Begun in the early 18th century as the seat of the Worsley family, Appuldurcombe was once the grandest house on the Isle of Wight. Appuldurcombe was a masterpiece of English Baroque architecture, and though now a graceful shell, still retains more than a ghost of its former dignity, and many fine architectural details. The celebrated landscape designer 'Capability' Brown enhanced the rolling grounds in the 1780s, and the Capability Brown Festival 2016 celebrates the 300th anniversary of his birth.
It was back in 1772 that the then lord of the manor, Sir Richard Worsley, contracted Capability Brown to landscape the grounds of Appuldurcombe House.
Recently returned from his ‘Grand Tour’ with beautiful new wife Seymour, Sir Richard wanted the best money could buy. Having stocked Appuldurcombe House with the treasures they had amassed during their travels he turned to the fashionable Mr. Brown for help with the land surrounding the imposing house.
Sir Richard commissioned Lancelot Capability Brown to prepare and execute a scheme for transforming the surroundings of the house with parkland planting, serpentine drives and eyecatchers, which exploited the dramatic topography of its downland setting.
The main entrance to the estate at that time was through the imposing Freemantle Gate that stands to the south of the property, although it is now reached from a drive from the Wroxall valley.
Across the valley from Appuldurcombe House stood Cooks Castle, now in ruins, and to the west an obelisk stands on top of the down, now called the Worsley Memorial, which at that time was taller than it is now.
Whilst the building of these status symbols may not have been Brown’s work, emphasizing the view of them certainly was and earth moving within the farmland to accentuate them is likely to be firmly attributable to Brown.
Near Freemantle Gate the foreground of the view towards Cook’s Castle appears to have been scooped out to flowing contours and planting on the road towards the gate would have emphasized the approach to it.
From Freemantle Gate there is no view of the house, but as you proceed along what was the driveway the house comes into view and so does the valley towards Ventnor. The views in this direction were made more apparent by the movement of earth on the estate and plantings were made to frame the view.
“The new plantations that appear to have been directly instigated by Brown were small but significantly sited,” according to a report by architects ACTA in 2005.
“The Long Plantation softened the approach to Freemantle Gate. Copses framed a view eastwards to Cook’s Castle. The Round Plantation to the southeast of the house probably framed a view to the lake and meadows and planting at the Marl Pit may have been to frame a viewpoint.”
Groupings of clumps of trees around the estate as ‘eyecatchers’ are also likely to have been the work of Brown, although it is difficult to know which of these are those that have survived.
But the feature most attributable to Brown is the reverse ha ha that follows the south and west perimeters of the house. It has a soft edge in the park side and a stone wall on the east side, the reverse of the usual type of ha-ha.
“Trial excavation by the current owner Mr. Owen has shown that the vertical stone wall is about 1.5 m high with metal estate fencing set just behind the coping. The base was a stone floor about 2 m wide, although this is now much-disturbed, according to the report.
“The line of the reverse ha-ha is shown is very likely to be a Brown design, serving as a ha-ha giving unobstructed views to and from the house but also to feeding the area that was developed as a seasonal lake. It still serves as a drain for a substantial area in front of the house,” it reads.
As you walk south or westwards from the house, trees now follow the land right up to the edge of the ha ha, so you have to be careful not to walk right off the wall. But the effect of the grass, moss and vegetation gives an attractive soft edging to the gardens and lovely views of the fields beyond.
Capability Brown most certainly re-sited the walled garden to its current location at the end of the drive that is now the approach to the house. The walled garden is no longer part of the estate, and is part of a caravan and camping park, but can be seen from the road.
Ten years after commissioning Capability Brown, Sir Richard, his wife and one of alleged 27 lovers, George Bisset, were embroiled in a scandalous court case. Divorce and disgrace followed and Sir Richard rarely returned to his beautiful home after 1782.