When Harry Grafton was consulted by a friend interested in buying a landed pile his response was clear and heartfelt. “I told him he’d be mad to buy – it is a serious drain,” says Grafton, making a financial rather than plumbing reference.
However, drains and expertise of the plumbing variety are important to most Capability Brown landscapes, including that at Grafton’s home, Euston Hall in Suffolk, east England. “A serious drain without farmland or additional property rents,” he adds.
Grafton, aka His Grace Henry FitzRoy, the 12th Duke of Grafton, inherited Euston Estate in 2011 and he has first-hand knowledge of trying to make the house and grounds contribute towards their upkeep. After the dukedom was created in 1675 by Charles II for Henry FitzRoy, his illegitimate son with Barbara Villiers, the pleasure grounds were never expected to do anything other than provide pleasure. This particular pleasure comes at a cost of about £40,000 to £50,000 a year to maintain 110 acres of parkland and 65 acres of pleasure grounds.
The grounds are more expensive to run than your average garden and take considerably longer to tour than, say, my own, which involves a leisurely 20-metre stroll from the back door to the compost heap. Which is why Grafton, 36, is driving the Financial Times’ video team and me around some of the park, where he will be hosting the Red Rooster rhythm and blues festival in June.
The grounds were designed in the 17th century by Charles II’s courtier, the diarist and gardener John Evelyn; in the 18th century by William Kent and Brown; and now they are being restored. Four years of form-filling won grants from Natural England and English Heritage to pay 60 per cent of the £320,000 needed to restore the weirs, pools and river that form an important part of the landscape.
A digger is scooping dripping buckets of silt out of the river, the last of 30,000 tonnes. “I think this is Jockey Boy’s Hole where the jockeys used to come and swim in summer out of sight of the house,” says Grafton, referring to 18th-century Euston under the 3rd Duke, a British prime minister, who was keen on racing.
Further along the watercourse, where cowslips flower along the grassy banks, is a tree-shaded pool with a weir at one end. “This is where my grandfather used to swim and where we swim now,” says Grafton who lives at Euston with his art historian wife, Olivia, and their son Alfred, who is almost 18 months old. “The landscape work will be ready in time for Brown’s tercentenary in 2016. When the river was cleared between the top and middle weir, the water suddenly came to life – it was amazing to see the silver streak of water through the trees.”
The extent of Brown’s work at Euston is not clear but what is certain is that he was paid £1,369 between 1767 and the early 1780s, a fortune and entirely in keeping with his status as the king’s gardener and the country’s most fashionable landscaper.
Two of Brown’s original plans for Euston, now crinkled with age, hang in the hall but they do not make clear who did what with the landscape. These details have been pieced together from paintings, archaeology and contemporary accounts. For instance, in the mid-18th century, Horace Walpole described Euston as: “One of the most admired seats in England … The park is fine, the old woods excessively so; they are much grander than Mr Kent’s passion, clumps – that is sticking a dozen trees here and there, till a lawn looks like a ten of spades”.
The latest landscaper at Euston is Justin Spink, who has designed a family garden beside the house with a crinkle-crankle (serpentine) yew hedge giving the plot human scale against the rolling acres of the park beyond. It was planted two years ago, with pleached limes hovering above the low brick walls. Box and yew give the garden structure, infilled and softened with perennials.
We climb back in Grafton’s Polaris Ranger and bump off to see some of Kent’s clumps and his elegant Porter’s Lodge which marks the beginning of the never completed Duke’s Ride – an alley of lime trees. The feature was created so that the 3rd Duke could ride from Euston to Newmarket, a distance of nearly 20 miles, entirely in the shade.
It is not daunting but it is absorbing. When I took over I decided to go for it but it is a bit sweaty
This is the same duke, a Whig prime minister, who is said to have visited a mistress in Kent’s exquisite flint-and-stone Temple. According to legend, he did so via a tunnel from the house but Grafton can find no trace of it. From the Temple the 3rd Duke would have had a fine view of his horses as they galloped past the Euston Hall, but it was this enthusiasm for racing that is, in part, the reason that the family no longer owns Fitzrovia and the area around Euston railway station, so named after another of the family’s titles, the Earldom of Euston. The 3rd Duke made up for this by bouncing the Grafton name around the world: Grafton County, New Hampshire; the town of Grafton, New York; and Grafton in New South Wales, Australia.
Despite the loss of the London property, Euston Estate makes money from its 10,000-acre farm. Grafton is modernising the farm and adding a five-acre anaerobic digester and 55 acres of solar panels, but his ambition for capital projects, such as sorting out the electrics in Euston Hall and renovating the artwork, furniture and grounds, requires extra revenue.
“It is not daunting but it is absorbing. When I took over I decided to go for it but it is a bit sweaty,” says Grafton, who completed an intense course in estate management at Cirencester’s agricultural college after his degree at Edinburgh university.
He leads the way through Euston’s entrance hall, where Micky the terrier is guarding a domestic scattering of toys, to the dining room. A tapestry fireguard in front of the fireplace shows the royal coat of arms crossed by a “baton sinister” indicating that, despite their royal ancestry, the Graftons cannot ascend to the throne. Portraits by van Dyck, Mignard and others of various relations in glorious swags of silkiness stare at the dining table. There is peace and sunshine. Grafton calls the place “cosy” which is apt despite the hall’s grandeur. This is a hidden paradise and he wants to keep it that way.
So, he is trying to find the right balance between privacy and fundraising by steering away from too many weddings and too much hiring out of the estate (£3,000 a day for the grounds, £5,000-£7,000 a day for the park). To do this, he is holding events such as the Red Rooster festival. The music is not a random choice as the Harmony Rocket electric guitar and drum kit in the dining room indicate. Grafton spent two years in Nashville’s music management business and another two touring with the Rolling Stones looking after their merchandising and some of their accounts.
The Rolling Stones? Red Rooster? It all seems so un-Duke-ish. But then what is the youngest duke in the land (until William snuck in as the Duke of Cambridge) supposed to do in the 21st century? I ask Grafton whether the Queen ever rings up demanding he bring his gang round to beat up the French or get back the American colonies but he doesn’t seem to hear the question. And then there is the disappointing lack of ermine, coronet, breeches, etc.
Still, Grafton has a noble cause: he digs historic landscape at a time when most Brits seem to have forgotten this verdant contribution to art and culture.
Euston Rural Pastimes, a fundraiser for local charities, is held on June 8
Red Rooster rhythm and blues festival takes place from June 6-8;
Jane Owen is the editor of House & Home
Pitfalls of owning a pile
Anyone tempted to buy a chunk of British heritage for the promise of gracious living will need to drill down on the mind-boggling financial realities, writes Fay Aaronson.
A house with its own parkland will devour money faster than a hare can outpace a beagle, which is why specialists in this high-end property market advise buyers to purchase farmland with the main house, or to let out the grounds for concerts and corporate away days.
“For a lot of those buying, it’s a new challenge”, says Matthew Sudlow of Strutt & Parker’s estates and farm agency department, which has been set up to help buyers avoid the potential pitfalls of owning a country pile.
Savills offer a similar bespoke service and produces an annual Estate Benchmarking survey, which keeps owners up to date with the best ways of generating revenue. One current trend suggested by experts is to give over land to wind farms or solar energy, which cuts bills and allows the owner to sell surplus power back to the National Grid.
A celebration of Capability Brown
In 2016 it will be 300 years since the birth of Capability Brown and the idea of celebrating the tercentenary has snowballed, writes Johnny Phibbs. More and more people and groups are seeking to participate in a plan that has the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund and is being led by the Landscape Institute (the professional body of landscape architects).
There will be exhibitions in London and around the country, an international conference at the University of Bath, as well as numerous books, and television and radio programmes. However, the main aim is to encourage people to visit and look properly at the landscapes themselves. The idea is for all 250 or so landscapes that Brown designed to be opened for at least one afternoon in 2016, and to provide guides to explain not only what he did, but he was seeking to achieve.
I proposed this idea in an article in the Financial Times in 2011, and will be hosting a major lecture series in London as well as leading a number of tours to Brown sites across the country.
For more details and a calendar of events, see capabilitybrown.org
Johnny Phibbs is principal of Debois Landscape Survey Group