Capability Brown is a local boy who made good. Born at nearby Kirkharle, Northumberland, Brown’s daily walk to school took him through the rolling farmland of the 20,000 acre Wallington Estate, now cared for by the National Trust.
Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown designed the Low Lake at Rothley for Sir Walter Calverley Blackett, owner of Wallington.
During the 1760s Capability Brown drew up plans for a large serpentine lake at Rothley, Northumberland for Sir Walter Blackett, owner of the Wallington estate. There are two lakes at Rothley – the High Lake to the west of the Alemouth-Hexham road and the Low Lake to the east. The High Lake had already been completed by 1769 but it is not known whether this was Brown’s work. He may at least have been an inspiration for its serpentine appearance and the naturalistic landscaping. The Low Lake was finished, but Brown’s plans for other buildings in the pleasure grounds had not been started at the time of Sir Walter’s death. These included a bridge, banqueting house, coach house and circular garden.
There are no details about the contract for the Rothley project or what Brown was paid. Five drawings for Low Lake were delivered to Sir Walter at Wallington in March 1770. One of these was Brown’s masterplan, showing the new lake and planting. The other four show more detail of the lake as well as plans for a bridge and other buildings. In May Sir Walter gave the go-ahead for work to begin that summer on the head of the lake and on the planting.
Sir Walter’s steward is known to have been worried about the cost of this ambitious project, as work was also going on at Codger’s Fort, the eye-catcher on the moors at nearby Wallington. When Sir Walter died in 1777 the Rothley scheme appears to have been unfinished, so perhaps the money had run out. Although Brown’s proposed Gothic-style banqueting house beside the lake had not been built, it may have influenced the look of the later Lake House.
Low Lake and bridge
The main part of Brown’s design was Low Lake, which was separated from the existing High Lake by the turnpike road running on a causeway. His rustic five-arch sham bridge would carry the road and give the impression of one seamless sheet of water running beneath it. This was a device that Brown used at Hornby Castle in Yorkshire. In reality, the lakes are separate and at slightly different levels.
A separate drawing showed how the east end of Low Lake would look. ‘A Sketch for the Head of the intended Piece of Water’ shows the turn at the end that was designed to hide the dam there. This end was also to be planted around its banks. It is likely that this was not finished, as there are only a few surviving sycamores there, planted on Brownian swells.
Both the bridge and the disguised dam were part of Brown’s design to make both lakes appear more like a serpentine river, flowing under the bridge at one end and out of sight at the other.
Another major element of the Rothley scheme was the banqueting house, which is labelled ‘A Room’ on Brown’s plan. It was to be built on a small hill, overlooking Low Lake. The south front would have a bay with windows giving views to the east and west of the lakes and bridge, and ahead to Codger’s Fort.
The banqueting house is marked at the edge of a circular area of planting, sheltering it from the north. This area was probably going to be a shrubbery, below forest trees. It was split into two smaller sections, a west one for ‘coach house and stables’ and the east for a ‘garden’. Brown also showed the planned drive that would link this feature to the road over the bridge and continue out towards the east end of the lake.
Brown’s plans for Rothley were part of a wider scheme that included the eye-catchers Rothley Castle, designed by architect Daniel Garrett (listed Grade II*; Historic England) and Codger’s Fort by architect Thomas Wright. There were several other unbuilt structures - designs were commissioned from William Newton, amongst others.
Later owners of Rothley, the Trevelyans, built Lake House on the High Lake in the early 19th century, perhaps inspired by Brown’s designs. There is currently no public access to the Low Lake, which has become an important area for wildlife. As research continues into its history there may be opportunities for guided tours there.
Information courtesy of Nick Owen
Northumbria Gardens Trust: www.northumbriagardenstrust.com
Historic England: historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1371065