Chilham Castle

Chilham, Canterbury, Kent CT4 8DB
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Overview

Lancelot “Capability” Brown advised owner Thomas Heron on improving the grounds of Chilham Castle.

Chilham Castle is a 17th-century mansion and medieval keep overlooking the Stour Valley, south-west of Canterbury, Kent. Lawyer Thomas Heron bought the estate in 1774 and in 1777 consulted Brown about improving the park and gardens. Capability Brown’s main proposals were remodelling the sloping ground close to the castle and moving the outbuildings. He also drew up plans for a new kitchen garden and hothouse and designed the Gothic-style gateway. Overall, Brown thought that only limited work was needed to improve the landscaping around castle and its fine views.

Letters and maps

Heron paid a sum of £412 and 10 shillings (nearly £597,100 in 2015) into Brown’s account at Drummond’s Bank on 2 February 1781. This is a comparatively small amount and shows that Brown's work at Chilham was on quite a limited scale. From 1777, a series of letters from Thomas Heron to his brother, Sir Richard Heron, reveal the changes being made to the park and his discussions with Brown. It is not always clear whether Brown’s ideas were put into effect and at what date. However, maps and illustrations of the castle offer further clues.

Brown’s first visit

Brown appears to have been reluctant to visit Chilham but eventually did so on 28 July 1777, when he stayed for two days. His General Plan for the Alterations to the Place has not survived. Brown is said to have been impressed with the already mature landscape, feeling that not much needed to be done.

Though Brown did not suggest any new plantations at the estate, he did believe that the distant views of the castle could be improved. He thought there were too many outbuildings clustered around the main entrance from the village. Discussion about moving the stables and farmyard continued for the next three years. The plans have not survived, but it is thought that Brown wanted to move these to the north side of the castle. This was probably done after the deaths of Heron and Brown, as the change is shown on the Ordnance Survey map of 1872.

Kitchen garden and greenhouse

Another early suggestion by Brown was for the new kitchen garden to be built on the site of a nursery. Heron’s letters reveal that Brown changed his mind after a second visit to Chilham in August 1778. Instead the site was to be north-west of the castle, by Dane Street and near where the new stables were to be built. Eventually it was built close to the main entrance.

In March 1779, as the kitchen garden was being built, Heron wrote about another of Brown’s ideas: “Mr Brown has sent a drawing for a Green House which is very pretty & well designed.” This was probably the main feature of the kitchen garden, sited on the north-west wall, where there are still traces of a heating system. The kitchen garden is shown on the Ordnance Survey map of 1789.

Ha-ha and terraces

Brown’s style was to create a sweep of lawn up to the house, removing formal gardens and creating a seamless view into the wider landscape. This may have been impractical at Chilham where the ground in front of the house fell steeply away in a series of terraces. His ideas about remodelling the gardens at Chilham Castle changed between his first visit and his second, in 1778. Heron reported to his brother on 26 August 1778: “All the gardens below the House [should be] destroyed and made a pasture open to the Paddock or otherwise used as most agreeable, and left at liberty for an approach.”

The revised design involved simplifying the ground immediately surrounding the house. Brown proposed removing the upper of the 17th-century terraces but keeping the lower ones on the south-east side, as this would enhance the dramatic setting of the castle. He also extended the ha-ha (sunken wall) from the south-west corner of the Bowling Green, the lowest terrace, up to “the clump on the mount near the Castle”.

This work was carried out, with Heron reporting on 26 October 1778 that “The Levelling abt the House goes on very well, and I hope it will soon be done”.

Entrance and lodges

Before calling in Brown, Heron had already begun remodelling the north-east approach to the estate from Chilham village. He felled the avenue of limes on the short drive and made a new public road on the south-west side of the park, adding 17 hectares (42 acres) to his land in the process.

The Ordnance Survey map of 1789 shows Brown’s new, informal approach to the house as a large forecourt with a carriage drive encircling a small grassy area. Following discussions about new entrance gates and the positioning of the stables, he also produced a design for a new gateway to Chilham in January 1781. The lodge and gates were in the Gothic style, and are illustrated in a watercolour of the mid-19th century.

Chilham Castle today

There were further changes to the gardens at Chilham during the 19th century, including the rebuilding of some of the terraces round the castle and the construction of a lake. The estate remains in private ownership, with the house listed Grade I (Historic England) and the gardens Grade II* (Historic England).

Brown did not create a new landscape at Chilham but he did identify the small elements that could improve the castle’s already impressive setting. Though his lodge and gates were pulled down, the brick ha-ha is still in place, giving uninterrupted views south-west over the park.

Sources

Elizabeth Cairns and Cilla Freud, 'Chilham Castle: A fine landscape improved', Capability Brown in Kent, Kent Gardens Trust, 2016 www.kentgardenstrust.org.uk

Historic England: historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000261

Parks & Gardens UK: www.parksandgardens.org/places-and-people/site/79

NOTE: Please note that the modern equivalents of prices given on the Capability Brown website use the equivalant labour cost shown on www.measuringworth.com, rather than the real price (calculated on the increase in inflation), and therefore differ from the figures in the original research by Kent Gardens Trust. This is based on the research by Roderick Floud published in RHS Occasional Papers 14.