Capability Brown worked on many garden landscapes in England, and there’s a glittering list of day trip possibilities. These places display his creativity and his genius, but on the scale of epic poems compared to the exquisite little sonnet that is the Golden Valley.
There are days throughout the year when the National Trust’ s Ashridge estate in the Chilterns, on the borders of Herts and Bucks, is the most popular free day-out destination in south-east England. But few seem to know that they also have open access to one of Capability Brown’s most sumptuous landscape creations?
On bank holidays and weekends the free car park is frequently full, although visitors seem untroubled, as so many come from busy towns and London itself.
Visitors will stroll in the beech woods and join the sometimes 20 minute queue at the outdoor tea room. Some will climb to the top of the Bridgwater Monument, 108 feet (33 m) tall, giving views on the right day as far as Canary Wharf in central London, over 30 miles away. Many simply stay and picnic around their cars, content to be outside in the “real” countryside.
There is nothing particularly “real” about Ashridge however. It’s a splendid, man-made piece of grand landscape confectionery, anchored around Ashridge Management College, which is based around a building that has its roots in the 12th century.
And the most simple, timeless and glorious feature of all is the Golden Valley, the work of this year’s great British birthday boy, Lancelot “Capability” Brown. The surprise is that very few of those many visitors actually reach it from where they park, only a mile or so away along Monument Drive.
Capability Brown landscaped the valley, and the surrounding park, between 1759 and 1768, shortly before Lord Bridgwater began his great canal building programme. Brown took a dry Hertfordshire Valley (a typical Chiltern “bottom”) and, if that were possible, made something already so beautiful even more alluring that it was before, with some decorative treeplanting on both sides. The trees are still there today.
Looking for the best examples of gently rolling valleys in the UK, we think of Scotland and the Lake District. Search online for “Golden Valley” and you be directed to the better-known example in Herefordshire. What I find remarkable about the Ashridge namesake is that a landscape feature of such beguiling tranquillity, and historical importance, can still exist, undamaged and relatively little known, so close to London. It is easy to access, and wide open to the public.
There is no interpretation board at the start, or the end of the mile or so long valley. (The National Trust offer an e map. I have often walked it in high summer and it’s never crowded. The few people who walk its length may not even be aware that Brown was responsible.
A golf course takes up the northern extension of the valley, above where it is cut by a road. I think it detracts from its overall shape and flow. But this feature has been there for many years, and dates from a time when we cared less about our landscape.
Besides, the part that we know Brown worked on is a sensation, and quite free of any visual prompt to remind you that we are in the 21st-century.
Capability Brown worked on so many garden landscapes in England, and there’s a glittering list of day trip possibilities. Stowe, in Buckinghamshire, is less than an hours drive to the north, a perfect example of the very best of his work.
These places display his creativity and his genius. And yet they on the scale of epic poems compared to the exquisite little sonnet that is the Golden Valley.