Miss S writes to tell me that being newly arrived in Berkhamstead she took herself to view the town’s great landmark, known as the Golden Valley, and she wonders now if that master of beech-hung beauty, Capability Brown, whom she knew by reputation, could have worked his wizardry there.
Well Miss S, I might reply simply that he did have a commission at Ashridge, so might have made the valley, but nonetheless I introduced this question to the company at the Tatler’s Waste-bin with a certain hesitance, for so many of the questions received by the Brown Advisor ponder the unanswerable specifics: ‘Did Brown plant this tree?’ ‘Did he have any influence on that valley?’ and no matter how courteously it is performed, in every case our reply reduces to a lingual equivalent of the hapless shrug. I rallied my friends with a reminder that thus the alcoholic, thus the compulsive gambler, must be brought to an admission of failure before he or she can unlock the healing process. So our failure to give a straight answer may yet be the open sesame to other, slower, but ultimately effective, routes to the truth.
Thus, Miss S, did Mr Honey take the chair and, with one foot upon the hearth, opened his innings with the valley direct, such as runs straight out from the house at Claremont, at Prior Park, at Dinefwr, or from a building such as the Temple of Concord at Stowe.
As Mr Honey began to describe the care with which these valleys had been created – their luscious curves and concavities, their sinuous knolls and knots, the careless intricacy of the planting – his poetry threatened to overwhelm his subject. However Captain Ken then opened a new chapter in our conversation with an account of the planting of the valley adventitious. He brought to our attention those combes that the natural topography will throw up in a landscape, citing by way of example, Benham and Ugbrooke, and paying incidental attention to the joys of mountain-biking, as is his way. He finished with a persuasive argument for classing the Golden Valley as adventitious, though he may have lingered a little over-long on the subtlety of the landscaping of Eleanor Combe at Milton Abbey. Alas this brought a gleam back to Mr Honey’s eye and he trembled again – momently on the verge of poesy – until the Bar took his lead with a cool account of the valley transverse, as it occurs at Luton Hoo, Bowood, and, above all, at Southill.
By way of conclusion to what had proved to be a very pleasant and well-tuned evening, I offered a final thought that most of Brown’s landscaping has to do with valleys, for the houses at which he worked, such as Chatsworth and Blenheim, were so often built on the sides of hills, overlooking the valley and river below.
So Miss S, the question may be not whether or not Brown did work on your Golden Valley, but how he could possibly have resisted the temptation to do so.