I was delighted to meet Dr S, whom one seldom meets outside his native Surrey, striding amongst the glorious hedgerows of paschal Buckinghamshire. As two people will who share a common interest, we fell to a discussion of the ridings, as they were designed by that king of the English countryside, Capability Brown.
Now a riding is a hard thing to describe, but it will always be a private road conducted around an estate, outside the parkland, to show off its natural beauties, its antiques, and the neatness and good husbandry of its tenantry. That it is hard to describe Dr S was only too happy to agree and he cited the strange fact that the garden critic Thomas Whately, having described a riding in the vaguest possible terms, gave only Piercefield as an example – when as a point of fact, the walk Whately described at Piercefield was not strictly a riding, and Brown himself (who did not work at Piercefield) is the man we rightly associate most strongly with ridings.
The very name would seem to be his – Deadman’s Riding at Ditchley, the Ridings at Compton Verney, Monk’s Riding at Coombe Abbey – but at that point Dr S interrupted me – and I ventured an opinion that Whately might have known Brown, that they too might have sat and discussed ridings, and that Whately never really understood what they were – indeed one wonders how better Whately might have come across the word than from the mouth of Brown himself.
That evening at the Tatler’s Waste-bin as I recalled the pleasures of the day, Mr Honey cut in, asking me which riding was my favourite. I cocked my eye by way of rejoinder, and he offered me the Tixall riding. Captain Ken, for the length of the thing, plumped for the Great Riding from Stathern to Belvoir Castle, while the Brown Advisor, for sentimental reasons, tipped the riding at Chillington – the possibility of the Orwell Riding at Wimpole was ventured, for its panoramic view off the top of the quarry, but in the end the company deemed this too controversial – some might say that this riding was not put through until Repton’s time, 20 years after Brown’s death.