Lost Landscape at Belvoir Castle

Lost Landscape at Belvoir Castle

The Duchess of Rutland discusses ‘Capability’ Brown’s landscape design of the gardens of the Duke of Rutland’s ancestral family home Belvoir Castle.

There were always rumours in the Manners family that the legendary Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (nicknamed Capability for seeing ‘capabilities’ in a landscape) had designed the vast 2,300-acre landscape that surrounds Belvoir Castle, the ancestral family home of the Dukes of Rutland in Leicestershire. But we had no proof. 

Then, one day in 2008, completely out of the blue, our archivist discovered a huge dusty old plan dated 1780, by Lancelot Brown himself.  Even to my untrained eye, the plan started to explain why our garden appears - quite frankly - gardenless. Apart from a compact rose garden on one of the steep terraces below the front door, we don’t have acres of formal gardens. There are no manicured beds, borders and parterres that surround many stately homes.

Instead, our garden champions our vertiginous topography - with jaw-dropping views - on a massive scale. We have 500-acres of woodland gardens bursting with Japanese plants, wildlife and birdsong, 15 acres of lakes and ponds, enormous swathes of parkland, and a 10-mile walk round the perimeter.

John Phibbs, a top surveyor and advisor for historic landscapes, came to see the plans in 2013 and at first glance, it appeared that much of what was on paper was in our landscape, just as Brown had intended. But a closer look revealed so much more. Our plan was enormous in every sense. Even more exciting, it appears that at such a late stage in Brown’s career (he was 63), he was creating an entirely new way of presenting naturalistic landscape at Belvoir.

Lancelot Brown was born in 1716 in Kirkharle in Northumberland. He shone during his apprenticeship on the Kirkharle estate, where his late father had worked, and he was soon working under eminent architect William Kent at Stowe in 1742.   It was there that he developed his hallmark designs for parkland with trees, appearing haphazardly in a natural fashion: dotted, clumped and belted over undulating pasture that enveloped magical serpentine lakes, and views - for which Belvoir, meaning beautiful view in French, is famous for.

After eight years, he left Stowe with his young family and set up on his own, becoming to horticulture what Jane Austen is to literature. His legacy is still very much alive. From the 270 estates he worked on, he has left us all with the classic picture of our bucolic English countryside.

Luckily for us, he had chosen not to settle into retirement and knock out pastiches of his earlier work for a fat fee. He was still searching for new ideas – and they were radical. In the past he had been criticised for wiping out existing formal gardens – but he left ours in. He never worried about sweeping away villages if they interrupted a view – but he left our villages intact.

And he embraced Belvoir’s genuine mediaeval history to make a huge feature of the family’s hunting grounds in the chase and the free warren that extended for several miles. We were looking at something truly awe-inspiring.

Despite family debts and the death of the 4th Duke of Rutland in 1787 who had commissioned Brown only seven years earlier, the work was finally completed in the 1820s.

In 2013 we invested £200,000 to restore the landscape at Belvoir to mark the tercentenary of Capability Brown’s birth. We have felled over 110 acres of woodland, planted 83,000 new trees, over 10,000 shrubs, cleared 110 acres of overgrowth in woodland gardens, put in 17 miles of new roads and restored 15 acres of water in long abandoned ponds and lakes. We have also erected an obelisk to mark the tercentenary, contributed to a television programme for More4 with Alan Titchmarsh and written a book Capability Brown & Belvoir: Discovering a Lost Landscape. It has been a huge privilege to restore a truly great eighteenth-century landscape that is still as relevant now, for aesthetic, recreational and agricultural purposes, as it would have been in 1780.

For information on Private Tours of the castle and gardens, opening hours or to purchase a copy of Capability Brown & Belvoir – Discovering a Lost Landscape by the Duchess of Rutland with Jane Pruden please visit www.belvoircastle.com

By the Duchess of Rutland