I’m in the fortunate position of living only 10 minutes away from the beautiful Woburn Estate in Bedfordshire. I spent a day there recently in the company of my good friend and fellow landscape designer Andrew Wenham, and his two brothers. The three siblings had decided to make a trip to the place they grew up, immersed in a very English landscape.
It was really a ‘day of two halves’, sandwiched nicely (ha!) with a pub lunch in the middle. We began by revisiting some of the Wenham brothers’ childhood haunts and spent the rest of the morning at the excellent Repton Exhibition. In the afternoon, we visited more childhood haunts. For me, the entire day reinforced a long-held view that the landscape in which you grow up (be it natural or built) has a huge influence on you.
The morning’s escapades
I’m not sure I should be too specific about these – bearing in mind that we were retracing the steps of three young boys let loose in the countryside. Let’s just say that it involved some wall-climbing, stinging nettles and scraped knees. At one point, we hid from a Woburn gardener who may have felt the need to set us back on an official pathway (average age of our group was around 52!). The highlight though was to find our way to a ‘secret’ lakeside. This had a view over to an island which the ‘boys’ had believed many years ago to be their own private retreat. The brothers were rather disappointed to find there is now a bridge to the island, curtailing the more exciting plan of making Andrew walk across fallen branches to get there! As children, they were completely unaware that they were playing in a built ‘Repton’ landscape. The whole experience conjured up a great feeling of adventure, fun and a slight sense of risk.
The Repton Exhibition
Generally recognised as the first person to use the title ‘landscape gardener’, Humphry Repton regarded himself as the rightful successor to Capability Brown. A prolific designer, he produced over 400 designs and schemes for gardens. Of these, he stated, “none were more fully realised than at Woburn Abbey”. During our visit, we were able to view part of the Woburn Red Book, one of Repton’s largest works. It contained detailed designs covering the approaches to Woburn Abbey, the lakes and plantings in the surrounding parkland and the formal Pleasure Grounds.
The present Duke and Duchess of Bedford have been restoring many of Repton’s designs over the years. Following our exploration of Repton’s papers and design artefacts, we spent time outside exploring the results of his creative thinking. We enjoyed visiting the folly grotto, the Cone House, the menagerie and the beautiful Chinese-style pavilion. What stood out to me was Repton’s vision of the garden as an outdoor living space or room to be enjoyed. This is in contrast to the work of Capability Brown, who tended to bring a very natural landscape right up to the house. It is over 200 years since Repton developed his designs. However, his work seems hugely relevant to our work today in landscape design. He focused on blending a house into its landscape. He compartmentalised spaces around the house and he introduced a gradual shift into more naturalistic styles further away from the buildings. These are design principles that hold strong today. In my opinion, he has more influence on contemporary design than Capability Brown.
On a more tactical note, I was also interested in Repton’s emphasis on presentation. His Red Books are famous throughout the design profession. I could relate to the need to ‘wow’ clients at the same time as providing sufficient technical information to enable the work to be done. As well as an enthusiastic salesperson, Repton came across as having quite an ego. He certainly did not take well to having his schemes rejected – I can’t think how that applies to our profession today… (!). I was also struck by one of his quotes: ‘beware of planting trees, they merely serve to magnify the brevity of life’. Personally, I like to think I’m planting trees for posterity, but I did find Repton’s view refreshingly pragmatic!
Reflections on a day out
It was a memorable and very enjoyable day out. I highly recommend trying to recapture a little of that childhood playfulness that affected us all on the day. Those three Wenham brothers were lucky to grow up in such proximity to a world-famous landscape. Importantly, being given the freedom to explore it was a gift too. I know how grateful I am to have grown up in a beautiful part of the Cotswolds. My grandparents lived nearby in Laurie Lee’s Slad Valley. That landscape has stayed with me throughout my design life. In fact, I often find myself trying to recreate the atmosphere of my much-loved Grandparents’ orchard, or the natural beauty of the wildflower planting in their meadow.
As designers, the gardens we create become the settings for others to rest, play, grow, learn and live in. We are lucky to have the opportunity to enhance all those experiences. And look what well-rounded adults we grew into after our own childhoods were spent outdoors!
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