Sheringham Park on the north Norfolk coast is a National Trust property that gets about a quarter of a million visitors a year. Many come for the fine displays of rhododendrons when they flower in April and May, or to use the park more generally for walking and taking in the views.
|Sheringham Park (NT)|
But the landscape is historically highly significant, since it still bears the imprint of the Georgian landscape designer Humphry Repton. Repton’s Red Book for Sheringham is 200 years old this year, and the purpose of my visit to Sheringham last week was to consider ways in which this bicentenary might be marked at the property, which is the subject of a recent project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.
The story behind Repton’s Red Book of 1812 is fascinating. Repton at first anticipated that Sheringham might have been an appropriate gift from the nation to Norfolk’s finest son Admiral Nelson, on his return from war. But the estate was acquired in 1811 by Abbot Upcher and his wife Charlotte, in an exchange facilitated by Repton’s lawyer son William. Repton was commissioned to turn the estate – at the time comprising mainly farmland and a now demolished farm house – into a smart residence and landscape.
|Detail from Repton's Red Book for Sheringham (1812): the view from the house|
Repton avoided placing the house directly facing the sea, given the inclemency of the spot in winter. Instead, he sited it in a wooded natural valley (actually formed by the retreating ice sheets of many millennia ago). The estate is not actually that large, and Repton used his full powers of design to contrive an approach to the house that accentuated its impact through a highly economic mastery of space and place. The park is entered first by means of a carriage ride, which lines the crest of the wooded ridge on the other side of the valley in which the house sits. Visitors would pass along this ridge, taking views out to the sea and to the surrounding countryside, before they reach ‘The Turn’. At this point Repton dropped the path off the ridge, and by taking a sharp bend visitors would catch their first view of the house ‘like some enchanted palace of a fairy tale’.
|'The Turn' at Sheringham: the first view of the house|
The house itself has no formal garden: it is designed to take in views of the wider park, which is cleverly given the illusion of greater extent through careful planting. The Trust does not open the house to the public, instead leasing it to private tenants in order to provide the income that enables the park to be maintained. Visitors to Sheringham therefore never see the view from the house itself – the estate is instead marketed as a landscape experience, or indeed as a site of particular horticultural and natural significance.
|Sheringham's famous rhododendrons|
Given that the site’s significance is so linked to Repton’s design of 1812, however, the AHRC-funded project is looking at the practical ways in which the bicentenary might be marked in order to enhance wider awareness of Repton’s art. A small visitor centre currently offers some helpful information about Repton’s life and work, as well as fine facsimile copies of the Red Book (although these are now suffering some wear and tear).
|Facsimilies of the Sheringham Red Book on show in the visitor centre|
But is this the best way of explaining the significance of a landscape to visitors? Other ideas that we considered included:
- The possibility of using phone apps or other technology to provide running commentary for visitors while they move around the landscape
- Using animation or moving images in the visitor reception, to convey the sense in which this was a landscape designed to be seen in transit, from a carriage, as well as from the house itself
- Finding ways of raising questions about how the Sheringham landscape has changed in the 200 years since it was designed, and what future changes may look like. (The rhododendrons were a later insertion in the landscape, for example, while the trees that Repton envisioned have now matured)
The latter point is of particular interest to me, in the context of the planning changes that were made by Government last week. The final NPPF reasserted the importance of local plans in the planning process, as a consequence of the campaigning undertaken by the National Trust and others. Sheringham has long been an example of effective planning, since the National Trust has taken care to map out the setting of the house and park in some detail, which has been incorporated into the local plan. This has not stopped, however, a school development being built within the park’s ‘setting’, and clearly visible from the drive (if not from the house itself, which appears to have been the planning inspector’s main criteria).
How can the landscape at Sheringham therefore be ‘protected’ from future incursions of this nature, at the same time as recognising that landscapes by definition change and adapt over time? An array of offshore turbines is clearly visible from Sheringham, for example, but as was pointed out during my visit, Repton’s own vision of the seascape was also animated, if then by the sails of passing ships. From ships to turbines, and from barns to schools, how can a landscape’s significance be protected without pretending that it is possible to preserve it forever, in aspic?