Thorndon Country Park
Lancelot “Capability” Brown created New Hall Pond and remodelled the park at Thorndon Hall, Brentwood, Essex for the 9th Baron Petre.
The estate at Thorndon Hall covers about 243 hectares (600 acres). Brown was called in by the 9th Baron, who was building a new house and modernising the gardens laid out by his father. There are no plans or written records of what Brown did there between 1766 and 1772. He is known to have created a large lake, New Hall Pond, and probably built a ha-ha (sunken wall) and laid out new drives and rides.
Although Brown’s plan for remodelling Thorndon Hall has not survived he is thought to have carried out a lot of work between 1766 and 1772. His total bill amounted to £5,059 and 2 shillings (£8 million in 2015).
Brown came to Thorndon at a time when Lord Petre was building a new house on the site, more than 1.6 kilometres (1 mile) north of the old hall. He was working alongside architect James Paine (1717-80, Wikipedia), but there is no evidence that Paine had recommended Brown for this job.
It is thought that much of Brown’s work on the site involved removing the existing formal pleasure grounds that surrounded the old mansion. Some features, including Old Hall Pond and Menagerie Plantation were kept. There are no letters about the ongoing improvements, but some clues can be found by comparing the 1733 plan of the estate with the later one from 1778, and with Chapman and André’s county map of 1777 (surveyed 1772-74, see online).
The maps do not indicate what work – if any – Brown did on altering the surface of the park. The land features undulations and several shallow valleys, which could be natural or the result of a major earth-moving operation such as Brown did at other sites.
New Hall Pond
New Hall Pond lies about 750 metres (0.5 miles) south-south-east of the newly built house and is thought to be the major feature of Brown’s time at Thorndon. The land to the south of the mansion was ideally suited for a large lake, as it was a place where two valleys met and would only need a small dam.
The lake is not shown on the Chapman and André map, but they may have done their survey before its construction. The 1778 estate plan shows that it had a long tail, running to the north-east. A broad earth dam borders the southern boundary of the lake, probably from earth dug out from the sunken area downstream.
Ha-ha and rides
Brown is thought to have built a ha-ha immediately to the south and east of the new house, to keep the deer away from the house. He cut off the area around the remains of the old house, including the Octagon Plantation, leaving it within an area of farmland.
As part of his scheme, Brown probably laid out drives and rides to the new house and its surrounding plantations, which were softened or felled. He kept part of the grand formal avenue created by the 8th Baron Petre, to create views through the south of the park. Two mounts from the earlier design were also kept, standing on either side of the new mansion. The cedars of Lebanon growing there were planted by the 8th Baron.
It is not clear whether the walled vegetable garden built to the west of the mansion was the work of Paine or Brown.
Thorndon Hall today
Landscape designer Richard Woods was employed as surveyor at Thorndon from the early 1780s. The scale of the works at Thorndon carried out by the 9th Baron left the estate with large debts. In 1878 much of the new house was destroyed by fire and the Petre family returned to their home at Ingatestone Hall.
After the First World War the house and 100 hectares (240 acres) of park were sold to a golf club. Much of the land was opened as a country park in 1971 and some of the woodland is now owned by the Woodland Trust. The park is now listed Grade II*.
It is thought that New Hall Pond remains more or less the same shape as it was in Brown’s day, though some earlier maps suggest alterations were made.
Lancelot Brown and his Essex Clients: A Gazetteer of Sites in Essex Associated with Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown 1716-1783, Essex Gardens Trust, 2015 www.essexgardenstrust.org.uk
John Chapman and Peter André, A Map of the County of Essex 1777: www.chapmanandremapofessex.co.uk
Historic England: historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000314