- Print of Caversham Park drawn by Dayes and engraved by W and J Walker 1790-1799 Courtesy of Reading Borough Libraries
- Caversham Park c.1978 Reproduced by permission of the Berkshire Record Office (Ref: D/EX1638/67/57)
In the mid-1760s Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown modernised the park at Caversham for the 2nd Baron Cadogan.
The 2nd Baron Cadogan called in Capability Brown in around 1764 to modernise the gardens, at Caversham Park, then outside Reading. His older brother, Earl Cadogan, had spent a lot of money in laying out formal gardens there in the early 18th century. Brown adapted one of the canals to make it more like a lake, and built a walled kitchen garden and a ha-ha (sunken wall). He also built a winding approach to the lodge that lay south-east of the house.
There are no plans or account book entries covering Brown’s work at Caversham. A letter from the baron, written on 6 August 1767, does give some clues. Addressed to “Dear Brother Brown”, the letter talks admiringly about Brown’s work at Blenheim – in particular the lake there – and mentions his foreman Benjamin Read. Historians estimate that work at Caversham had begun in around 1764, based on comments made in letters by the baron.
Canals and ha-ha
Caversham was one of the many sites where Brown was updating and extending an older style of formal gardens. John Rocque’s 1761 plan suggests that some elements of the early 18th-century gardens at Caversham, including the parterres (flower beds) and kitchen garden, had already gone. From looking at the Ordnance Survey 1st Edition of 1877 it seems that Brown kept one of the three rectangular canals, softening the edges to make it appear more like a lake.
The 1877 map also shows a walled kitchen garden to the south-west of the house, with a ha-ha curving around and protecting the area around the house from livestock in the park. It is thought that Brown’s scheme included the winding approach between the house and the lodge to the south-east, which followed the edge of the valley.
Clearing the thickets
Part of Brown's work on the landscape included clearing the thickets, dense groups of bushes and trees that had surrounded the old gardens. According to Mrs Lybbe Powys, this gave rise to the remark by Brown that "it was impossible to see the trees for the wood". She also wrote that Brown "By taking down some and leaving conspicuous the most noble [trees], made it one of the finest parks imaginable".
An anonymous poem
In 1767 a long anonymous poem was written, dedicated to Charles 9th Viscount Irwin, Brown's client at Temple Newsam. It praised the landscape of Temple Newsam and Brown's work in general. In this passage the poem compares Brown to the great artists and poets of the day, and specifically mentions Caversham:
At Blenheim, Croome and Caversham we trace
Salvator's wildness, Claude's enlivening grace,
Cascades and Lakes as fine as Risdale drew
While Nature's vary'd in each charming view.
To paint his works wou'd Poussin's Powers require,
Milton's sublimity and Dryden's fire.
Born to Grace Nature, and her works complete
With all that's beautiful, sublime and great!
For him each Muse enwreathes the Laurel Crown,
And consecrates to Fame immortal Brown.
Before he became the US president, politician Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) was an enthusiastic landscape gardener. He toured Europe in 1785-86, seeing several Brown gardens, including the one at Caversham. The estate was mentioned in his 'Memorandums Made on a Tour to Some of the Gardens in England'.
After the Second World War the BBC took over the house and its surrounds. It is used by BBC Monitoring, BBC Radio Berkshire and the BBC’s Written Archive Centre.
The area south of the house up to the ha-ha and lake has been looked after, keeping much of Brown’s work. There is now a mobile home park in the walled garden and the fields south of the ha-ha are leased to a farmer. Over the years the ha-ha has been filled in, so that a wrought iron fence is also needed to keep animals out.
Reading Cemetery lies south of what remains of the park and there is new housing to the west, north and east of it. A line of trees bordering the cemetery screens out much of the recent housing development, so that the view to the south from the terrace remains largely unaltered.
Information courtesy of Ben Viljoen of Berkshire Gardens Trust: www.berks-gardens-trust.org.uk
Dorothy Stroud, Capability Brown, Faber & Faber, 1975, pages 117-118 and 132
Historic England: historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000524
Parks & Gardens UK: www.parksandgardens.org/places-and-people/site/737