Audley End

1 Audley End Road, Saffron Walden, Essex, CB11 4JB
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Overview

Lancelot “Capability” Brown remodelled the park at Audley End, Saffron Walden, Essex for owner Sir John Griffin Griffin.

Beginning in 1763, Sir John Griffin Griffin contracted Brown to carry out an ambitious redesign of the park at Audley End. This scheme included widening and changing the course of the River Cam through the estate, building a ha-ha (sunken wall) and relaying the lawns around the house. The two men later fell out over scheduling and payments.

Brown’s contract

The contract between Sir John and Brown contained seven articles and was dated 22 April 1763. Perhaps the most important was the second article, relating to the widening and realignment of the River Cam, “making it at least a hundred foot wide and four feet deep in water, to begin at the bridge near the stable office and end at the intended bridge on the Walden Road”.

Other articles referred to the building of a ha-ha; the planting of trees and shrubs; the removal of walls; and the creation of roads leading from the new bridge designed by architect Robert Adam (now listed Grade I, Historic England).

Under the contract, Brown was to complete the work by May 1764. Sir John was to supply the shrubs, trees, carts, wheelbarrows and “four able horses”. Staged payments were agreed, with two sums of £200 (totalling around £700,000 in 2015) due in June and September 1763, and £260 (£450,000 in 2015) due on completion.

Sir John was a demanding client, and it is thought that he made many changes to the contract. Problems with the realignment of the river delayed the work, and Brown didn’t get his final payment until 12 months after the original completion date. Some of the money was withheld, leading to a dispute.

There is no evidence of a second contract, but Sir John did make another payment of £268 3 shillings and 2 pence (£430,000 in 2015) in May 1767. Some of this was money and interest owed from the first contract, though it may also reflect extra work done.

That payment sparked off a dispute. Early in 1768, Brown wrote to end their relationship, complaining that he would “never labour more to convince Sir John as he knows there is non so blind as him that will not see”.

River and ha-ha

The most notable part of Brown’s design for Audley End is the widened and altered River Cam. Engravings from the 17th century show the Cam was just a straight canal at that time. The contract refers to stakes being used to mark out the line of the enlarged river, but does not mention the dam that would have been needed to hold this huge area of water. It is thought that a dam was already there, as a corn mill is shown on the Chapman and André county map of 1777 (see online), close to what is now a cascade.

As part of the scheme, Brown was also asked to create a channel to divert flood water away from the village and into the river. Correcting a mistake in the realignment caused serious delays, and this project seems to have been more complicated than Brown had realised. Part of an existing plan, thought to be by Brown, shows a different curve in the river to the west of the house.

The third article of the contract also called for the building of a “sunk fence on the side of the London road”. This refers to the Cambridge Road boundary to the west of the estate. There is no mention of the other ha-ha that encloses the pleasure grounds north and east of the house. The existing alignment differs from that shown on Brown's plan for the area north of the house, so it may be a later improvement.

New lawns and planting

Under the fourth article of the contract, Brown was to level and smooth out the land between the house and the main road. The “middle road” leading to the house was to be removed. By the time of the 1777 map the front of the house is shown with a curved drive across a sweeping lawn.

The fifth article of the contract sets out the planting of trees and shrubs as agreed by Sir John, who supplied them through his own nurseryman. Brown and his men were also to “sow with grass seeds and Dutch clover or lay with turf all the parts of the grounds which is to be altered should any of that grass or turf fail to make it good”.

Brown’s plan shows the parkland between the house and the Cambridge Road bordered with clumps of trees. Lady Griffin’s garden, which is covered in the first article of the contract, is shown as an informal area just to the north of the house, edged with sinuous planting.

Audley End today

After Brown left, it is thought that Sir John used foreman Joseph Hicks to carry out work at Audley End.

Ownership of the estate is now divided, with English Heritage responsible for the Grade I listed Jacobean house (Historic England) and central area of the park.

Brown's landscape can still be seen at Audley End, despite many changes since the 1760s. There is a sweep of lawn from the west front of the house, across the lake-like River Cam and out towards Ring Hill and the Temple of Victory. East of the house, the land rises to the Temple of Concord. Both temples were built after Brown’s era, but they fit into his scheme. To the north is a tall column, which may have been put there as an eye-catcher, at Brown’s suggestion.

Sources

Lancelot Brown and his Essex Clients: A Gazetteer of Sites in Essex Associated with Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown 1716-1783, Essex Gardens Trust, 2015

John Chapman and Peter André, A Map of the County of Essex 1777: www.chapmanandremapofessex.co.uk/

English Heritage: www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/audley-end-house-and-gardens/

Historic England: historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000312