Returning from a refreshing afternoon in Slough to a fresh delivery of correspondence on the hall table, I was just in time to catch a note from the Tyne as it slid from the top of the pile onto the floor. It was Mr O with news from Northumberland, and a question: did Capability Brown ever plant avenues?

Mr O did not choose to be discursive and I remain unsure whether he included both plantings on the square (the trees in the rows being opposite each other) and those in the quincunx style of staggered rows (sometimes known as the ‘XXX’, for having a tree at every point of the ‘X’).

In some respects however I can be more precise. Though I say Slough, I was actually on Iver Heath, which in turn adjoins an underrated work of Brown himself, – that is, the park at Langley, Bucks. We should be more curious about Langley’s relationship between Iver Heath, with its Warren House and Round Coppice, planted by 1761 and equipped with radiating straight rides – indeed it was this last element to which I was drawn again by Mr L’s inquiry. Iver Heath was a hunting ground for Langley, and the avenues or rides in Round Coppice are characteristic of hunting grounds. The form was condemned by the satirist Watelet in 1774: ‘In general, a park is a vast enclosure surrounded by walls, planted with thick stands of trees, and divided into straight allées that go in separate but symmetrical directions; they offer, from almost any angle, roughly the same kind of view…. they give little enjoyment …

The more powerful and rich these landowners were, the more they enlarged these parks for their amusements. But what amusements! The hunt, the very emblem of hostility. Finding little safety riding through their forests, they satisfied their need for entertainment in well-protected enclosures stocked with timid animals that were hardly visible, and pierced through by straight roads that were only too visible. These enclosures were, and are still today, uniform, dreary, and boring’.

If we are to find Brown’s avenues, then the hunting woods outside the parkland seem a good place to start, and among the best illustrated and most informative of these is Apley Head Plantation at Clumber. Brown was consulted by the second Duke in 1764, who had planted over 2,000 acres of trees by the time of his death in 1794. He attracted a good deal of criticism for spending his time like this. In 1772 the Duchess of Northumberland complained that: ‘It is … most of it plough’d up … the plantations are vulgar all in square formal figures chiefly pine and larch,’ and a few years later the vicar still fussed about the newness of the plantations.

What is distinctive about the Apley Head Plantation? It has a 12-toed goose foot dividing blocks made up of different species. Its use of plant material is very much in the Southcote/Lord Petre style; it is formal, it has vistas out to features in the landscape (Worksop Manor, Clumber itself, Bevercotes, Grove, Retford, and Osberton), such as Brown retained and reworked in Temple Copse at Wilton, though unlike Temple Copse it lies outside the park. At 103 acres it is large enough for hunting through, and just as it combined experimental forestry with aesthetics, and formal and irregular design, so it was also designed both for shooting and fox-hunting. The former is catered for by the sinuous walks through it, labelled as ‘shooting rides’, the latter by straight rides. The design itself is unchanged from that of Peter Beckford’s Everley Coppice, but the choice of plants makes it a more adventurous layout.

Though his contribution to Clumber must be acknowledged, there is no evidence, Mr L, that Brown was involved with Apley Head itself, but it remains a style to look out for – and Professor W (note 56) might take comfort from the collection of exotics that was planted there.

I find however that I have rambled and taken the air, as it were, some distance from my intended destination, for I have a couple of other avenues in mind. The avenue, so called, that runs from the southern lodges to Dogkennel Covert at Heveningham, described by J. P. Neale, only 40 years after Brown’s death, as ‘of great length and uncommon beauty’, and Croxton Avenue that runs from Belvoir Castle some three miles to the park at Croxton. Both avenues wind, one was flanked by strips of planting, the other by odd patches of trees – yet rather than judge that Brown was no friend of avenues, I wonder if one might not better conclude that he and his followers transformed the idea of the avenue without ever abandoning it?