Miss L writes that she is a student with a dissertation to write and could I please tell her everything I know about gravel paths.
This is an open question, but less arduous than my usual fare from students, which asks after everything I know about Capability Brown, and seeks not verity but verisimilitude, by way of a very simple version of his life.
The gravel walk was hymned in William Mason’s 12th sonnet, which celebrated the convenience, though acknowledging the limit, such walks imposed upon freedom, in terms that his contemporaries would have associated with the Constitutional Settlement:
‘ Smooth simple Path! whose undulating line,
‘… “Plain in its neatness,” spans my garden ground;
‘ What, though two acres thy brief course confine,
…’Liberal though limited, restrain’d though free,
‘ Fearless of dew, or dirt, or dust, I rove,’
‘ Thou emblem pure of legal liberty’.
Even his enemies regarded gravel walks as characteristic of Brown’s pleasure grounds – so his arch-critic Uvedale Price ‘Instead of the easy bends of a path, there are the regular and consequently more formal and edgy sweeps of a gravel walk’. But now I would advise Miss L to hesitate in her argument, for Price’s commendation of Brown’s workmanship in the walks at Blenheim was aimed to wound, given both the lowly status of the path-making navigator, and the care that Brown took to conceal his walks, and so have them pass unnoticed: ‘In the garden scene at Blenheim the gravel walk appears in great perfection: the sweeps are large, easy, and well taken; and though in wild and romantic parts such artificial bends destroy the character of the scenery, yet in gardens, where there must be regular borders to the walks, an attention to the different curves is indispensable; and the skill that is shewn in conducting them, though not to be rated too high, is by no means without its merit. That was Mr. Brown’s fort, and there he was a real improver; for before him, the horror of strait lines made the first improvers on the new system, conceive that they could hardly make too many turns … In regard to the walks at Blenheim, another circumstance, though minute, adds to their perfection: they are so artfully laid, that the surface becomes a sort of mosaic; and notwithstanding their inherent defects, they add a higher polish to that beautiful garden scene.’
Then Miss L might wish to turn to Thomas Whately’s comments on Hagley, for so far as he was concerned there was a place for both grass and gravel paths, and the latter could contribute to the appearance of a garden; ‘they are unusual elsewhere; they constantly present the idea of a walk … a field surrounded by a gravel walk is to a degree bordered by a garden … the walk is certainly garden’. He went on to well-considered criticism of gravel for this reason: ‘plain gravel walks to every part are commonly deemed to be indispensable; they undoubtedly are convenient; but it must also be acknowledged, that though sometimes they adorn, yet at other times they disfigure the scenes through which they are conducted … a gravel walk … on many occasions, … should be industriously concealed.’ Then I would move to the key point that grass is not only more attractive and less intrusive in a view, but in the words of John Abercrombie, it ‘is agreeable and more easy to walk on than gravel between the plantations in dry hot weather in summer’.
The salient points then are that gravel walks are designed to provide extensive all-weather and year-round access to all parts of the garden and parkland, not least for the infirm. Hence they were to be as long as possible, with views ‘of every part of the garden, and of all that is agreeable that is to be seen from it’, as John Rutter and Daniel Carter ably concluded. This is why they almost always run round the edge, but, notwithstanding Mason, they were not attractive and had to have their artificial surface ‘industriously concealed’ with shrubs. Consider, by way of coda, Brown’s 1752 design for a serpentine walk along the paddock on the east boundary of the pleasure ground at Petworth. This was to be embellished with studs of shrubs, and offered varied views over the ‘paddock’ and the more distant countryside.
I wish however that students of landscape architecture were not set such dissertations and were sent instead to work in pleasure grounds and gardens. They would learn more, more quickly, and their work would then be of greater benefit to society.