A blot on the landscape

Michael Leapman reports on a vociferous row which developed after the chainsaws were sent in to control the 112-acre grounds at Kenwood House in north London some want to send in the
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LETTING NATURE take its course is no more useful an option in managing a landscape than in any other form of management. The core question is always going to be one of degree: how much human intervention is needed to allow the land to best serve the often contradictory requirements of the people who use and enjoy it?

The dilemma is especially acute in the case of such a treasured piece of ground as Kenwood in north London, a rare landscaped park surrounding an historic house on the edge of a crowded city, and in recent years a popular venue for outdoor concerts on summer evenings. There are those who love it just as it is and are loath to countenance any change - especially if it involves tidying it up, clearing scrubland and cutting down trees. Others see it as a unique survival of late 18th-century taste and design that needs urgent restoration before it becomes overgrown and unrecognisable as the work of Humphry Repton who was the leading landscape gardener of his day.

The woman who has to balance these conflicting objectives is Lorna McRobie, appointed in 1995 to the newly created post of director of gardens and landscape for English Heritage.

Kenwood House - much of it the work of Robert Adam - with its fabulous art collection and its 112-acre grounds merging into Hampstead Heath, were bequeathed to the nation by Lord Iveagh in 1928. They have been administered by Eng- lish Heritage since the Greater London Council was abolished in 1986.

Since the Sixties little serious work had been done on maintaining the estate. Copses of birch and scrub had been allowed to establish themselves in what was once open meadowland. The storm of 1987 destroyed scores of trees and many more were coming to the end of their natural lives.

A plan to recreate, as far as possible, the 18th-century landscape was published in 1990 and, after some local consultation, work began a couple of years later. The first stage, which chiefly involved dredging two ornamental lakes, proved uncontroversial. Trouble began as soon as the contractors brought out the chainsaws and started to fell some of the trees that had intruded into Repton's masterplan of 1793.

Among the well-heeled folk of Hampstead and Highgate are many skilled in the black art of raising a stink and engaging the attention of the media. They managed to portray English Heritage as a bunch of insensitive vandals, intent on imposing an artificial historical orthodoxy on what they valued as an area of largely unkempt beauty. Such was the force of their protests that in 1994 Jocelyn Stevens, chairman of English Heritage, ordered a halt to the work until a further round of consultation had been completed.

McRobie did not work for English Heritage at the time but she made it clear, as we strolled round the estate on a sunny winter afternoon, that she understands the concerns of the locals: "There's always a problem about cutting down mature trees and I have my fair share of heartache. Doing a lot of work over a short period of time makes people anxious. Three or four men with chainsaws can be intimidating. Panic sets in. People think all the trees are coming down.

"I had no doubt when I came that the general principle of what we were doing was right. The landscape was designed in the 18th century as an idealised paradise and the interesting thing is that people still love it today. We certainly weren't going to abandon it to nature. We just had to get the balance right, to get a dialogue going with local people and take them along with us. Without that, things get confrontational quite quickly."

Landscape gardening can excite extreme passions. Repton himself (who invented the phrase) had firm views that he expressed trenchantly. Many of his principles are well illustrated by his work at Kenwood. He thought that the trend towards creating rural landscapes around country villas, popularised earlier in the 18th century by Capability Brown, had been taken too far. He reintroduced elements of the 17th-century formal garden that had fallen out of fashion.

"A palace, or even an elegant villa, in a grass field, appears to me incongruous," he wrote. So at Kenwood he built a long terrace behind the house, running into a shingle path leading through an avenue of limes. The terrace provided a fine vantage point for the view downhill to the woods, the lakes and the London skyline beyond.

Nor did Repton share Brown's antipathy to flower gardens, although he insisted that they should not be part of the main vista from the house but "detached and distinct from the general scenery of the place". At Kenwood he created a fenced flower garden just to the west of the house, on the site of the old walled kitchen garden, which was moved eastwards. The only flowers on that west lawn today are some rhododendrons: the beds were grassed over in the Sixties and the restoration of some of them is part of English Heritage's long-term plan, although a broad expanse of grass will be kept for picnickers.

Repton's opinion of trees was that they should be kept firmly in their place. "Small plantations of trees, surrounded by a fence, are the best expedients to form groups ... Neglect of thinning and removing the fence has formed that ugly deformity called a clump."

This is precisely what has happened in the meadow below the terrace at Kenwood. Until just after the Second World War, it was grazed by sheep, which kept the grass down and prevented any scrub from rooting. When the sheep left, the grass had to be mowed, but the gang-mower could not reach the steepest sloping parts, where brambles and volunteer birch trees soon began to take hold. It was when the contractors moved in and started to clear these clumps in 1994 that the fiercest protests were heard and English Heritage was forced to rethink its strategy.

It was one thing for Repton to design a park that would delight a landowner and his discerning guests; quite another for McRobie to maintain a public amenity for hundreds of thousands of Londoners. The protesters are not merely arboreal Luddites resisting the destruction of anything that grows. They have pointed out that the 20th-century trees in parks actually serve a purpose. They form an effective screen not just from the roads that surround the park but from the other people using it; and they counter pollution.

This view has been incorporated into the revised "softly, softly" conservation strategy that English Heritage announced last November, after a more comprehensive sounding of local opinion. The clumps of birch will be cleared gradually, at a rate of five or six trees a year, with the most picturesque saved until last. The work will all be done by English Heritage staff trained to explain what they are doing to anyone who asks, rather than to shrug and say they are just obeying orders. And the same approach will be applied to other areas of woodland that have appeared or spread since Repton's time. The belt of trees that separates the lawn at the front of the house from Hampstead Road to its north will be thinned. Some will be taken out and a defined woodland edge restored, but any that have a reasonable life expectancy will be rescued and planted elsewhere.

Further west, beyond the flower garden, the ground rises to the old dairy, now lived in but soon to be restored to the estate and probably used as an information centre. The view both up to the dairy and down from it is interrupted by chestnut trees and holly bushes that were certainly not there in Repton's time. Only some of these will be removed, since they are generally well liked and do something to screen the hordes of people who flock to the house on summer weekends.

Visitors to Kenwood and the residents of Hamp-stead and Highgate are not the only groups who are demanding a voice in the restoration plans. English Nature, formerly the Nature Conserv-ancy, has declared various parts of the estate to be sites of special scientific interest, including a sphagnum peat bog in the valley below the dairy - one of the few such bogs in south-east England. The GLC used it to provide peat for thousands of municipal hanging baskets. Today it is an eyesore that needs to be fenced off - but because it supports distinctive flora and fauna, English Nature has decreed that it must stay.

"We find the decree quite difficult to accept," McRobie admits. "It would look so much more attractive if the grassland just swept through some of the trees there. Aesthetically it really is an unpleasing intrusion."

Allowing the bog to stay put is just one of the compromises she has had to make to ensure that the integrity of the Kenwood estate is maintained while everyone who has a legitimate interest in it remains reasonably happy. She has instituted a series of walks around the park at which she or one of the permanent estate staff explain exactly what is being attempted.

"The people on the walks argue among themselves about the virtues of rhododendrons and brambles and so on. The delightful thing is how much they care. They really do care about it. They have a wide range of views but end up saying that they know that they can't all have their own way.

"The aim is to strike a balance between historic recreation and conservation of what is here. I believe we now have the balance more or less correct."

! The house and grounds of Kenwood, on Hampstead Road between Highgate and Hampstead, are open daily from 10am to 4pm. After 1 April closing time is 6pm. Admission is free. For details of guided walks and other events, phone 0181 348 1286.