How Humphry Repton staged Sheringham Park

Sheringham Park is currently at the centre of a £100,000 research project. Bel Greenwood looks at the original landscape designer who created the park, and what the future holds for the park…

ABOVE: The beautiful setting of Sheringham Park – but the view was carefully stage-managed way back in the 19th century

Humphry Repton probably wouldn’t have seen himself as a theatrical man, yet he managed the spectacle of landscape by creating drama out of tree, hill and sea. He had the kind of imagination that could create the promise of a mature vista from staring at a field of turnips that he, personally, would never see. He was able to lock that mature imagining onto paper and sow the seeds of the future in the ground and is even credited with inventing the term ‘landscape gardening.’

He had 30 years of experience building gardens at places such as Woburn and Tattersall before he put all his imagination, determination and talent into moulding the beautiful landscape of Sheringham Park in 1812.

Humphry Repton

Humphry Repton

2012 is the 200th anniversary of Repton’s unique local creation. Owned by the National Trust for the last 25 years, it’s possibly one of the most complete remaining great 19th century designed landscapes in the country. It was certainly one held very dear to Repton’s own heart – “my most favourite work,” he wrote of it.

Humphry Repton was born in Bury St. Edmunds in 1752. His father was a collector of taxes and by all accounts he hoped his son would settle for a prosperous merchant’s life. This was not to be. Repton married young and engaged in a number of enterprises, all of which failed. This period of his life included the development of a forward-thinking mail coach business but he was bought out for a pittance and effectively cheated.

We can only imagine how he must have felt, looking around for a way to make a living. He spent five years studying ‘the beauties of nature, botany, etymology and gardening and other gentlemanly sciences,’ before one night deciding to become a landscape gardener.

Repton’s ambition was to become the successor of ‘Capability Brown,’ the man of the moment in creating the architecture of great estates. However, Repton was very different in his approach. He didn’t go in for re-routing rivers or re-siting ancient villages and moving out rural populations to create a grand view. Repton had an altogether more natural affinity to the contours of the landscape and to the people who lived within it.

Repton would have known the coastal landscape well. He’d lived for some years not far away at Metton. It must have been a moment of joy when Abbot Upcher (who had bought the estate land from a local farmer in 1811) called him in and gave him the task of not only landscaping but building him a house too.

“Repton used the natural features of the landscape at Sheringham Park,” says Park Warden Keith Zealand, “and quite a bit of the parkland was cultivated for arable crops or sheep-grazed pasture for heathland. His geological understanding of the land was the key to the success of the project.”

Walk along the drive and it perfectly demonstrates all aspects of Repton’s approach to landscaping and also the challenges that preserving historic landscapes inevitably face.
“He put the route of the drive here,” explains Keith. “It follows a ridge of glacial deposit that goes out to the sea. The wash of the water coming out of sand and gravel carved out valleys to the left of the promontory.”

Along the path, the land falls away on either side and is lined with trees – some of which would have been there in Repton’s day, but young and straight rather than the full-bodied mature trees of today.

There are Scotch Firs, Scots pines and the ever-popular big and flouncy rhododendrons with their twisted sinuous rootworks (it’s more Hogwarts than horticultural); a Victorian addition shuffling up against the acacia trees – false acacias which are a Repton feature.
“Repton was creating suspense,” says Keith. “He wanted you to catch glimpses of the parkland and the sea.”

Keith Zealand knows the environment intimately, having lived in the old Head Gardener’s cottage on the estate for a quarter of a century.

The only bit of earthworking was towards the end of the drive at the penultimate moment before the house, parkland and sea all came into view. Repton constructed a surprise turn at the bottom a little like a twist at the end of a play.

The only other digging out was in the construction of the house and in this, Repton demonstrated his passion and determination as an architect of land and brick. The Upchers wanted the house built on the promontory overlooking the sea, but Repton recognised that it would suffer from bitter winds and gloom. He won out and the house was built facing south – he first storey burrowed into the hill. These days the Grade II house is leased out as a private residence, although it can be viewed by private appointment.

Repton pioneered the before and after view. He recorded the whole process in a series of ‘red’ books, some copies of which are available to view in the Visitor’s Centre at the Park.

His records are invaluable. Standing at the end of the drive, it’s possible to see that the view he created has changed. Sycamore trees which had been planted as a cattle-deterring shrub, adapted for regular pollarding, keeping the tree cover low, have been allowed to grow tall.
It is these changes, coupled with the completeness of the Sheringham Park record and Repton’s skill that has led to the park becoming the centre of a £100,000 research project.

The aim of the project is to look at how landscape changes from the time of its inception to its present-day costume. Designed landscapes, explained Zealand, go through different stages – “from maturity to change and sometimes beyond recognition.”

The current research is being led by the University of Nottingham with the University of East Anglia and will help to inform subsequent management and give an understanding of the changes that inform the post-mature landscape.

It’s interesting to contemplate that if Sheringham Park would still be the work of art it is, if it wasn’t a parkland designed by Humphry Repton with a story, fully illustrated that lives alongside the land itself or if no matter what, Sheringham Park is simply a most beautiful place to be.
The last word should go to Humphry Repton himself. In 1811, he wrote “there is none that can compare with the scenery of Sheringham.”

A scenery that we see today has grown out of a picture in his mind’s eye 200 years ago.

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