The Ingenuity of The ‘Ha-Ha’

Feb 17, 2021 0 comments

What’s in a wall but a simple structure to keep intruders out, you might say. But a surprising amount of thought goes behind the construction of some. One example is the crin­kle-cran­kle wall, popular in the county of Suffolk, in east England. The alternating curves of the crin­kle-cran­kle wall prevents the wall from toppling over with­out the need for but­tress­ing. Another unusual wall is the quirkily named “Ha-Ha” that’s found in many 18th century country estates around Britain.


Photo: Tim Dawson/Flickr

A ha-ha consist of a trench with a turfed incline on the outer side and a vertical retaining wall on the inner side. The incline slopes sharply down to meet the vertical face, whose top is usually level with the ground, to create an effective barrier against straying livestock, while at the same time providing a clear view of the estate from the house. From the side of the house, the wall is nearly invisible making it seem that the garden and landscape are one and undivided. It is believed the wall’s amusing name came from the success of the optical illusion created on viewers of the garden. Anyone who came across such a hidden wall will have exclaimed “Ah! Ah!”


Sketch by 842U/Wikimedia Commons

In those early days, before mechanical lawn mowers, sheep and cattle were often allowed to graze on the ground to keep the grassland trimmed. A ha-ha was typically constructed between the estate's gardens and grounds to prevent grazing animals from crossing over to the manicured lawn and gardens adjoining the house, while generating a continuous vista of the garden and landscape beyond. Unlike an ordinary trench, which may turn into a moat or become overgrown with vegetation, a ha-ha keeps the estate ground in an impeccable state by allowing livestock to graze right up to the stonewall.

The basic design of a ha-ha is similar to the so-called “deer-leap” constructed in deer parks in medieval England since the time of the Norman conquest. But it was in France where the ha-ha was first developed, featuring in formal gardens in the early 18th century. It was first described in print in 1709 by the gardening enthusiast, Dezallier d’Argenville in his La Theorie et la Practique du jardinage (The Theory and Practice of Gardening).


Image: BBC

The gardens at Stowe were among the first in England to possess a ha-ha. The unusual wall attracted the interest of many visitors, especially the landed gentry who copied the design on their own estates. John Perceval, 1st Earl of Egmont, having been impressed by the ha-ha at Stowe, wrote to his cousin Daniel Dering in 1724:

...what adds to the beauty of this garden is, that it is not bounded by walls, but by a ha-hah [sic], which leaves you the sight of the beautiful woody country, and makes you ignorant how far the high planted walks extend.

Aside from Stowe, you can see ha-has at many grand country houses and estates around the country. Most of these date from the 18th century. Ha-has were also used at Victorian-era lunatic asylums in Australia, such as Yarra Bend Asylum, Beechworth Asylum, and Kew Lunatic Asylum in Victoria, and the Parkside Lunatic Asylum in South Australia. From the inside, the walls presented a tall face to the patients, preventing their escape, while also enabling them to see the wider landscape from the top of the trench.

Modern landscape designers are making use of ha-has once again to create visually pleasing boundaries that do not obstruct. There is one at the Washington Monument in Washington, the US, constructed in the early 2000s.

A ha-ha on the grounds of Hopetoun House near South Queensferry

A ha-ha on the grounds of Hopetoun House near South Queensferry, in Scotland. Photo: Andrew Shiva/Wikimedia Commons

Berrington Hall in Herefordshire

Can you find the ha-ha in this photograph of the Berrington Hall in Herefordshire? Photo: Stuartan/

A ha-ha in Petworth House, in West Sussex, England

A ha-ha in Petworth House, in West Sussex, England. Photo: Stephen Craven/Wikimedia Commons

# Geraldine Porter, What is a ha-ha?, National Trust
# What's so funny about a ha-ha wall?, BBC
# Wikipedia


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