Mrs W of Newcastle-upon-Tyne has asked where the indigenous and ingenious Capability Brown, idol of Indians and Chiefs alike, got his trees and it’s a good question, especially when it comes from that splendid city Newcastle, strong indeed in the matter of coal-mines and ships, but less so when it comes to the commercial tree nurseries of the 18th century. The short answer, one that slipped too readily off my tongue, was wherever he could find them, but I think there are two other answers that will tell us more about the great man and his method. So we should have regard to the fact that very often the first plantations to go in to a Brown landscape are the tree nurseries – there are fine examples at Aynhoe and at Wotton of nurseries appearing, and then disappearing a few years later, subsumed within the greater plantings that they had brought on. We should always be ready to see clumps as nurseries.
Then I turn to Wimpole where I enjoyed the great privilege of attending on Lon Shaw and Oliver Rackham as they mapped the distinct clones of elm in Brown’s belt. We did the work in the 1970s as Dutch Elm Disease was turning the country to a graveyard, Conscious that this would be the final elegiac record of a once glorious park, ours was the most detailed single record of elm woodland ever made and we found that Brown had been getting elm suckers, of the suckering kind that is Ulmus carpinifolia, from all the villages around the estate, pulling them from the hedgerows no doubt, wherever he could find them.
After that we have receipts from professional nurserymen, such as John Williamson, but it is no surprise to find that a disproportionate number of these are for unusual plants, for fruit trees and exotics. These bills are seldom of so much interest.