It became clear on reading some of the comments posted to my last article on Burghley House and Pride and Prejudice that the concept of the Ha-ha was something of a conundrum to a few of us, and so I’ve written this post to clarify what is meant by one.

Basically it was a hidden boundary, a sunken fence, separating park from garden on an estate. This is the very large one at Grimsthorpe Castle, which has since had its retaining wall raised a little for the safety requirements of the 20 and 21st centuries.

As you can clearly see, the installation of a ha-ah prevented the livestock in the park -cattle, deer, sheep- from encroaching on the more elegant and refined part of your estate. It kept nature at a respectful distance, if you like. You could still view your beautifully landscaped rolling acres from your house, but the inhabitants of that park would not bother you in your part of the garden, nor would they leave any evidence of their existence for you to tread in while wearing your  expensive shoes,and offend your delicate sensibilities

The ha-ah is mentioned by Jane Austen, notably in Mansfield Park, during the chapters which deal with the revealing trip to Southerton. She uses the formal wilderness and its retaining ha-ha as a recurring liet motiv of restraint for the women in the novel, notably Fanny Price, who is forced to stay confined in that part of the garden within its retaining walls,

A few steps farther brought them out at the bottom of the very walk they had been talking of; and standing back, well shaded and sheltered, and looking over a ha–ha into the park, was a comfortable–sized bench, on which they all sat down.

Chapter 9

…watching the goings-on of the two pairs of would-be lovers, Miss Crawford and Edmund Bertram

After sitting a little while Miss Crawford was up again. “I must move,” said she; “resting fatigues me. I have looked across the ha–ha till I am weary. I must go and look through that iron gate at the same view, without being able to see it so well.
Chapter 9

and then Maria Rushworth and Mr Crawford,who, had he been a Deb’s Delight in the 1920s, would no doubt have been dubbed  N.S.O.K. ( Not Safe On Knolls)

Yes, certainly, the sun shines, and the park looks very cheerful. But unluckily that iron gate, that ha–ha, give me a feeling of restraint and hardship. ‘I cannot get out,’ as the starling said.” As she spoke, and it was with expression, she walked to the gate: he followed her. “Mr. Rushworth is so long fetching this key!”
Chapter 10

It is an ingenious device precisely because  it is virtually undetectable from the house.

This is the view from Boughton House in Northamptonshire looking towards a very large sunken fence or ha-ha. Can you spot it? I thought not.

If you care to look at this photograph above showing the view from one of the ha-has at Cottsebrooke Hall, the one which separates an old wilderness from the modern formal garden, you can see that, at close quarters, the ditch is noticeable but if you compare it with the Boughton picture, you can see that effect lessens the closer you are to the house. I confess was delighted when I found this ha-ha overlooking a formally planted wilderness because it seemed to reflect the state of affairs as described by Jane Austen at Southerton, and some people are of the opinion that Cottesbrooke was her inspiration for Mansfield Park itself. Of course my speculations were all dashed when I realised this  ha-ha was a relatively modern creation and did not exist when Jane Austen was writing Mansfield Park in the early 19th century. Ah,well…..back to reality.

Do notice that the ditch gradient  is constructed in such a way as to prevent the livestock being able to breech the gap between the park and the retaining wall, and therefore they are prevented from grazing near to the house.

This clever drawing by Felix Kelly of a side section of the construction of an ha-ha shows how the ground is scooped away from the retaining wall. The ground is then levelled off to be the same height as the retaining wall and, at a distance, the gap becomes less noticeable.  And to  some unobservant walkers, it must have come as something of a surprise, hence its  name.

Before the introduction of the ha-ha, the only method of keeping livestock in the park separate from the gardens was by visually intrusive means of control, that is, fences and walls. But the beauty of the ha-ha, the almost invisible boundary ditch, is that looking out onto the gardens and further into the park surrounding a grand house you simply cannot notice it. It is not at all visually intrusive but it is totally effective in keeping the park animals away at a safe distance .

This is another much older ha-ha at Cottesbrooke Hall, and it separates the pleasure gardens surrounding the house from the park. Below is the view from the ha-ha looking out toward the park and surrounding village in the distance (please ignore the fabuous plant fair taking place in the foreground)!

Horace Walpole in his essay On Modern Gardening (1770) patriotically attributed the introduction of the ha-ha as a garden features to the English landscape to the famous gardener, Charles Bridgeman, partner of the equally famous Henry Wise (although the French might have something to say in dispute here: there is an example of an ha-ha at Versailles that predates Charles Bridgeman. It was also used elsewhere in landscape gardens in Europe) :

But the capital stroke, the leading step to all that followed was (I believe the first though was Bridgeman’s) the destruction of walls for boundaries, and the invention of fosses- an attempt then deemed so astonishing , that the common people called them Ha! Has! to express their surprise at finding a sudden and unperceived check to their walk.

One of the first gardens planted in this simple though still formal style was my father’s at Houghton. It was laid out by Mr Eyre, an imitator of Bridgeman…I call a sunk fence the leading step for these reasons. No sooner was this simple enchantment made, than levelling, mowing and rolling followed. The contiguous ground of the park without the sunk fence was to be harmonised with the lawn within; and the garden in its turn was to be set free from its prim regularity, that it might assort with the wilder country without. The sunk fence ascertained the specific garden, but that it might not draw too obvious a line of distinction between the neat and the rude, the contiguous outlying parts came to be included in a kind of general design: and when nature was taken into the plan, under improvements, every step that was made pointed out new beauties and inspired new ideas….

You could, of course  see it -the retaining wall was very noticeable- if you were walking in the park looking towards it (and the house) for the ground sloped sharply away from it as you can see in these photographs of the ha-ha at Burghley House .

Note this  is not faced in red brick as at Cottesbrooke, but in the locally quarried limestone. Below is a close up of the wall, which was recently (and expensively ) renovated

Here you can see that the ha-ha at Burghley is  curved

and that the ditch slopes dramatically away from the retaining wall, but then rises to its height…

The further away from the ditch you are, the less noticeable is the gap.

So you see, by adding an ha-ha to the landscape, the eye could rove freely beyond the immediate garden to the park onto the surrounding countryside,whilst keeping the animals away from the house and its pleasure gardens.