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Institute of Continuing Education


2016 marked the 300th anniversary of the birth of Lancelot 'Capability' Brown, one of the most influential landscape architects in English garden history. Madingley Hall is the only significant Brown landscape in the University of Cambridge's estate, and we held a number of events through the year in celebration of his life and work.

About 'Capability' Brown

Lancelot 'Capability' Brown is considered one of the most influential landscape architects in English garden history. Brown moved earth, water and woodland to create idealised English landscape gardens, with expansive lawns, lakes and tree planting.

Over a period of 41 years, he designed over 260 landscapes - including that of Madingley Hall. His work surrounds some of the most prestigious palaces and houses in the country, including Alnwick Castle in Northumberland, Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, Chatsworth in Derbyshire and Harewood House in Yorkshire.

He was born into a farming family in Northumberland in 1716 and received training in all the essential practicalities at Kirkharle estate before moving south and working at Stowe under the influential William Kent. Brown had the skills and new ideas that landowners sought and soon he was travelling the country supervising over 20 foremen. He died in 1783 and is buried at Fenstanton in Cambridgeshire.

Brown's work at Madingley Hall

Madingley Hall is the only significant Brown landscape in the University of Cambridge's estate (he did a small commission at St John's College, and a proposal for the College Backs which was turned down).

To accommodate his design, he removed the formal William and Mary Garden of the late 17th / early 18th centuries. The contract with the 4th Baronet Sir John Hynde Cotton dated 16 November 1756 contained four articles. The first sets out the laying of a gravel walk and making a lawn to natural levels for tree and shrub planting to the north front. The second to make a walk around this lawn of "seven feet and a half of eight feet wide around the above mentioned lawn" which remains today.

The third article states "To begin at the Hall Door and finish the whole lawn down to the common road". It specifies the draining and filling of formal water features except the lowermost, which it is assumed was converted into the Lake, although there is no specific mention. The article also details "to make a new coach road"; the village street to west of the church having been granted permission to be closed in 1728.

The fourth article sets out the digging of a fosse (ditch) to provide "so much earth as shall be wanted in the Garden and to make a pattern to be done after and when Sir John pleases".

The University bought the Madingley Estate in 1948 and today it is maintained by University Estate Management, with the University Farm using the pastures for sheep and cattle grazing and the woodland managed under the guidance of independent woodland and forestry consultants. The immediate eight acres surrounding the hall are maintained by the Madingley Hall Garden Team.

Capability Brown events at Madingley Hall in 2016

CB300 Walk (throughout 2016)

A chance to explore a specially created ‘Capability’ walk through his landscape with an explanatory leaflet prepared by the Cambridgeshire Gardens Trust.

Open Garden for the National Gardens Scheme (Sunday 5 June 2016)

Come along any time between 2.30 and 5.30pm and enjoy a stroll in the 8-acre gardens and home-made teas at St Mary Magdalene Church.

Capability Brown Conference: Moving Heaven and Earth (Friday 5 to Sunday 7 August 2016)

This weekend conference is led by two renowned garden historians, Steffie Shields and Caroline Holmes. It includes a visit to Burghley House and Fenstanton.

Open Cambridge Festival (Friday 9 September 2016)

2.00 to 7.00pm - Open Garden. A rare opportunity to view the Hall from the easternmost perspective of this designed landscape.

7.00 to 10.00pm - Capability Brown talks. The surveyors, woodland advisers, ecologists and gardeners caring for Madingley Hall discuss Brown's life and work and the management of his landscape today.

'Capability Sounds' concert (Sunday 23 October 2016)

A special concert featuring music with a garden theme by Mozart, Haydn, Linley, Boyce and Jeremy Thurlow.

Our sponsors

Madingley Hall's ‘Capability’ Brown Tercentenary programme was kindly sponsored by Lockhart Garratt, Sherriff Amenity and Madingley Mulch.

Guide to the Capability Brown walk at Madingley