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Thursday, April 15, 2010
“My most favourite work”. So wrote landscape gardener Humphry Repton of his achievements at Sheringham Park.
He was no ordinary gardener, and Sheringham Park no commonplace garden. A wooded landscape with fine sea views, today it a the scene of a magnificent flower display a complete park and house. Originally destined to be a gift to the family of Norfolks greatest hero, the park as we see it now is the brainchild of Repton and its young owner, Abbot Upcher. Sadly, neither lived long enough to see the fruition of their dreams.
A Norfolk man, he is generally regarded as the man who coined the term landscape gardening. His mission as he saw it was to humanise the landscape while using its natural attributes to their maximum potential. Born in 1752, he had dabbled in trade at Norwich and even in politics before finding his true vocation planning and designing estates for wealthy landowners. Originally based at the village of Sustead in North Norfolk, he knew the Sheringham landscape well. From 1788 he spent 30 years perfecting his highly-lucrative craft nationwide. His credits included gardens at Woburn and Welbeck. Influenced by the great Lancelot Capability Brown, he took the landscape as his canvas, rebelling against the stylised classical conventions of earlier in the century, and striving for a natural romantic look. By 1811 Reptons reputation was at its height, even gaining him a name-check in Jane Austens novel Mansfield Park, when an accident involving an overturned carriage left him partially crippled. It did not stop him working, but it did impede his mobility. In the same year, however, he finally got his chance to realise his ideas for Sheringham.
Like everyone in the country he had been greatly affected by the death of Horatio Nelson at Trafalgar, and wanted to design the estate to give as a fitting tribute to the great mans Norfolk family. This came to nothing but, in 1811, wealthy Abbot Upcher bought the underdeveloped estate for 52,500 from its previous owner, farmer Cook Flower. Reptons family contacts his son William was Flowers Aylsham-based solicitor brought the two together. Upcher, who had inherited his fathers Yarmouth estate aged just 12, was won over. What infinite variety presents itself in this enchanting spot... Oh! What scenes of raptional yet heartfelt pleasure do we not anticipate in the lovely Sheringham. With his wife of three years, Charlotte, and their daughters, he fell in love with Sheringham. Repton was duly hired to fashion the park and house to be built, and spoke of a meeting of congenial minds with the Upchers.
Deeply religious and with a love of literature, Upcher could hardly fail to have been impressed by Reptons romantically-inspired vision. They were, as always, presented in one of his famous Red Books; detailed plans and beautifully-drawn pictures of how the estate would look, bound in red morocco leather. Upcher wanted his new house to have sea views. Repton pointed out with graphic illustrations that when the north wind blew, it would hardly be comfortable to live there. Instead he recommended a sheltered spot facing south. He won the argument. Despite this difference of opinions, work went on apace. In the summer of 1813 the first foundation stones were laid; two years later the kitchen garden was laid out, while the following year woodlands and orchards were planted and first seeds planted in the parkland. Reptons genius is seen in the way he stagemanaged the view of the sea, framed by woodland for maximum effect. The view of the house is obscured by hills and woods but, on reaching the spot known as The Turn, the first glimpse of the house will burst at once on the sight like some enchanted place of a fairytale. Ably assisted by his architect son, John Adey, Repton and Upcher hoped the family could move in by summer, 1817. But it was to be another 22 years before anyone lived there.
Tragically, Abbot Upcher fell ill with a recurrence of a fever that had first struck in 1812. He died, aged just 35. Work on the hall stopped and the widowed Charlotte stayed in Flowers old farmhouse until the hall was completed by her son, Henry, on his marriage in 1839. The wheelchair-bound Repton also died in 1818 before work was complete, and is buried at Aylsham. Successive generations of Upchers kept faith with the ideas of the Red Book. It took a while; Reptons plan for a rustic temple overlooking the house only came about as late as 1975.
Sheringham is famed for its rhododendrons. The main approach to the house is flanked on both sides by 50 acres of them, many originally bought by Henry Morris Upcher a century ago. They are at their best in late May/early June, but the park is worth a visit at any time and looks particularly fine in late autumn. The garden also has 15 kinds of magnolia, many azaleas and a variety of trees.
In 1988 the Prince of Wales officially opened a restored gazebo looking out over the coast and the North Norfolk Railway. An RAF Sea King helicopter lifted the apparatus into position four days after the Great Storm of October, 1987. The view is well worth the climb.
Long associated with the Sheringham lifeboat, the Upchers provided two row boats. One of them, the Henry Ramey Upcher, is preserved in the town. On the death of Thomas Upcher without heirs, the estate came to the National Trust in 1986. Today the house is privately owned and is only open to the public by appointment. The park is open all year round, and you can walk in complete peace for miles. Visitors can look through facsimile copies of Reptons Red Book a master at work.