Paradise regained

The Great Gale of 1987 devastated Cadland Manor estate - and revealed the original layout by Capability Brown.
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The Independent Travel
"My strongest memory of the Great Storm," says Gilly Drummond, "is of an extraordinary sound, like the thud of heavy guns firing in the distance. It was the weight of huge trees hitting the ground." Her husband, Maldwin, remembers that "the atmosphere was thick and there was a feeling of Mediterranean zephyr around the house".

The next day, the Manor of Cadland, home of Drummonds for two centuries, on the shores of Southampton Water and overlooking the Isle of Wight, was a scene of devastation. Its remarkable clumps of wooded landscape had been blown out. The shelter belt of 80-foot lime trees and evergreen oaks, some of them 200 years old, lay mortally wounded on their sides, their huge root plates torn from shallow sandy soil. "It was as though a giant had walked through and just pushed them over," says Mrs Drummond.

The hurricane, which hit this stretch of Hampshire coastline first on the night of 15 October 1987, wrecked the rest of the countryside as it tore across southern England. "It was the most widespread night of disaster in the south-east of England since 1945," said Douglas Hurd, the then Home Secretary. Eighteen lives were lost. Hundreds of communities were marooned. There had been no gale like it since the Great Storm of 1703.

But once Mrs Drummond got over the initial shock, she was full of excitement. For the bombardment had exposed a miniature masterpiece by Capability Brown, the celebrated 18th-century landscape gardener, whose design for Cadland had been forgotten for over a century. Time and the overmaturing of the trees he planted had obscured his signature: the generous views, his characteristic "peeps" providing glimpses through the undergrowth of passing ships, and the variety of the shrubbery he planted.

Brown's original plans for the park, dating from 1772, had recently been rediscovered in the family archives. They even found a bill signed by Brown returning half of the pounds 200 paid for the garden on the grounds that the Drummonds had overpaid him. Most important was Brown's instruction to the Mrs Drummond of his day: "NB. None of the views to be interrupted with planting." Some conservative cutting back of the woodland had already begun. But those faint hearts who had shied away from culling majestic trees found the job had been thoroughly done for them by the ruthless elements. The task which nature began, Mrs Drummond vowed to complete.

She had plenty of encouragement. "The `Men of the Trees' came to see me," recalls Mrs Drummond. "Wonderful old gents, they gave us pounds 500." The local shoot, cancelled for the year, offered another pounds 1,000. The Countryside Commission supplied vital expertise and several thousand pounds. But the restoration, costing about pounds 40,000, was mostly funded from the estate.

The job was monumental. Brown's landscape, taking up just 15 acres, is a gem within a 2,500-acre estate of which 100 acres of trees had been lost. The best of the wood was sold off. Storm oak was used for the Drummond's new kitchen. Tree surgeons were called in. "We had huge bonfires for weeks. I felt I just had to do something," says Mrs Drummond. The giant root plates, full of shingle, were cleared using large machinery because chainsaws broke against the stone. The quagmire left behind resembled the Somme. But Mrs Drummond is a no-nonsense, business-like, woman. The old gravel paths were replaced. Lawns were replanted.

The beauty of Brown's original garden began to reassert itself. He had designed a shoreline path, which he described as "walks among the furse (gorse) bushes". The next year, with the dead lime trees out of the way, the gorse thrived. Meanwhile, beneath the shade of giant trees, the Portuguese laurel had survived, the "shining greens" which the Georgians loved. But the Romantic movement's principle that every "evergreen bears a rose" had fallen into abeyance. Only the tough rhododendrons and viburnum had been able to live with the overpowering trees. Mrs Drummond restored flowering shrubs, roses, lilacs, broom and philadelphus in the raised beds alongside the paths Brown had cut into the landscape. And she brought back the wild flowers (Brown called it "herborising") such as sweet woodruff, wild strawberries and ox-eyed daisies, which would have scented the garden walks in the 18th century. Only plants available in 1780 are being used. Now, as you walk down to the sea, you are met by the apple scent of rosa eglanteria, Shakespeare's "sweet eglantine", mentioned in Twelfth Night.

Some of the older trees survive. Evergreen oak still provides protection from salt-laden gales. There are beech and yew. A Scots pine, not normally associated with Capability Brown, stands like a lone piece of abstract sculpture beside the house, a tree often found in the English homes of Scottish Jacobite families. (The Drummonds headed south after Culloden and made their money as bankers for George III's war against America independence.)

Now, however, while standing within the parkland, it is possible to make out the steeple of Ryde church on the Isle of Wight, several miles away and across the water. It is one of the landmarks, known as "eyecatchers", which Brown used in his designs to draw the eye into the distance. And the undergrowth of the perimeter walk is carefully managed so that at each turn a fresh view unfolds. "These walks," says Mrs Drummond, "were not meant for people wandering about with heads down, worrying. They were for philosophising about the wonder of nature. They are meant to look entirely natural, when in fact they are very sophisticated and contrived, providing a succession of vignettes as you stroll along. We have to cut the undergrowth every year to be faithful to Brown's intentions. Before the storm many people thought of the landscape as a clean sheet of paper."

The restoration has had its difficulties. The years of 1988 and 1989 were dry, meaning that replanting failed to take. As Brown realised when he referred to using "shrubs and plants that will grow", the harsh conditions and acid, thin soil is inhospitable. Then the second great gale of 1990 carried off many of the surviving great trees.

Yet, says Mrs Drummond, "In many ways, the storm was the best thing that could have happened. The great bulk of these trees were overmature by the time of the First World War, but there were no men or machines then to do the job. By the time everyone was getting a grip again, the Second World War came along. The Great Gale came at the right time. It has been a wonderful opportunity for my generation. It is just sad that it has proved very hard for the older generation who may not gain the chance to see the results."