Birthplace of the British love affair with gardening

CHRIS MOWBRAY

The birthplace of Britain's modern love affair with gardening, Croome Park in the Severn valley, brought international fame to the nation's greatest-ever landscape artist. Now the park, designed by Capability Brown in the second half of the 18th century, is to be restored by the National Trust over the next 10 years at a cost of pounds 8m.

As the National Heritage Memorial Fund announced in Cardiff yesterday that it was giving pounds 4.9m towards the project, officials of the trust's Severn region shunned the reception to get out and about on their new treasure in Wellington boots and Barbour jackets.

It was during the 1750s that the then unknown Lancelot Brown was retained by the sixth Earl of Coventry to turn 675 acres of Worcestershire marsh into a classical manicured landscape which set the standard for sweeping parklands across the country in the Georgian age.

The unusual partnership between the two men developed into a life-long friendship and created a new art form inspired by classical philosophy and the concept of the Grand Tour.

It also earned Brown his nickname. When reporting on how the work was progressing, the designer would regularly knock on his employer's door to tell him: "The park has its capabilities, my lord."

"This was Capability Brown's first great landscape park and it is of tremendous importance," David Brown the trust's regional public affairs manager, said.

"It is also unusual because it includes work by the architect Thomas Adam and the sculptor James Wyatt. Here you have something which combines the work of the three finest artists of the late 18th century.

"It has altered little since it was created except that it has decayed and was ravaged by Dutch elm disease in the Seventies. We intend to restore it totally and will be opening it so that the public can see the work taking shape."

The centrepiece of the park is Brown's mile-long artificial river, which is really a man-made lake. The land also includes his grotto to Sabrina, the goddess of the River Severn, made with some of the earliest artificial garden stone.

Other features include a man-made island, two classical temples designed by Robert Adam and the statue of a druid and a memorial to Brown by James Wyatt.

The trust's regional director, Cecil Pearse, said: "This is a wonderful opportunity to restore a unique creation. Brown carried out the work only for the Earls of Coventry, but we are doing it for the nation - that is why we find it so exciting."

The park is being bought from the Sun Alliance, which has owned it since 1981 and is giving pounds 300,000 towards the restoration. The house itself, Croome Court, is empty. Owned now by a property developer, it is on the market and is not part of the package.

The estate was sold off and the Coventry family moved out in 1948. The 11th earl, known locally as "Bill", still lives near by and walks regularly on the land.

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