Blenhiem Palace gardens

Changing landscapes: Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown and climate change

As visitors flock to heritage sites across the country over the Easter holidays, academic and TV presenter, Dr Oliver Cox, considers how climate has changed, and will continue to require change, in the management of these landscapes and asks, “Are we still a green and pleasant land?”

Popular consciousness credits the landscape architect, Capability Brown (1716–1783), with creating the English landscape style, with its tripartite concoction of trees, grass and water. If you have ever visited the gardens of Hampton Court, Richmond or Blenheim Palace (recently featured in The Royals, Cinderella, and Harry Potter) then you have set foot in one of his creations.

Also known as the ‘father of landscape architecture’, next year will mark the 300th birthday of Capability Brown. The tercentenary festival has prompted me to reflect upon some important questions about our national relationship with landscape:

Do Brown’s landscapes still act as a metonym for English national identity? Are we still a green and pleasant land, or are Brown’s landscapes now part of an artificial construct, artfully deployed by destination management organisations and VisitEngland to lure in US Dollars or Chinese Yuan?

Across the country the tercentenary will be celebrated with a programme of events and exhibitions, including the Capability Brown Festival, supported by a Heritage Lottery Fund grant.

Compton Verney gardens by Capability Brown

Photo: Compton Verney, in Warwickshire, received £2.5m from the Heritage Lottery Fund to restore their Capability Brown landscape. Courtesy of Oliver Cox.

However, I believe that this tercentenary also offers the opportunity to create a nationwide discussion about the impact of climate change on the historic designed landscape. A recent workshop convened by UK Climate Impacts Programme (UKCIP) and the University of Oxford, ‘Climate Change & the Heritage Environment’, demonstrated the variety of impacts climate change has upon how custodians of heritage assets – including Capability Brown landscapes – plan for the future.

Attendees from the Museum of London Archaeology, National Heritage Science Forum, Atkins Heritage, Blenheim Palace, Institute of Historic Building Conservation, Historic Scotland, National Trust, Royal Horticultural Society together with researchers from the University of Oxford explored potential research areas in response to the priorities and questions of the heritage asset managers. What became clear is that climate change has already had an impact, both inside the building envelope, and out in the landscape, and will continue to do so. With regards to Capability Brown landscapes, one of the most important questions is that of planting.

When we restore a landscape, should we be returning it to its original plan, or should we make concessions and alterations based upon an assumption of how climate will change over the next three centuries?

At Belvoir Castle in Rutland, some of these questions are being answered through the Duchess of Rutland’s recreation of a Capability Brown landscape from a long-lost design.

The specific challenge that the academic community must respond to, as doctoral researcher Helen Phillips has argued, is the absence of research around adaptive capacity in the field of cultural heritage management. University-based researchers can aid our partners in the heritage sector by supplying evidence to justify the difficult management decisions that must be made as a result of the influence of climate change.

This workshop coincided with the National Trust Director General, Helen Ghosh, announcing that, with regard to climate change,  ‘all the practical evidence we have at the Trust shows that the biggest challenge we are now facing concerns the threat to biodiversity and wildlife’. Whilst the largest threat is to coastal areas, the National Trust has announced that library books are also in danger too, due to the anticipated rise in pests such as silverfish which used to be killed off in the winter cold but are now a continual problem. Such secondary and tertiary impacts of climate change present challenges but also exciting opportunities for academic collaboration across traditional disciplinary divisions and between universities and heritage organisations to investigate the risks posed and to co-design appropriate solutions.

It is also worth considering that land and environment is a strategic priority for the National Trust, not just because of climate change, but because it offers an opportunity to engage a broader range of visitors. I would argue that this is true for privately owned country houses too, and that a concerted effort is needed across the sector to raise awareness of the risks posed and to work together to devise appropriate solutions and alternatives to the way in which we manage heritage assets.

The 2016 celebration of Capability Brown’s landscapes must move beyond a narrow consideration of aesthetic beauty if it is to have a real public impact. The celebration aims to foster a greater appreciation of our designed landscape heritage and to encourage people to visit, learn about and enjoy Brown’s landscapes. In addition to creating a public understanding of how these landscapes have shaped England as we know it today, the celebration offers an as yet untapped opportunity to reveal how heritage managers can protect and maintain this ‘green and pleasant’ land in a changing climate.

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