Wycombe Abbey

High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire
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Overview

Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown improved the grounds at Wycombe Abbey and built the lake for the 2nd Earl of Shelburne, owner of Bowood.

Capability Brown worked for the 2nd Earl of Shelburne at Bowood House, Wiltshire during the 1760s and was probably employed at Wycombe Abbey around that time. Brown is thought to have improved the landscape at Wycombe Abbey, which lies just to the south of High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. He probably created the narrow lake known as The Dyke and shaped the woodland and parkland in the east and south valleys. A ha-ha and walled garden were also built in this period, though it is not clear whether these were part of Brown’s scheme.

Trees and shrubs

No contract has been found for the project at Wycombe Abbey, which was then called Loakes Manor after the 17th-century manor house. There is a contract of 1762 covering Brown’s work for the earl at Bowood House. The Bowood accounts also cover trees and shrubs bought by Brown for use at Wycombe, which suggests that the two jobs were going on at the same time.

The Dyke

There are no ornamental gardens at Wycombe Abbey, so Brown’s work was in the park, which runs along two valleys to the east and south of the house. He may have dammed a stream to form The Dyke, the narrow, 6-acre stretch of water that runs along the northern side of the east park. To carve out this sinuous piece of water on a hillside overlooking the River Wye was an impressive feat of engineering.

Brown may also have created the walk through the trees along the south side of the lake, which finishes at the 18th-century cascade at the east end. Here the water level drops about 5 metres and becomes a stream again.

Yews and views

In both the south and east parks the land is bordered by woodland on three sides. In the east park the view narrows to focus on the house to the west end. The main views lie north and east from the park, woodland and lake and the parish church used to be an eye-catcher from the house and park.

Brown is known to have bought trees and shrubs to shape the landscape in the parks. There are still mature yews and other evergreens along the eastern end of The Dyke. More yews and ornamental conifers are found north and north-east of the house. This planting and the belt of trees along the south edge of the south park may be the results of Brown’s time at Wycombe Abbey.

Wycombe Abbey after Brown

In 1896 the house and part of the land were bought by a syndicate and became Wycombe Abbey School. In 1928 the school bought the rest of the land. During the Second World War the estate was used by the US Air Force.

The Dyke is now shorter as a result of changes to the road layout and its northern edge has been paved as part of a recreation area. The landscape in the two halves of the park has changed as a result of building at the school and new housing development, but Brown’s vision for the parkland can still be seen. The house at Wycombe Abbey is listed Grade II* (Historic England) and the park is listed Grade II.

Sources 

Historic England: historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/10006093