A ha-ha (French: hâ-hâ or saut de loup) is a recessed landscape design element that creates a vertical barrier (particularly on one side) while preserving an uninterrupted view of the landscape beyond from the other side.
The design can include a turfed incline that slopes downward to a sharply vertical face (typically a masonry retaining wall). Ha-has are used in landscape design to prevent access to a garden by, for example, grazing livestock, without obstructing views. In security design, the element is used to deter vehicular access to a site while minimizing visual obstruction.
The name "ha-ha" is thought to have stemmed from the reaction of the son of Louis XIV of France whose governess prevented him from approaching the drop for fear of injury. When he approached, he said "Ha Ha, this is what I'm supposed to be afraid of?" and since then more people started referring to "saut de loup" as "Ha Ha"; alternatively it could be just because of the element of surprise one has when approaching the construction. It may have been referred to as "ha-hah" as an abbreviation of "half and half" with half a wall and half a ditch although this explanation is rarely favored. In a letter to Daniel Dering in 1724, John Perceval, 1st Earl of Egmont (father to the prime minister Spencer Perceval), 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." In the 18th century, they were often called a sunken or sunk fence, at least in formal writing, as by Horace Walpole, George Mason and Humphry Repton.
Before mechanical lawn mowers, a common way to keep large areas of grassland trimmed was to allow livestock, usually sheep, to graze the grass. A ha-ha prevented grazing animals on large estates from gaining access to the lawn and gardens adjoining the house, giving a continuous vista to create the illusion that the garden and landscape were one and undivided.
The basic design of sunken ditches is of ancient origin, being a feature of deer parks in England. The deer-leap or saltatorium 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. Since the time of the Norman conquest of England the right to construct a deer-leap was granted by the king, with reservations made as to the depth of the foss or ditch and the height of the pale or hedge. On Dartmoor, the deer-leap was known as a "leapyeat".
The name ha-ha is of French origin, with the term being attested in toponyms in New France from 1686 (as seen today in Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha!), and being 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:
Grills of iron are very necessary ornaments in the lines of walks, to extend the view, and to show the country to advantage. 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.
The etymology of the term is generally given as being an expression of surprise—someone says "ha ha" or "ah! ah!" when they encounter such a feature. This is the explanation given in French, where it is traditionally attributed to Louis, Grand Dauphin, on encountering such features at Meudon, by d'Argenville (trans. James), above, and by Walpole, who surmised that the name is derived from the response of ordinary folk on encountering them and that they were "... 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." Thomas Jefferson, describing the garden at Stowe after his visit in April 1786, also uses the term with exclamation marks: "The inclosure is entirely by ha! ha!"
In Britain, the ha-ha is a feature of the landscape gardens laid out by Charles Bridgeman and William Kent and was an essential component of the "swept" views of Capability Brown. Horace Walpole credits Bridgeman with the invention of the ha-ha but was unaware of the earlier French origins.
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.
During his excavations at Iona in the period 1964–1984, Richard Reece discovered an 18th-century ha-ha designed to protect the abbey from cattle. Ice houses were sometimes built into ha-ha walls because they provide a subtle entrance that makes the ice house a less intrusive structure, and the ground provides additional insulation.
Most typically, ha-has are still found in the grounds of grand country houses and estates. They keep cattle and sheep out of the formal gardens, without the need for obtrusive fencing. They vary in depth from about 0.6 m (2 ft) (Horton House) to 2.7 m (9 ft) (Petworth House).
An unusually long example is the ha-ha that separates the Royal Artillery Barracks Field from Woolwich Common in southeast London. This deep ha-ha was installed around 1774 to prevent sheep and cattle, grazing at a stopover on Woolwich Common on their journey to the London meat markets, from wandering onto the Royal Artillery gunnery range. A rare feature of this east-west ha-ha is that the normally hidden brick wall emerges above ground for its final 75 yards (70 metres) or so as the land falls away to the west, revealing a fine batter to the brickwork face of the wall, thus exposed. This final west section of the ha-ha forms the boundary of the Gatehouse by James Wyatt RA. The Royal Artillery ha-ha is maintained in a good state of preservation by the Ministry of Defence. It is a Listed Building, and is accompanied by Ha-Ha Road that runs alongside its full length. There is a shorter ha-ha in the grounds of the nearby Jacobean Charlton House. The Royal Crescent row of 30 terraced houses in Bath, Somerset, which were built between 1767 and 1774 in the Georgian architecture style, also feature a large ha-ha that provides an uninterrupted view of Royal Victoria Park.
In Australia, ha-has were also used at Victorian-era lunatic asylums 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 patients, preventing them from escaping, while from outside they looked low so as not to suggest imprisonment. For the patients themselves, standing before the trench, it also enabled them to see the wider landscape. Kew Asylum has been redeveloped as apartments; however some of the ha-has remain, albeit partially filled in.
Ha-has were also used in North America. Only two historic installations remain in Canada, one of which is on the grounds of Nova Scotia's Uniacke House (1813), a rural estate built by Richard John Uniacke, an Irish-born Attorney-General of Nova Scotia.
A 21st-century use of a ha-ha is at the Washington Monument to minimize the visual impact of security measures. After 9/11 and another unrelated terror threat at the monument, authorities had put up jersey barriers to prevent large motor vehicles from approaching the monument. The temporary barriers were later replaced with a new ha-ha, a low 0.76 m (30-inch) granite stone wall that incorporated lighting and doubled as a seating bench. It received the 2005 Park/Landscape Award of Merit.
Due to the hidden nature of ha-has, they can pose potential injury to the public (especially considering their initial designs were to be invisible).
From the front the parkland landscape appears continuous, but in fact the formal grounds are protected from the grazing sheep and cattle by a ha-ha
Early suburbanites relied on hired help to scythe the grass or sheep to graze the lawn. The lawn mower ... made it possible for homeowners to maintain their own lawn. ... The ha-ha provided an invisible barrier ... which kept livestock from wandering ... into gardens.