Last week I paid a long over due return visit to Stowe Landscape Gardens in Buckinghamshire, now maintained by the National Trust,but which was the home of those ever improving gardeners of the 18th century, Lord Cobham, Earl Temple and the Marquess of Buckingham,who employed only the best, Bridgeman, Vangburgh, James Gibbs, William Kent and Capability Brown,  in the making of their earthy paradise, filled with garden buildings replete with so many political allusions.

There is, believe it or not, a more or less direct link to Jane Austen from this garden and its owners, so I feel entitled to write about it on that score, but of course it is one of the most influential 18th century landscape gardens in England and we really ought to consider it on that point alone. I will be posting a full account of the garden in a few weeks time.

This week I wanted to concentrate on the ha-ha at Stowe, as it is most probably the mother of them all. The ha-ha was a sunken fence, a visually unobtrusive device to separate the livestock of the park from the ornamental pleasure gardens surrounding a great house. I have written about ha-has before, and of course they are important to Jane Austen studies as she used it as a magnificent metaphor for restraint, and forced improvement in a n unfortunate relationship in chapters 9 and 10 of Mansfield Park.

The ha-ha at Stowe has been magnificently restored over the past twenty years and is very important as it was most probably the first ha-ha in England, from which all the others including Mr Rushworth’s at Southerton have evolved.

This plan of the Stowe estate, below,  by Charles Bridgeman, executed in 1739, shows the garden proper, in the bottom left of the plan,  surrounded by an irregular pentangle shaped ha-ha:

Here is a close up of it:

To give you some idea of the scale, the garden enclosed by the ha-ha is 400 acres in area.

The ha-ha at Stowe is faced in stone,and was probably used by Lord Cobham as an allusion to the military earthwork fortifications he saw while on service during the Marlborough Wars in Europe. In his book, Temples of Delight: Stowe Landscape Gardens John Martin Robinson, clearly sets out the theory about the ha-ha and its origins:

An architect with a strong interest in  gardening, John James, had published his translation of the Parisian naturalist Dezallier D’Argenville’s ‘Theory and Practice of Gardening’ in 1712,and this had first given widespread currency to the idea of a sunken fence and helped to popularize the device in England.

(page 75)

This is the view of the ha-ha from behind the two east and west lake pavilions, looking east:

You can see the ditch,which deters any livestock in the surrounding parkland breaching the wall, thereby preventing them from getting into the garden

The stone edging is the only hint that the ditch is there when you approach it from the garden, and really does come as a surprise.Hence the term “ha-ha!”

This series of photographs, below, show the ha-ha which is the boundary to the Georgian Valley, at the opposite end of the garden:

You can clearly see the retaining wall,and the sort of pillar/gate that may have been in situ at Southerton,and which caused such trouble by being locked.

And this is a view of the magnificent stonework of the restored retaining wall

that would have been  familiar to the livestock in the park.