Beechwood Park was landscaped by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in 1753–54 for Sir John Sebright, and is one of his earliest works.
Beechwood Park, near St Albans, Hertfordshire, is significant as one of the few sites for which Capability Brown's survey and plan both survive. Sir John Sebright commissioned the survey of the park from Brown in 1753. The plan, dated 1754, shows Brown’s suggestions for improving the park and gardens, and includes his initials and the date in a rococo panel.
Brown's plan proposed thinning the existing thick woods that surrounded the 77 hectare (190 acre) estate and giving them serpentine edges, rather than doing lots of new planting. The small, rectangular formal gardens were to be removed and a tree-studded lawn laid out to the south, with a belt largely of existing trees around it.
The existing formal wilderness paths and blocks of woodland were to be removed or softened. Woodland to the north was to be thinned to give open areas of wood-pasture and dense clumps formed from existing trees. However, Brown’s plan retained the formal double avenue of trees and circular area, which probably date to between 1702 (when the east façade of the house was added) and the 1730s.
The plan includes a ‘barn with ornamental front' on the eastern fringes of the park around 1 kilometre (half a mile) away from the house, where a perimeter belt of trees was replaced with a ha-ha, or sunken ditch. Brown also designed visual links to two neighbouring hill-top properties, Cheverells, the dower house, and Hill Farm, an eye-catcher with a gothic façade. Other plans for matching wings to the house, an ice-house and a small bath-house, also in the gothic style, are attributed to Brown.
Beechwood after Brown
There is no evidence that the bath-house was ever built, but the remains of the ice-house and the ha-ha are in the private gardens of Beechwood House.
It is thought that the existing north and south pavilions of the house were built as part of refurbishments by the architect Sir William Chambers (1723–1796, Wikipedia) in the 1760s or 1770s. He probably also built the surviving gates and walls at what was the main entrance. A 1766 map by Dury and Andrews (view map online) still shows the old path pattern in the Beechwood southern wilderness and the earlier ha-ha. Undated estate maps and the 1st edition Ordnance Survey map suggest that some Brownian clumps of trees were planted along the northern boundary.
In 1804, the agricultural writer Arthur Young (1741–1820, Wikipedia) commented that he had: "Rarely seen finer trees than at . . . Beechwood: it has the name in strict propriety, for the number of stately beeches is great; but the soil agrees with all sorts of trees; the cedars are immense; the oaks very large; the ash straight and beautiful; the larch, spruce and Scots fir equally fine, but the beech uncommon."
The Beechwood Park estate remained in the ownership of the Sebrights until 1961. The house has been used as a school since 1964 and the parkland has now largely been returned to agricultural use, though it is still possible to see the long views from the front of the mansion out across the dry valley. Only a few of the magnificent trees for which Beechwood was known have survived.
Dorothy Stroud, Capability Brown, Faber & Faber, 1975 edition, page 71
Hertfordshire Gardens Trust walk leaflet.
Parks & Gardens UK: www.parksandgardens.org/places-and-people/site/343