Fenstanton

Church Ln, Fenstanton PE28 9JS
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Overview

In 1767 Lancelot 'Capability' Brown bought the Manor of Fenstanton and Hilton, in the old county of Huntingdonshire (now in Cambridgeshire)

From 1764 Lancelot Brown and his family were living at Hampton Court, in Wilderness House which came with his job of Royal Gardener to George III. But a letter, dated 30 July 1766, to the Earl of Northampton at Castle Ashby, shows that Brown was looking ahead to the possibility of buying a small estate of his own; he had heard that the Manor of Fenstanton and Hilton, owned by Lord Northampton, might be for sale.

The Earl was in financial difficulties and owed Brown money for landscaping work at Castle Ashby, Northamptonshire. Brown saw an opportunity both to recoup his money and acquire the estate, writing repeatedly to the Earl about it. In September 1767 Brown wrote to confirm the purchase price of £13,000 (estimates of comparable prices in 2015 range from £1.5 to £29.3M). After deducting the monies owed to him, Brown paid the balance of £11,500 in two instalments within a year. On his copy of the deed of transfer the Earl wrote: “I take the Manor of Fen Stanton to belong to Lawrence [sic] Brown Taste, Esq., who gave Lord Northampton Taste in exchange for it.”

A new home

Lancelot Brown became Lord of the Manor of Fenstanton and Hilton. Ownership of the property gave him the right to vote and conferred the social status of gentleman. It was also a sound business investment giving a regular income from rents and the farms, and as such would provide for the future security of his family. The estate, probably the only property he owned, included the early 17th century Manor House in Fenstanton, the handsome 18th century Manor Farm Houses in Fenstanton and in Hilton, and 1,080 hectares (2,668 acres) of land. The houses and farm buildings, including maltings and brewhouse, are identified in a Sun Fire Assurance policy that Brown took out in 1773.

It is thought unlikely that Brown ever lived in Fenstanton. He may have stayed at the Manor House briefly when he visited on business or on his way to other commissions around the country. Brown died in February 1783, before he had a chance to develop his estate or retire there.

A survey of the new estate

Spyers map of Fenstanton Credit: Cambridge University LibraryBrown had his surveyor and assistant, John Spyers, survey his estate. The Fenstanton survey (above Courtesy Cambridge University Library) was completed in 1777 and that of Hilton in 1778. They were meticulously detailed and thorough and formed a working manual for Brown’s new estate. For both parts of the estate Spyers compiled extensive ‘Field Books’ where he measured every area of land, defined its characteristics – e.g. whether meadow, arable or fen – noted the size of animal herds and the quota of each animal to pasture, the ownership of the fields and their tenancy. He also drew up a map for each village to correlate with the Field Books. 

Planting trees in Fenstanton and Hilton

There are records of Brown planting trees on his estate. The first is an entry in the ledger of James Wood, nurseryman of Huntingdon, for an order of 160 Elms at 6d each on 12th February 1770. Then on April 7th 1770, an order for 24 fruit trees including peach, nectarine and apricot for Mr Brown’s use to plant on Mrs Browns plot. Mrs Brown’s plot was perhaps the garden of the Fenstanton Manor House where today there are some very old apple trees. The Manor Farm House in Hilton overlooks the Green, an area of 11 hectares (27 acres) of common land, and although this shows no evidence of Brown’s handiwork, the many fine elms that surrounded the Green (until lost to disease and gales), were often considered to be worthy of Brown.

Brown’s death

Before he had a chance to retire to his estate, Brown died on 6 February 1783. His body was brought from London and buried in the churchyard of St Peter and St Paul’s parish church at Fenstanton. The location of Brown’s grave and that of his wife Bridget is unknown, but it is likely that he was either laid to rest on the north side of the Church where a modern headstone marks the approximate spot or in a vault beneath the family memorial near the altar.

Inside the Church in the chancel is the Brown family memorial with a touching and elegant inscription to Lancelot 'Capability' Brown including the line “...come from the sylvan scenes his Genius grac’d and offer here your tributary sighs...”

Fenstanton today

The Manor of Fenstanton remained in the Brown family until 1873. Much of the garden of the Manor House was sold for housing in the 1980s and the views across Hall Green to the Manor Farm were subsequently lost. The Hilton Parish Council has planted a tree in memory of Brown, with a sign that reads: “This tree is planted in memory of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, 1716-83, Lord of this Manor, who planted a million others.” A plaque, featuring Spyres plan, was also erected in the graveyard of the church during 2016. The Church of St Peter and St Paul is open daily, and there is a trail to follow through the village. The Manor House is private.

Sources 

Cambridgeshire Gardens Trust Walk leaflet published 2015 cambsgardens.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/FenstantonWalkLeaflet.pdf

Dorothy Stroud, Capability Brown, Faber & Faber, 1975 edition, pages 109, 158 and 171