DID LANCELOT ‘CAPABILITY’ BROWN EVER VISIT WENVOE?
The August edition of Wenvoe What’s On contained a fascinating article on Wenvoe Castle. The grounds surrounding the castle are listed Grade II by Cadw (the Welsh Government’s historic environment service) because the layout and surviving planting are of national interest. Some of those features are typical of the work of ‘Capability’ Brown – rolling green slopes; trees dotted about singly or in clumps; a perimeter belt of trees and a pond of natural appearance. Historians have long pondered on whether Brown might have been instrumental in the design of the land around the castle and it is worth reflecting on whether the most important garden designer of the eighteenth century might have influenced the landscape of Wenvoe.
In 1774 Peter Birt bought Wenvoe Castle from the Thomas family and by 1776 work had started to rebuild the castle, following plans drawn up by Robert Adam. 2016 is the 300th anniversary of Lancelot Brown (1716-1783) and there have been many events this year to celebrate his work – his nickname came from the word he used to assure clients that their land was capable of improvement. He worked mainly in England but occasionally in Wales as, in 1778, when the fourth earl of Bute commissioned him and his son-in-law, the architect Henry Holland, to modernize Cardiff Castle and the surrounding grounds. At the same time Holland appears to have been asked to work at Wenvoe Castle. This seems to have been specifically in relation to the stable block and courtyard (now Wenvoe Castle Golf Club) which bears a distinct resemblance to another site he and Brown had developed together – Berrington Hall in Herefordshire.
Subsequently the land surrounding the castle became known as Wenvoe Castle Estate and remained in the hands of Birt’s descendants for almost two centuries. When the golf course was laid out in the 1930s considerable effort was made to ensure that the existing landscape was altered as little as possible. In the 1970s Birt’s descendants sold much of the estate’s farmland and buildings with the result that most of the land is private and cannot be accessed without permission. One such area, Bears Wood, is particularly interesting because it contains mid-eighteenth-century rococo landscaping with the remains of a grotto and serpentine canal. Easier to appreciate is Waun Lawn, the two fields on either side of the entrance drive to the golf course. Here oak trees that may date from the eighteenth century still stand – Brown liked to dot them around parkland, both to catch the eye and give shelter to livestock. An 1871 map of the estate shows one side of this road closely planted with trees, creating an avenue, as well as a belt of trees surrounding the perimeter of estate land. The 1871 documentation also gave details of the gardens which included ‘Vineries, Forcing and Cucumber pits, Stove [hothouse] and Greenhouses … an Archery Ground, a Charming Lawn and Terrace Walk to the south of the Mansion overlooking the Park’.
Despite the fact that the area around the castle illustrates evidence of the characteristics of Brown’s style of landscape gardening, no documentary evidence has yet been found to confirm that he visited Wenvoe but he was known to travel great distances on horseback to visit sites and it seems likely that whilst working on Cardiff Castle he would have made the short trip to Wenvoe to see how his son-in-law was progressing. Birt would, no doubt, have welcomed both him and any advice he was prepared to offer on the landscape. Brown, in turn, would certainly have assured Birt that his estate had many ‘capabilities’.