In 1773-75 Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown created the lake at Benham Valence for the 6th Baron Craven.
Capability Brown had already worked for the 6th Baron Craven at Combe Abbey, Warwickshire when Craven wrote to him in 1773 about alterations to Benham Valence, their estate around 3 kilometres west of Newbury, Berkshire. Brown built one of his typically sinuous lakes here, designed a site for an outdoor theatre and planted belts of trees along the park boundaries. Brown worked with architect Henry Holland to design the new Benham Park house. Many years later, Lady Craven claimed in her memoirs that she had redesigned the park herself.
Brown’s account book
Craven wrote to Brown on 3 June 1773 saying that he wished "to know your sentiments respecting this place, particularly the turning of the Road" and that Lady Craven "wishes much to make some alterations here and to begin immediately". This consultation resulted in the decision to build a new house, as well as changes to the landscape.
Brown’s account book (see online) shows payments for both Combe Abbey and Benham Valence. After 1774 most of the money related only to Benham, and this amounted to £7,080 (more than £11.2 million in 2015). Architect Henry Holland, Brown’s son-in-law, was working on the new Benham Park house at this time, and this was accounted for separately. The house was of two storeys, nine bays wide and faced with ashlar (large, square-cut stones), with an Ionic portico (Wikipedia) of Portland stone overlooking the landscape.
Lake and pleasure grounds
Brown’s major feature at Benham Valence was the creation of a serpentine lake. He did this by partially diverting and enlarging the River Kennet in the south of the park. The Ordnance Survey 1st edition of 1878 shows that the lake was crossed by a bridge, described by a writer in 1801 as "a small wooden bridge of three arches, built after a Chinese design", leading from the south drive; the bridge is no longer there.
The land slopes from the house down to the lake, giving an effect of "simplicity and beauty" and there are pleasure grounds to the west, south and east of the park. Brown is thought to have laid out the northern half of the park. The 1878 map shows belts of trees along the park boundaries and clumps and individual trees in the park.
Brown was also involved in creating an outdoor theatre at Benham for Lady Craven, who wrote plays. This was in the north of the park, on land sloping upwards from the house. An amphitheatre (Wikipedia) was cut into the hillside below a classical temple, the position of which was probably chosen by Brown.
After the death of Baron Craven in 1791, Lady Craven married her lover, the Margrave of Brandenburg-Anspach, and they bought Benham Valence. In a case of dramatic licence, she later appeared to take credit for Brown’s work, writing in her memoirs “I thought it unnecessary to be more plundered, and trusted myself for adding to Nature”.
Benham Valence today
Benham Park house (listed Grade II*, Historic England) was used by the army during the Second World War. It was empty for many years before being sold in 1982. Today both the house and the park have been restored and the lake has been dredged, so that they look much as they did in Brown’s day. Benham Park was put on the market for £26,000,000 in May 2017.
Biodiversity at Benham
At Benham the parkland features support a variety of habitats including deciduous woodland, broadleaved woodland, coastal and floodplain grazing marsh, good quality semi-improved grassland and habitats associated with the river. Part of the site is River Kennet Special Site of Scientific Interest (SSSI), a prime example of a lowland chalk river with a gravel river bed, supporting a very high diversity of aquatic plants and insects including stream water-crowfoot, and species such as kingfishers and brown trout. Also within the site is Kennet Valley Alderwoods SSSI ash-alder woodland.
Follow this link for more information on habitats and species supported by Brown landscapes http://www.capabilitybrown.org/biodiversity-and-natural-environment
Follow this link for more information on River Kennet SSSI: https://necmsi.esdm.co.uk/PDFsForWeb/Citation/2000164.pdf
Follow this link for more information on Kennet Valley Alderwoods SSSI: https://necmsi.esdm.co.uk/PDFsForWeb/Citation/2000123.pdf
Information courtesy of Ben Viljoen, Berkshire Gardens Trust, www.berks-gardens-trust.org.uk
Capabilty Brown's account book, page 82: www.rhs.org.uk/education-learning/libraries-at-rhs/collections/library-online/capability-brown-account-book
Historic England: historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000173
Dorothy Stroud, Capability Brown, Faber & Faber, 1975, pages170-171