Swan lake gives new dimension to Capability's vision

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The Independent Online
Walkers who work off the turkey and pudding at Wimpole, near Cambridge, this year will find the North Park returned to a design close to that left by "Capability" Brown more than 200 years ago.

Brown was one of a series of landscape architects to leave his mark on the home of the Earls of Hardwicke which was bequeathed to the National Trust by Elsie Bambridge, daughter of Rudyard Kipling.

The trust has just completed a pounds 120,000 restoration project, which involved dredging two lakes created by Brown in the 1760s, tree planting, improvements to public access and the return of an arable field to grass.

The two lakes, at the centre of 350 acres of parkland which attract thousands of walkers each year, are the most dramatic aspect of the transformation. Where for a lifetime there have been trees, thickets and reed beds, there is now open water.

Little interest was shown in the lakes after a dam on the lower one was breached 60 years ago. Scrub took hold. The lower lake as good as disappeared - "an impenetrable jungle beneath full-grown willows", according to Graham Damant, the Wimpole property manager. The upper one became silted up and covered in reeds.

Mud down to a depth of seven feet was dredged from the four-acre upper lake and down to four feet from the slightly smaller lower one. Spread across 10 acres of adjoining hillside, it has raised the ground level by an average of two feet.

Mr Damant has watched teal, tufted duck, mute swans and other birds return to the lakes. A kingfisher darts from the overhanging branches. The upper lake has been stocked with small carp. It was a fish pond before Brown extended it.

Wimpole, which also has a working farm with rare breeds of sheep, cattle and pigs, does not draw on the trust's central funds. Money for the restoration project came from a variety of sources, including a Countryside Commission grant, donations and the proceeds of an on-going second-hand book sale at the hall.

The last of the great landscape designers to work at Wimpole was Humphry Repton. He developed Brown's informal landscape and in his Red Book of 1801 contrasted the woodland and hillsides of the estate with the flat cornfields of much of the counties of Cambridge and Huntingdon. It was, he wrote, "like a flower in the desert, beautiful in itself, but more beautiful by its situation".

Not all of Repton's vision will feature in the restoration. Lying in a fold, the lakes are hidden from the view of the hall. The great designer proposed a boat so that its mast would be seen by the earl's guests and indicate the presence of water. But for the trust's arbiters of taste, a boat was thought inappropriate.