April 2, 2014
Ha-ha! The secret wall revealed
I went to visit the Governor’s Palace to observe, now that it is unoccupied after Lord Dunmore’s hasty retreat, if the gardens have suffered in the current confusion. The gardener, a Scotsman by the name of John Farquharson, who has chosen to support the patriot cause rather than follow his master into exile and infamy, has assured me that he will continue to maintain the gardens, even in his reduced situation, so that the grounds may be suitable for a governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia should one be named.
We took a walk together to view the park which lies on the north side of the property and adjoins the garden through a most ingenious device known as a ha-ha. This affords the illusion that the gardens and countryside are one continuous vista when, in fact, on closer approach a wall is revealed that separates the countryside and the depredations of unfettered nature from the garden. The most unusual name is said to derive from the surprise visitors experience when they top the small rise and “ha-ha!” the wall is discovered.
Ha-ha walls, which seem to be a French invention, were embraced by English garden designers earlier in this century to provide panoramas of untamed nature and to relieve the monotony of the formal gardens of our ancestors. Horace Walpole, the famed English historian, claimed that it was William Kent who “leaped the fence and saw that all of nature was a garden.”
Governor Sir William Gooch upon his arrival in Williamsburg in 1727 wrote to his brother Thomas in England to describe his new home as containing a “handsome garden, an orchard full of fruit, and a very large Park, now turn’d to better use I think than deer, which is feeding all sorts of Cattle, as soon as I can stock it.” Deer parks are a common feature of English country homes and they are almost always contained by ha-ha walls so I am sure the Governor, Sir William, was well familiar with the device but what is most surprising is his preference for cattle over deer to stock the park. It is, perhaps, a testament to the American spirit that even an English Governor expresses a preference for practicality over pomp.