If you imagine life on a grand county estate, the typically English garden will feature fountains, ponds, statues, follies, and a ha-ha. A ha-ha evokes the landed gentry lifestyle, and solves the dilemma of how to separate manicured gardens close to the house from livestock grazing in the grounds, without interrupting the view across beautifully landscaped rolling acres.
Built in the 17th and 18th centuries, the first ever ha-ha in England can be seen at Stowe Gardens in Buckinghamshire. Garden designer Charles Bridgeman arrived at Stowe in 1711 to discover hundreds of deer roaming in the parkland surrounding the Stowe estate, wandering at will in the ornamental pleasure gardens. As a solution, Bridgeland created a ha-ha, which is essentially a sunken stone wall, the top of the wall kept level with the garden, with a deep ditch on the far side. As a boundary solution it was ingenious as well as virtually invisible, keeping the deer out of the garden without the need for a hedge, fence or wall which would have disrupted the views of the parkland. Capability Brown was another designer of the Landscape Movement who favoured a ha-ha, with the sloping side of the ditch made gradual so that the animals could graze right to the base of the stone wall and keep the ditch free of weeds.
The stone edging is the only hint that the ditch is there when you approach it from the garden. The drop on the other side comes as a genuine surprise, leading to the expression “ha-ha!” Typically, ha-has are still found in the grounds of grand country houses and estates and hark back to a bygone era. Some animal enclosures at the Cotswold Wildlife Park make use of ha-has, which adds a certain frisson to a day out with the children, especially if you fear being trampled by a rhino. Garden design companies often refer to a ha-ha as a retaining wall, and can build one from scratch as a feature in your garden, whatever its size and whether you have animals or not.