Georgian Garden: The Ha-Ha

Georgian Garden: The Ha-Ha

A “Georgian Garden” is defined by the UK National Trust as one which dates from 1714 to 1830. In previous blogs I have written about the men and women who designed and maintained these massive parks, and I have also given a historical overview of landscape styles during this period of time. Those blogs can be accessed easily in the Pemberley Library.

“The park and garden merged into one, this was successfully achieved by the innovation of the ha-ha, a stock-proof boundary invisible from the house. Circuit walks around the landscape park were designed to evoke a variety of emotions with dark enclosed tunnels of evergreens opening into bright sunny glades. Walled kitchen gardens were sited out of view or screened by the latest craze, the shrubbery. The concept of the landscape park was ultimately a British style which would influence gardens throughout Europe.” —National Trust introduction to Georgian Gardens

Georgian garden style at a glance:

  • Informal layout designed as a classical place offering peace and simplicity
  • Lakes created to reflect the landscape as well as for recreation
  • Cascades adding drama and animation to the scene
  • Temples, grottos, towers, and other follies doubled as tearooms and shelters
  • Clumps and shelterbelts to provide shelter and privacy
  • Shrubberies planted with the newly introduced exotics from abroad
  • The Ha-ha, an invisible boundary to keep livestock away from the house
  • Circuit walks designed to tour around the park

The bullet-point listing above is what constitutes a Georgian Garden. In the weeks to months ahead I shall be blogging about specific estate gardens, general unique structural features and follies, and other nature-related topics and places in England from the past. Always, of course, with as many images as I can find! 

For today, I am writing about one of the most uniquely Georgian landscaping structures of them all: Ha-Ha.


“The contiguous ground of the park without the sunk fence was to be harmonized with the lawn within; and the garden in its turn was to be set free from its prim regularity, that it might assort with the wilder country without. ” – Horace Walpole, Essay Upon Modern Gardening, 1780

As noted in my post on groundskeepers, roving, grazing sheep and cattle were beneficial in keeping the extensive grassy areas under control. The problem was in how to control where the animals roamed without erecting fences which would mar the natural flowing landscape. As Walpole says in the above quote, harmony was a key to Georgian garden design, as was curved, irregular asymmetry. A rigid fence, no matter how lovely, built in straight lines and sharp angles simply would not do!

Comparison of a ha-ha (top) and a regular wall (bottom). Both walls prevent access, but one does not block the view looking outward.

The answer was an ingenious invention of a sunken wall and ditch. English garden designer Charles Bridgeman (1690–1738) is generally credited for introducing the idea to England, although remnants of a ditched wall had been installed at Levens Hall in Cumbria in 1689. Additionally, types of sunken ditches had been around since ancient times, such as the deer-leap or saltatorium which consisted of a ditch with one steep side surmounted by a pale (picket-style fence made of wooden stakes) or hedge, which allowed deer to enter the park but not to leave. Obviously, a fence of any kind defeated the purpose, as noted above, so innovations were necessary. Whoever dreamed up the idea initially, it wasn’t commonly used until the 18th century when garden design necessitated such a solution.

Simply put, a deep trench was dug (some up to 8 feet deep) and a solid wall (typically of brick or stone) was built against the side of the trench toward the house. The top of the wall was flat and smooth, the height perfectly level with the ground so that when one gazed across the park it was completely invisible. The other side of the trench gently sloped upward until at the same level as the ground on the wall-side of the trench. Grazing animals reaching the trench were unable to cross, and thus kept away from the protected lawns and gardens!

Walpole rightly surmised that the name Ha-Ha derived from the response of ordinary folk on encountering these strange sunken walls, “…they then deemed so astonishing, that the common people called them Ha! Has! to express their surprise at finding a sudden and unperceived check to their walk.”

Walpole gave the credit to Bridgeman for introducing the sunken wall to English landscape design, but the origin is most likely from France. Whether Bridgeman or Walpole —or contemporary landscape architects William Kent and Capability Brown— were aware of the French origin is unclear, although even if they were, the Ha-Ha gained popularity on a much wider scale in English landscaping than it ever had in France.

A Ha-Ha was a feature of the gardens of the Château de Meudon, circa 1700. The technical innovation was presented in Dezallier d’Argenville’s La théorie et la pratique du jardinage (1709), which the architect John James (1712) translated into English:

At present we frequently make thoroughviews, called Ah, Ah, which are openings in the walls, without grills, to the very level of the walks, with a large and deep ditch at the foot of them, lined on both sides to sustain the earth, and prevent the getting over; which surprises the eye upon coming near it, and makes one laugh, Ha! Ha! from where it takes its name. This sort of opening is haha, on some occasions, to be preferred, for that it does not at all interrupt the prospect, as the bars of a grill do.

In a letter to Daniel Dering in 1724, John Perceval, 1st Earl of Egmont, observed of Stowe: “What adds to the beauty of this garden is, that it is not bounded by walls, but by a ha-hah, which leaves you the sight of the beautiful woody country, and makes you ignorant how far the high planted walks extend.” Thomas Jefferson, also describing the garden at Stowe after his visit in April 1786, uses the term with exclamation marks: “The inclosure is entirely by ha! ha!”

Ice houses were sometimes built into ha-ha walls because they provided a subtle entrance that made the ice house a less intrusive structure, and the ground provided additional insulation.




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cindie snyder

I always wondered what a HaHa was!lol


The illustration helped me to understand this so clearly. Thanks. I’ve often wondered about them.


Alas, my garden isn’t big enough for a ha-ha but then I don’t have any herds of deer or cows to keep separate 🙂
I must admit they are a great feature to prevent restricted views!

Debie Tucker

Sharon – this is such a great source of information, as we make plans for our new backyard(I have been reading excerpts from your article, to Jim this morning oever our morning coffee)! Thank you –

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