This week: Lakes

Octagon Lake at Stowe House and Park in Buckinghamshire, designed by Capability Brown. Image: Martin Pettitt/Wikimedia Commons.

Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown is the towering genius of English garden architecture. Born in Northumberland in c.1715-16, this low-born son of a land agent and a chambermaid would go on to design groundbreaking naturalistic schemes of enduring beauty and enormous sophistication for many of the country’s grandest country houses – from Chatsworth to Compton Verney and from Alnwick Castle to Blenheim Palace.

In a career spanning 50 years, Brown would also revolutionise our ideas about the way these great estates should look – breaking down the traditional barrier between the formal garden and the wider surrounding parkland in order to bring out the ‘capabilities’ of the whole landscape. In doing so, he created an image of England’s green and pleasant land that endures to this day.

As we discover this week on The Past, however, Brown wasn’t simply a prolific producer of parterres and ha-has. At the heart of many of his best-known schemes were designs for new lakes, intended to augment and quite literally to reflect the landscape and the architecture around them. In his lifetime, it is estimated that Brown was responsible for some 70 new lakes – an astonishing one third of all such bodies of water created in England during his lifetime.

In the current issue of our sister magazine Current Archaeology and on the latest edition of The PastCast, our brilliant podcast, Chris Catling celebrates the art and science of lake-building, introducing a new book which traces its fascinating history from the fish ponds of the medieval period, through the Arcadian heyday of Brown and others, to the more recent achievements of new generations of reservoir-builders whose creations supplied the water that powered the Industrial Revolution.

We’ve also been delving into the archives to explore the history of lakes: we travelled to Lake Llangorse to find out what the only crannog in Wales can tell us about its elite occupants of the 9th and 10th centuries; we ventured to Ireland’s County Galway to discover how an 11th-century jaunt across Lough Corrib ended in disaster; and we returned to Wales to hear how an assemblage of Iron Age metalwork found in an Anglesey lake at the height of the Second World War is still revealing its secrets more than 70 years on.

And finally, if all that leaves you simply wanting more, why not have a go at our latest quiz, which this week is themed around the world’s great lakes. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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