Finding myself at liberty in North Yorkshire, I took a stroll through the delightful grounds of Scampston where I found myself in company with the equally delightful Mrs H of Richmond who asked me how Brown managed to instruct his foremen, and how he knew how much to pay them.

06 Drawing by Nicholson.jpg

In Nicholson’s painting, the grassy bank on the near side of the cascade at Scampston is dished, apparently to show off the water


The problem has raised its head in many such interrogations – Miss J called me from Calne this very week, with a similar question, for both I would confess that Dr David Brown may be the man best placed to answer.

However since we were at Scampston I was able to draw her attention to some of the earthworks in the parkland south of the hall. Two in particular induce in me feelings ‘near-akin to philosophy’, as the poet Pope put it. The first – a long conspicuous groove that runs between the cascade and the house – has never gone unnoticed, indeed it is shown in a drawing by Nicholson. The second is an even gradient running across the spoil heap which crowds the west side of the view, again running towards the house from the west end of the distant Yorkshire Wolds. Both cases are puzzling – the spoil heaps were put up when Capability Brown’s New River (known as the Lower Lake) was dug in about 1773, yet they were never high enough to block any views and if these grooves and smoothed slopes were not made so as enable views it is difficult to see what purpose they did serve.

I proposed the following speculation to Mrs H – Let us imagine that when he came to site, Brown first determined the sight-lines that he wished to have kept clear from the windows of the house (here the sight-lines from the house to the cascade and the Wolds). Let us suppose then that he set out a series of pegs along these lines, they might have been the 10’ splines painted white that were generally used for such work. He could then order his men not to drop the spoil along those lines, and to ensure that the ground was levelled out along their length. This simple instruction would allow them to proceed with confidence in his absence, and the result, as the spoil was piled up deeper and deeper, would be akin to an inscription cut down into the natural. Brown’s spoil heaps were not just jam donuts and jolly jelly. If correctly made, they would have made excellent platforms for planting, particularly on a low-lying damp ground such as Scampston’s.

I have to say that Mrs H was not so convinced as I might have liked, but her great grandmother, as is well known, was the last pixie at Plumpton Rocks, and for the blood of pixies, trust is tricksy.