In 1999, just as intensive farming was proving unviable for Knepp, we began to consider restoring the Repton park around the house. Though possibly not designed by Humphry Repton himself, Nash was still working with Repton’s son at the time the park was landscaped; and the features of Knepp lake, the vista to the old castle, the Pleasure Grounds, and the planting of copses and oaks throughout the park, bear all the hallmarks of Repton.
The park had been ploughed up during WW2 and intensively farmed ever since. However, a meeting in 1999 with tree specialist Ted Green, advisor to the Crown for Windsor Great Park, alerted us to the plight of the old park oaks, suffering from our regime of continuous ploughing and applications of chemical fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides.
We commissioned a management plan for the restoration of the park and, in 2000, received funding under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme administered by the UK’s Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) as part of the EU’s agri-environment programme.
In 2001, we took the 350 acres around the house - broadly adhering to the footprint of the original park - out of agriculture, and sowed the area with a Weald Meadow Initiative seed mix of native local grasses and wildflowers. All the internal fences and gates were removed and a 6 ft 3 in deer-fence was erected around the perimeter, hidden – wherever possible – behind existing hedges and woods. Houses and gardens within the park were fenced, and the ha-ha around the castle restored.
In 2002, we caught up 150 fallow deer at Petworth Park and introduced them to Knepp. Later, deer were added from Gunton Park, another bloodline renowned for their spectacular physique and large antlers.
The restoration of the park was, for us, a revelation. Suddenly, that first summer, we were walking knee-deep in wildflowers, kicking up grasshoppers, bees and butterflies. The sound of insects was astonishing - something we hadn't even realised we'd been missing. Looking out of the windows and seeing herds of fallow wandering across the landscape, felt like being in the middle of the Serengeti. As the land seemed to be breathing a sigh of relief, so did we.
The restoration of the park was a turning-point. It presented a new way of looking at the land and, increasingly, our ideas crept towards nature conservation.
Colson & Stone Management Plan for the Park Restoration
‘Sketches and Hints on Landscape Gardening’, by Humphry Repton, 1794