Visit Capability Brown's Gardens in Britain

To the Manor Born

With a sculptor's discerning eye, the 18th-century landscape designer Lancelot Brown transformed Britain's grand country estates forever. Brown reshaped formal gardens into rolling green parklands across the length and breadth of the country. His habit of telling patrons that their grounds had great "capabilities" is said to have earned him the nickname Capability Brown.

The tercentenary, in 2016, of Brown's birth (in 1716) offers a compelling reason to visit his landscapes now. Filled with sparkling lakes, softly sloping lawns, winding paths, and carefully framed views, Brown's gardens are as ingrained in the British psyche as the novels of Jane Austen.

In fact, filmmakers often set her stories in Brown landscapes, such as those at Chatsworth House and Burghley House (both appear in the 2005 film of Pride and Prejudice).

But Stowe estate, in Buckinghamshire, where Brown became head gardener for Lord Cobham in 1741, is where the seeds were sown for his vision of natural perfection. You can glimpse Brown's developing talent in its undulating Grecian Valley.

"Capability Brown accentuates the positives of topography," says historic landscapes consultant Kate Felus. His design "is sculpture, like walking through a Henry Moore." —Juliana Gilling

Travel Tips

When to Go: May through June for the wildflowers and greenery; July and August for the clear skies (though always be prepared for some rain) and warm temperatures; September and October for fall foliage

How to Get Around: Driving is the best way to see multiple landscapes attributed to Capability Brown. Rent a car at your arrival airport, and use an interactive map to plan a self-drive route. Stowe is 90 minutes northwest of London via the M40 motorway.

Where to Stay: The Gothic Temple was built at Stowe the same year (1741) that Capability Brown signed on as head gardener. All rooms are circular, and the two bedrooms, which sleep four total, are in the turrets. Hartwell House and Spa, a National Trust property near Aylesbury, has 30 rooms and suites in the main house and 16 in the adjacent Hartwell Court. This Buckinghamshire manor (where exiled King of France Louis XVIII lived for five years) is near several Capability Brown gardens.

What to Eat or Drink: Indulging in a cream tea (scones, clotted cream, jam, and a cup of tea) is a proper English way to end any day spent walking in gardens. The traditional treat is served in restaurants or small cafés at many National Trust properties (including Petworth House and Park in West Sussex) landscaped by Capability Brown.

What to Buy: Commissioned for the tercentenary, The World of Capability Brown: Monarch of the Landscape (National Trust/Pavilion, 2016) by Dr. Sarah Rutherford will be available in April 2016. Pick up the book at the Stowe gardens gift shop, which also stocks bottles of New Inn Restoration Ale. Sales of the Chiltern Brewery special label help support Stowe gardens' restoration efforts.

What to Read Before You Go: Capability Brown and the Eighteenth-Century English Landscape (The History Press; reprint edition, 2014), by architect and landscape designer Roger Turner, includes the original plans, detailed descriptions, and photos of 15 Capability Brown landscapes.

Cultural Tip: When visiting any Capability Brown garden, remember this phrase: "Forget flowers and think trees." Brown's natural landscape designs feature vast, undulating parkland and mature trees (not formal flower beds) to create views on a monumental scale.

Fun Fact: Stowe was the first English garden to have an illustrated guidebook and map for tourists. Published in 1744, the garden guide was sold at the estate's New Inn. Back then, senior staff would show tourists around the gardens when the family was away, expecting a tip for their efforts.

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