Leeds Abbey

Overview

Between 1765 and 1772 Lancelot “Capability” Brown modernised the park at Leeds Abbey, Maidstone, Kent for owner John Calcraft.

In the mid-18th century the Leeds Abbey estate covered around 304 hectares (750 acres) west of Leeds Castle. John Calcraft, who was also owner of Ingress (Ingress Abbey), bought Leeds Abbey in 1765 and hired Brown to lay out a new garden. Removing the formal elements of the early 18th century garden, Brown created a new curving lake, replanted the parkland and remodelled the pigeon houses.

Payments and maps

Calcraft paid Brown a total of £1,800 (£2.8 million in 2015) for his work at Leeds Abbey. Brown’s account book (see online) shows that £300 and £500 were paid in 1771 and another £1,000 was paid in 1772 by the executors, following Calcraft’s death.

This figure is much higher than the £1,000 Brown received for working at Ingress during the same period. Without a detailed contract or plan, only maps can give some clues as to what Brown did at Leeds Abbey.

Comparing the Andrews, Dury and Herbert county map of 1769 (see online) with Ordnance Survey drawings of 1797 shows how Brown removed the formal gardens to the south of the house. In place of the pool and canals, he created an open landscape, sloping from all sides towards a central lake 200 metres (656 feet) long. The lake curved to the south-west and was fed by springs to the south and dammed at its northern end.

The lake is shown surrounded by grassland, a row of trees to the west and a large clump to the south. It is thought that Brown planted more trees in this area but they were not large enough to be shown at the time of the 1797 Ordnance Survey.

The dam built by Brown was about 40 metres (130 feet) across, using ragstone and including some stones from the medieval priory. It held back the water in the main lake and controlled the water supply to the mill pond, which lay to the north.

Pigeon houses

On the rising land to the west of the lake were pigeon houses, shown on an illustration of 1719 as a single building. It is thought that Brown altered these by adding windows, rendering them with mortar to look like stone quoins (corners) and making them look more like a chapel. Between the pigeon houses and the lake a slope extended southwards, which Brown may have planted as an orchard to improve the view.

Comparing the Ordnance Survey of 1797 with its map of 1868 shows how the tree planting had matured. By 1868 all the trees shown are deciduous, with the exception of a conifer that may be a Scots pine, sited on the eastern boundary. Brown often used this tree for contrast and here it would have acted as an eye-catcher to the east, though it would only have matured long after his time.

Leeds Abbey today

John Calcraft died suddenly in 1772 and his estate at Leeds soon fell into disrepair. The house was pulled down in 1790 and the land was bought by the Wykeham-Martin family, owners of Leeds Castle. The present owner is the Rochester Bridge Trust.

The major elements of Brown’s landscape can still be seen, although they are overgrown with scrub and trees. The lake and dam are still there and the pigeon house/chapel is still standing. None of the current trees are old enough to date from Brown’s time, though the oaks, beech, sweet chestnut and Scots pine may be descendants of his planting.

Sources

Hugh Vaux, ‘Leeds Abbey: A hidden Brown landscape', Capability Brown in Kent, Kent Gardens Trust, 2016 www.kentgardenstrust.org.uk

Capability Brown's account book, page 83: www.rhs.org.uk/education-learning/libraries-at-rhs/collections/library-online/capability-brown-account-book

Andrews, Dury and Herbert map: www.oldmapsonline.org/en/Kent

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.