Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown landscaped the park at Digswell in 1771–73 for Richard Willis.
Digswell House is sited on a promontory overlooking the valley of the River Mimram, north of Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire. Capability Brown was paid £1,100 (equivalent to £1.8 million in 2015) for improving the landscape there in 1771–73. There is no surviving plan by Brown but it is thought that much of his work is around the former rectory, Digswell Place. Here woodland and clumps of trees were planted, possibly including Temple Wood in 1771. Brown may also have laid out the star-shaped rides in Sherrards Park Wood.
Improving the park
A medieval moated manor at Digswell, a little to the west of the current house, was first recorded in 1414 and by the 18th century belonged to Richard Willis, who commissioned Brown to improve his parkland. Brown’s account book (view on the RHS website) records payments of £1,100 for work carried out at Digswell ‘for Willes’ [sic] between June 1771 and February 1773.
The early 18th century formal gardens around Digswell House were removed, though the Monks Walk to the Rectory was kept, as was a grove of sweet chestnuts. The small hill on which the house sits was enhanced with earthworks to emphasise the hillocks of oak and thorn and the curve of the valley which sweeps down to the River Mimram. Two cedars of Lebanon, Brown's signature tree, were planted as 'punctuation points' or eye-catchers – one by the house and the other behind the church.
Changes to the Brownian landscape
Digswell House was bought in 1785 by the 3rd Earl Cowper and the house was demolished to make way for the current Grade II listed mansion, designed by architect Samuel Wyatt (1737-1807, Wikipedia) in 1805–07. Further improvements to the landscape, inspired by landscape designer Humphry Repton (1752–1818, Wikipedia) and agriculturist Nathaniel Kent (1737–1810, Wikipedia), were implemented by the 5th Earl Cowper.
A good impression of the characteristic sweep of Brownian parkland, with clumps and trees and surrounding woodland, can be gained by following the path from the house, past the church, and then immediately left so that you are walking above the valley. The sweet chestnut grove on the left predates Brown's work.
Ebenezer Howard (1850–1928, Wikipedia), founder of the garden city movement, acquired Digswell when much of the Cowper estate was sold in 1919. The land was developed after the Second World War, when Welwyn Garden City was designated as a New Town, though Digswell Place remains a private residence.
Hertfordshire Gardens Trust walk leaflet: www.hertsgardenstrust.org.uk/downloads/Digswell-Park.pdf
Parks & Gardens UK: www.parksandgardens.org/places-and-people/site/7489