Kitty and John Anderson’s home is a marvellous 14th-century pile in rural Northumberland. They moved in after they were married in 1976. Up until then, the Kirkharle estate had been the home of John’s grandfather, and Kitty and John took up residency after he passed away. Like any newly married couple moving into their first home, they wanted to make the place their own, so they immediately set about a serious clean-up operation. Grandpa was a hoarder, and every room had to be decluttered before it could be decorated.
When clearing out the dining room, they came across a rather magnificent Georgian chest. Interesting as the chest was, it was what the couple found inside it that was most exciting.When Kitty pulled open the fourth drawer she discovered, among the many tubes of parchment paper, a garden design by Lancelot Capability Brown, who was born at Kirkharle in 1716. Although he was christened Lancelot, the famous landscape gardener was nicknamed Capability because he would tell prospective clients their land had “a lot of capabilities”. He is often considered to be England’s finest landscape architect, and is certainly one of our most famous and prolific designers, with over 100 gardens to his name.
Capability Brown was the horticultural Shakespeare of his time. His cultivated turf and vibrant vegetation can be seen at Blenheim Palace, Chatsworth House, Stowe and Trentham gardens, to name but a few. He had remarkable vision and could imagine how a design would look in maturity before plants had even met soil. His gardens are real gift to the country and some say he is as important to Northumberland as Hadrian’s Wall.
John immediately recognised that this find was an important one, because the plan was possibly one of Capability Brown’s first designs. The original drawing is now safely housed at Newcastle University Museum, but the Andersons have decided to bring this plan to life and create the garden that Capability Brown dreamed of, with the help of landscape gardener Nick Owen and local craft businesses.
There will have to be a few adjustments. Since Capability Brown drew up the plans, a main road has been built and some buildings have been demolished. But, just as the elegant courtyard – filled with craft shops, local businesses and a cafe – has been created from a once-crumbling and disused set of farm buildings, so the grounds are set to be beautifully transformed in time for the summer.
The Capability Brown Lake Project covers 100 acres and already the Andersons have planted 2,500 native trees – choosing species that Capability would have planted himself, such as sweet chestnut, cedar, oak and weeping willow.
The newly landscaped grounds are set to open in July. When I visited for Countryfile, it was a muddy field. I even pitched in and planted a sweet chestnut, which will (hopefully) one day flourish and become many more. It’s all part of a plan that Capability seemed to have forgotten about, or never had the time or money to pursue, 250 years ago. Now that is a true lost garden, but thankfully not for long.
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The birthplace of Capability Brown is now a collection of boutiques, craft workshops and speciality food outlets.
Laundry Court Coffee House and Restaurant
An array of freshly prepared dishes using estate-grown vegetables. Serves a cracking Capability Brown cream tea,
al fresco in summer and beside a roaring fire in winter.