brown’s, which he used to accentuate the effects of perspective and to cause the huge castle to dip in and out of view.
Driveways, hills, lawns, trees, lakes and valleys were all carved into the landscape in a naturalistic style.
The lake features “a typical Brown trick — he always hid the end of the lakes so that they seemed much bigger,” said Kate Felus, a historian specialising in gardens.
– Downton Abbey effect –
“I grew up here. As a small kid this environment is a bit scary,” said George Herbert, the eighth Earl of Carnarvon, now in his fifties, as he showed a group of journalists around the grounds.
The park envelops and accentuates Highclere Castle, the home of the aristocratic Crawley family in Downton Abbey.
The series, which recounts the lives of the family and their servants in the early 20th century, has more than 100 million viewers in over 200 countries — and has made Highclere a tourist destination.
The castle in its current form was built in 1842 on a design by architect Charles Barry, the man behind London’s Houses of Parliament.
Following the success of “Downton”, the average number of visitors to Highclere has risen from 100 to 1,500 a day.
“Downton Abbey has certainly helped us enormously,” said Lady Carnarvon.
It certainly helps with the running costs in a country where many aristocratic residences became impossible to maintain after World War II without an unusual level of wealth.
Down the generations, the Carnarvons have managed to make it work. The fifth earl even financed the expedition that led to the 1922 discovery of the tomb of Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun.
But ultimately it was a marriage with a Rothschild heiress and now, the entertainment industry, that saved Highclere and Brown’s gardens.
Nearly 140 people currently work at Highclere, aged between 15 and 80, according to Lady Carnarvon, who declined to give a figure on the castle’s running costs.
As for the grounds, four gardeners are there to preserve Brown’s handiwork.