The environs of Barnet, North London seem an unlikely place to find traces of a Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown landscape, but hidden behind the rows of 1930s houses in Cat Hill stands to this day the remains of a kitchen garden wall, full height and extending 50 or so metres. It is possible that it has been standing there since 1769, when Brown finished his commission at Little Grove.
Our story begins in 1719, when John Cotton built a large house on his estate in East Barnet, then part of Hertfordshire. The house stood on the south side of Cat Hill looking down over the fields to London. After a series of owners, the property, house and 43 acres, was sold in 1767 to the Hon. Edward Willes, judge. The detail of Dury’s 1766 map of Hertfordshire shows the estate with a garden, fields and possibly an orchard to the west of the house. [Fig.1] Little Grove is the property to the west of Bone Gate on the same side of the road. Note that although a boundary to the garden is shown, there is no walled area on the west side of the house. In 1768 Willes commissioned ‘Capability’ Brown to do some work; details of payments between September 1768 and July 1770 are listed in Brown’s account book (1764–1788) held in the RHS Lindley Library. The total sum received amounted to £700. [Fig.2] Unfortunately one can only speculate what Brown created for that sum; but it may well have included the large walled garden later seen to the west side of the house. Interestingly, the agriculturalist Arthur Young (1741–1820), writing in his autobiography, recorded that he was invited to dinner by the Willes in 1769. Mrs Willes, ‘a fine lady and rather fantastical… was making an ornamental path round the homestead, and asked my advice in several difficulties.’ One does wonder what, if anything, Brown made of Young’s advice.
Edward Willes died in 1787 and Mrs Willes leased Little Grove to David Murray, 7th Viscount of Stormont. His wife wrote to her cousin Mary Hamilton in 1787 ‘I hope to get into the Country very soon wch I hope will quite set me up. We have taken a place that belongs to Mrs Willes & is very comfortable with a good deal of ground & where I think I shall find a great deal of amusement.’
It is a pity that she did not give any more detail about the place. (Mary Hamilton was a courtier and diarist, a friend of many of the bluestocking circle and a prolific correspondent.) Lord Stormont continued to rent the estate until 1794 when, following the death of his uncle the Earl of Mansfield, he became 2nd Earl of Mansfield and moved down the hill to Kenwood House in Hampstead.
Little is known about Little Grove between 1794 and 1817. It was owned by John Tempest of Wynyard, Durham, and, on his death, by his wife, Anne. She died in 1817 and the property was sold. The size of the property can be seen in the 1817 Enclosure map: [Fig.3] all the plots numbered between 536 and 543 belonged to Anne Tempest. The Times advertisement for the sale describes the grounds of Little Grove as having ‘an excellent kitchen garden, walled round, hothouse, grapery, green house and orchards, poultry garden and meadow land; the whole about 55 acres, surrounded by dry gravel walks and thriving plantations, and with full grown timber trees.’ By 1862 the house had been extended and the estate increased to nearly 100 acres. [Fig.4] It was indeed an ‘elegant and spacious mansion’. There are gardens sloping down to the park and a high walled garden just visible to the left of the house. The question remains as to how much of this was ‘Capability’ Brown’s work. The large kitchen garden, fish ponds, winding driveway, specimen trees in the garden and park and the extensive views over the surrounding countryside are all familiar elements of a Brownian landscape.
This brings us to the still-standing wall. [Fig.5] Apparently more walls are visible inside the gardens. The site was inspected by Edward Chaney, then at English Heritage, in 1991 who described it as two and a half sides of a walled kitchen garden. Chaney dated it as no earlier than the eighteenth century. Supporting evidence can be found by examining the one outside stretch of wall accessible from a footpath in the neighbouring street. The Flemish bond brickwork, commonly used in the Georgian period, and the height of each brick also suggest eighteenth-century construction. It is notable that the kitchen garden is not shown in either Dury’s map of 1766 or John Rocque’s 1754 map of Middlesex but it does appear in the Enclosure map of 1817, and subsequent maps and plans, and is included in the 1817 sale particulars. This argues for the wall to have been built between 1766 and 1816. Indeed it could have been put up between 1768 and 1770, given the sums disbursed by Mr Brown.
The house was demolished in 1931 and the whole estate built over, but long stretches of wall, the large pond and fine trees remain visible, as can be seen in the current Google satellite image. [Fig.6]