- Southhill Park, page 20 'Views of the seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland LP Vol 5 John Preston Neale 1824 Courtesy of British Library (Public Domain)
- Southhill Park engraved by Wiliam Watts in 1782
- Southhill on OS map of 1884 Reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Scotland
In 1775 Lancelot 'Capability' Brown was called in to 'improve' the formal gardens at Southill for George Byng, the 4th Viscount Torrington.
A note in Capability Brown’s account book records that he was commissioned at Southill Park, but there is no surviving plan or survey of the estate. The 200-hectare (500-acre) estate is on the Greensand Ridge, near Biggleswade, Bedfordshire. Working with his foreman George Bowstreed, Brown created the parkland to the north, south and west of the house. This was mainly pasture, edged by woodland belts and trees.
Work in progress
Brown was probably consulted as early as 1764 but work at Southill, billed from 1775, was not completed because the money ran out in 1777. The estate map from that year (A Plan of Wrotham Farm) shows how far the landscape had been altered compared with the earlier formal setting shown by Thomas Badeslade in the 1730s. At the south (entrance) front of the house was a curving drive. There were clumps and single trees in the parkland to the north and south. The map shows 'pleasure gardens' to the west around the small, wooded Icehouse Hill and also to the north-east. A formal terrace to the north front of the house connected the areas of the pleasure grounds. Some areas to the west and south west of the estate, such as Keeper’s Warren, appear completed. References to the landscape are found in the correspondence of Amabel (née Grey), Lady Polwarth, who, with her husband, rented the property at the start of the 1780s.
Neither the retained circular Basin nor the new 15-hectare lake in the north-east corner of the park are shown on the 1777 map.
Brown died in 1783, and it is thought that the lake and other improvements inspired by Brown date from after 1795, when Samuel Whitbread bought the estate. He brought in Henry Holland (1745-1806, Wikipedia), Brown’s son-in-law, to remodel the house for his son, Samuel Whitbread II. William Ireland, who had been a foreman to Brown, and artist Samuel Reynolds continued working in the park until 1815.
The 1817 map of Southill Park shows the landscaping completed, with the lake and clearings in the woodland along the north bank. The lake is crossed at the north end by the single-arched Smeaton's Bridge (listed Grade II, Historic England), designed by Henry Holland.
Holland had also built a brick Fishing Temple (listed Grade II*, Historic England) facing south across the lake, possibly re-using elements from a structure overlooking the former bowling green. This acted as an eye-catcher from the north of the house, which was now the main entrance front.
The park today
Southill House is now listed Grade I (Historic England) and the estate remains in the ownership of the Whitbread family. The park today includes a meadow north of the house that slopes gently towards the area of the lake and temple. A cedar walk and a valley to the west and south give views back to the house.
Information courtesy of Bedfordshire Gardens Trust: bedsgardenstrust.org.uk
Further information available from Southill Park Estate
Historic England: historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000579