Imagine a stately home or historic park and the chances are that your mind’s eye sees a large and distinctive house fronted by a lake: perhaps Castle Howard in Yorkshire, or Bowood in Wiltshire. A large body of tree-fringed water, serving as a complement to the house, is almost part of the definition of stately home, and we tend to take for granted the pairing of the two. Yet, as Wendy Bishop points out in her newly published book on the origins and evolution of the ornamental lake, we need to take a closer look, because nearly all the lakes in England are artificial (with the exception of those in the Lake District and a handful elsewhere), and almost none of these existed before c.1720.
Information about when they were made, how, and by whom is very scarce. Historic England’s lists of designated buildings and designed landscapes might mention a lake but generally provide no further information. One reason for this is the lack of documentation. For her book, Wendy has had to approach the issue of dating by scouring maps to see when the lake is first shown (though that could be some years after its construction), as well as reading ledgers, letters, diaries, and published works for references to water. The task is not made any easier by the terms used to describe a body of water, including pond, pool, or mere. The term ‘lake’ was not routinely used to describe an artificial body of water until the 1790s. Before then, ‘water’ was the term commonly used, as in ‘the Great Water’, ‘the Piece of Water’, ‘the Intended Water’, and ‘the Broad Water’.
The author’s own definition is a body of water of a hectare or more, intended primarily for aesthetic pleasure and recreational use (although capable of being used to stock fish), and having a visual relationship to the house. A hectare is about the same size as London’s Trafalgar Square and is a large enough area to be depicted on most maps, estate plans, or topographical engravings. Size is one way of distinguishing a lake from a fishpond, moat, or millpond, and ornamental lakes tend to have an irregular outline, distinguishing them from the more rectilinear water gardens of an earlier age. The most significant difference is that a lake is replenished by a river and has to be sited along a suitable watercourse, whereas ponds, usually lined with puddled clay, can be located anywhere and they rely on rainwater or a leet or conduit bringing water to them from a nearby spring or watercourse.
From the data she has gleaned from maps and journals, Wendy has constructed a broad chronology of ornamental lakes, showing that the first irregular one in England dates from c.1719. They increased in numbers in the following decades and reached a peak in the 1760s to 1770s, when new lakes were being constructed at the rate of 60 a year. They continued to be made in smaller numbers throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, but the general trend was downwards, especially after c.1820 as landscape fashions changed.
From Fisheries to fancy features
Bodies of water had, of course, been a feature of designed landscapes for many hundreds of years prior to the 18th century. The production of freshwater fish for the table using large breeding ponds (vivaria) and smaller storage ponds (servatoria) was a common feature of monastic and aristocratic landscapes throughout the medieval period. These tended to take the form of a series of rectilinear cavities, lined with puddled clay, with fish of different ages kept in separate ponds to prevent larger fish from preying on fry and to make it easier to take mature fish for consumption, gift-giving, or payment of dues. More naturalistic contour ponds could also be made, like those that survive today as ornamental features in Cirencester’s Abbey Grounds public park, originally built as a series of linked fish breeding ponds by diverting a branch of the River Churn.
Fish-production systems like this required investment in the creation of the ponds and their maintenance, all of which were skilled jobs. Glastonbury Abbey’s fish ponds were at Meare, in Somerset, 3.5 miles from the monastery, and the prestigious stone-built Fish House overlooking the mere is an indication of the value of the fish and of the status of the official in charge of the fishery, for whose accommodation it served. The late Christopher Taylor has also drawn our attention to the role of moats to surround monastic buildings, castles, and prestigious residences in the medieval period as symbols of power and status rather than primarily for defensive reasons, with notable examples at Kenilworth (Warwickshire), Framlingham (Suffolk), Herstmonceux and Bodiam (both East Sussex), as well as at Scotney and Leeds (both Kent).
At Kenilworth, originally built by Geoffrey de Clinton in 1125, we can see the forerunner of the purely ornamental lake (the Great Pool) as it evolves from a part of the castle’s defences, with fish ponds to the south-west, into a stage set for aristocratic entertainment and the construction of a large walled garden, or pleasance, on the wooded banks of the lake in 1417, to which guests would be taken for half a mile by boat. Earlier still, the stone pavilion, or gloriette, overlooking the moat at Leeds Castle, built by Edward I in 1279 for his queen, Eleanor, emphasises the aesthetic role of the moat, here backed by vineyards like a scene from the Très Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry.
The origins of ornamental lakes
Despite these earlier examples, Wendy Bishop argues that ornament for its own sake did not apply to water in the landscape until the early modern period, and that most of the credit for the concept should go to Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. Brown’s contribution to landscape design was to break down the barrier between garden and park, extending the concept of the garden to the entire landscape, thus working with a far larger canvas than had been the case in the past, when the transition from the formal (and often rigidly linear) cultivated parterres, avenues, canals, orchards, and walled gardens close to the house and the more naturalistic meadows, woodland, and deer park beyond was much more abrupt.
Brown was not alone in this: the ha-ha – an invisible barrier designed to give the illusion of continuity between garden and meadow – was popularised in England by Charles Bridgeman and William Kent, beginning with their work at Stowe, in Buckinghamshire, from 1711 to 1730. But Brown was one of the first to use ornamental lakes as a link between the house and the park – using the water to enhance the views to the house from the rides, paths, and carriage drives around the park, as well as the outlook from the house itself.
In his 50-year career, Brown (1716-1783) designed some 250 landscapes, 70 of which included lakes. All told, he was responsible for the design of one third of all the lakes created in England during his lifetime. He could not have done so without being able to call on the resources of specialists in water and drainage engineering. Though lakes have the deceptive air of naturalness and simplicity, their construction, care, and management is complex and costly. Today they must be inspected at ten-year intervals by the Environment Agency because the consequences of a dam burst could be serious. The 9th Marquis of Lansdowne, owner of Bowood in Wiltshire, is quoted as saying that if the dam holding his 16ha lake were to fail, he would flood the centre of Chippenham. Had any of ‘Capability’ Brown’s early examples failed, it is unlikely that he would have been commissioned to design so many or have earned his ‘Capability’ soubriquet.
Brown was able to employ tradesmen who adapted the techniques of fish- and mill-pond construction to the making of ornamental lakes. Most such tradesmen are anonymous, though the account books for Bowood Park – where Brown created a lake in 1766 – record the expenses incurred by John Case and his assistant Richard Darch in travelling for two days (we do not know from where) to Bowood and the fee paid to them of £9.1s.0d for surveying the landscape for a suitable site for a dam, specifying the ‘necessary angles and resistance to the water’, and providing plans and section drawings.
Testing the water
The two main sources of information available to Brown at the time were A Discourse of Fish and Fish-Ponds (1714) by Roger North (1653-1734) and the Ichnographia Rustica (1718) of Stephen Switzer (1682-1745), the garden writer and landscape designer who worked on the pools and fountains at Hampton Court Castle, Herefordshire. Switzer bemoans the lack of written instructions for dam-building, but says that ‘in the West, whence this is wrote [sic], every Ploughman and Shepherd is able to make good Reservoirs and Ponds for holding of Water’. Switzer might have been writing from Cirencester, where he influenced the 1st Earl Bathurst’s design of the woods and avenues of Cirencester Park, and it is likely that the skills he said were commonplace related to the creation of ponds and dewponds for watering livestock, rather than anything larger in scale. His comment suggests that a body of specialist knowledge existed that was orally transmitted rather than being written down.
Switzer drew heavily on North’s technical blueprint for dam-building, and North himself obtained much of his information, as his title tells us, from the construction of fish ponds. In describing how to create a large fish pond of 2ha, he specified a dam measuring 50ft (15m) at the base and rising to 14ft (4.3m), with sides sloped at an angle to give a top of 16ft (4.9m) in width. At the core of the dam was a substantial wall of puddled clay, which started 2ft (0.6m) beneath the site of the intended dam and rose almost to its entire height (care being taken to prevent the clay from drying while it was being built). The sloping sides and flat top were constructed using material dug out from the ground where the pond was to be located, piled up against the clay core. The dam had to be built 3ft (1m) higher than the required depth of the pond because ‘the earth will sink no matter how hard you ram it to make it solid’.
At the base of the dam, it was necessary to insert a sluice to let surplus water out in times of flood. Letting the water flow over the top would erode it, although later lakes were built with stone-lined spillways or overflow channels for this purpose. In some instances, an entire hollowed-out tree trunk was used, passing through the base of the dam, and just such a sluice, made from elm, was found during repairs to the dam at Burghley (Lincolnshire) in the 1980s. The alternative was to build a box conduit from timber, sealing the joints with tar and horsehair. Various other refinements are suggested in North’s treatise, including the use of a timber palisade to hold the clay wall during construction and pitched stone to protect the slopes of the dam.
Unlike ponds, lake bottoms and sides were not routinely lined with puddled clay. When the engineer John Grundy was contracted to make a lake for the Duke of Ancaster at Grimsthorpe, Lincolnshire, in 1748, he was worried about the porous nature of the region’s limestone and so proposed a clay lining at the cost of £1,733.10s.0d (equivalent to £177,000 today). Probably because of the expense, the work was never carried out, and it highlights the role of the underlying geology in the creation of lakes, as well as the availability of a suitable watercourse.
The legacy of Lancelot Brown
‘Capability’ Brown’s ability to design naturalistic lakes that looked as if they had been created at the dawn of Arcadian time was based on his intimate knowledge of the landscape, which he surveyed and measured in detail, often walking the terrain with his aristocratic client, following the contours, discussing how high the owner wanted the water to be, planting stakes to mark the borders of the lake, discussing the location of bridges and roads, and drawing on the owner’s knowledge of the underlying soils, geology, and springs. Only then was he able to plan the location of the necessary dam or dams – for sometimes (as at Longleat), a chain of lakes was created, using bridge-dams, weirs, and islands to disguise the changes in level and thus create the illusion of one large lake. Another of Brown’s illusionistic ploys was to plant trees around the ends of the water in such a way as to make it look as if it continued out of sight.
Nor was the creation of the lake the end of the story: Brown’s Longleat and Bowood contracts show that he did a great deal of earth-moving to create smooth, uncluttered grassy slopes gently falling to the banks of the water. Simplifying the landscape had the effect of drawing the eye towards the house, and wherever he could (for example, at Longleat) Brown insisted on the kitchen gardens and stables being relocated away from the house so that the main house and water feature were all that filled the view.
Carriage drives were planned to choreograph the views of the house and lake as visitors entered the park, catching glimpses through woodland from carefully staged viewpoints, then enjoying the grand panoramic view as they emerged from the trees. Garden historians have suggested that there is something almost cinematic about the effect of views constructed to entertain and surprise, and the title sequence of many a TV costume drama or feature film has continued to capture this experience today. Such effects could involve planting trees and flattening hills (as at Bowood) on a substantial scale. Perimeter carriage drives were planned around the water so that visitors could enjoy the landscape in the new light carriages (phaetons) that were becoming popular at the time.
Brown was the pre-eminent lake-maker of his day, responsible for some of today’s best-known landscapes (at Croome and Compton Verney in Warwickshire, Longleat and Bowood in Wiltshire, Blenheim in Oxfordshire, and Burghley in Lincolnshire). We only know the names of approximately eight other lake-makers from the 18th century and none of them was very prolific, most designing only one or two each. That means that some two-thirds of the lakes made during the peak period for construction were the work of unknown designers – very probably the owners themselves, inspired by Brown’s landscapes and perhaps collaborating with their head gardeners or estate labourers.
Troubled waters and the turn of the century
By the time of Brown’s death in 1783, lake-making was already in decline. Just as the irregular naturalistic landscape was the early 18th century’s reaction against the more formal gardens of the previous century, so the later part of the century began to see Brown’s placid waters and smooth lawns as old-fashioned and just a little too tame. The new fashion was for the Picturesque, which in terms of water translated into the turbulence of rushing mountain streams and the crash and roar of cascades.
Two prolific and influential writers are associated with the new style: John Claudius Loudon (1783-1843) and William Sawrey Gilpin (1761-1843). Neither of them designed any lakes, but they were very clear about the desired effects. Loudon recommended giving the shoreline a more broken and rocky character, ‘excavating the ground work’ to allow swirling water to undercut the banks in places and deposit shallows of stone or gravel in others, encouraging the exposure of tree roots and lakeside geology. Gilpin was completely opposed to the Brown ethos of linking house and park, and called his predecessor’s landscapes ‘bald’ and ‘insipid’. He wanted banks to be broken by workmen with pickaxes and left to find their own natural form. Trees should be planted right up to the lake margin and even encouraged to lean over the water for the benefit of their reflections, rather than being stepped back to allow for a carriage drive.
Where the topography allowed, cascades were added to existing lakes, but the difficulty of creating animated water was acknowledged by both authors. The Picturesque ideal of water tumbling over rocky cascades was not commonly realised until the mid-19th century and the invention of Pulhamite, a synthetic rock that could be made to resemble many different types of natural stone. The ability of James Pulham & Co to supply rocks of any type led to the proliferation of waterfalls from the 1850s, as well as cliffs, caves, gorges, and canyons that blended in with the natural geology and that could be deployed on a relatively small scale. Many a low cascade falling into a small pond was built in public gardens or in the grounds of the relatively restricted gardens of the Victorian nouveaux riches, as well as much more ambitious examples, such as those at Sheffield Park (East Sussex), Audley End (Essex), Waddesdon Manor (Buckinghamshire), Sandringham (Norfolk), and Buckingham Palace.
The story of lakes does not stop in 1900, although very few new ornamental lakes have been made since then. Instead, the technical blueprint that was passed on from medieval fish ponds to early modern ornamental lakes was adopted and improved by the reservoir-builders of the late 18th and 19th centuries, supplying the water that powered the Industrial Revolution. Early reservoir dams, like that built by Robert Thom (1774-1847), the inventor of the sand-based water filtration system that is used to this day to supply clean drinking water, evolved out of ornamental lakes. He built Loch Thom in 1827 to provide water to the town of Greenock, using the same clay-core dam techniques that ‘Capability’ Brown deployed. Arguably these reservoirs are the ornamental lakes of our day, bodies of water that are the arena for a variety of leisure activities, including walking, sailing, fishing, and bird-watching.
Wendy Bishop (2021) Ornamental Lakes: their origins and evolution in English landscapes, Routledge, £34.99, ISBN 978-0367894184.
Claire Masset (2021) Buckingham Palace: a royal garden, Royal Collection Trust, £14.95, ISBN 978-1909741690.
Images: Wendy Bishop, unless otherwise stated.