How does a modern designer make his mark on an 18th-century garden? By digging a hole...

The landscape architect Kim Wilkie's recent commissions have often involved historic landscapes, but though he has great respect for their past stories, he's not a restorer. He doesn't do pastiche.

The proposals he puts in front of his clients seem to involve an impressive amount of earth-moving: a grass amphitheatre at Great Fosters in Surrey, nine elegant grass terraces at Heveningham Hall in Suffolk, and most recently a staggeringly beautiful earthwork, christened Orpheus, at Boughton House in Northamptonshire.

Boughton, the home of the tenth Duke of Buccleuch, is unusual in that the busy Victorians never meddled there. Nor did the landscaper, Lancelot "Capability" Brown, who surely would have swept away the broad, formal canals first laid out at the end of the 17th century by Ralph Montagu. Montagu had spent time as an ambassador at the French court and it was a Versailles vision of straight lines, sheets of water, symmetry and formality that he brought back to Northamptonshire, a French idea, realised by a Dutch engineer, Leonard van der Meulan.

The choice of a Dutchman wasn't surprising. The Dutch were good with water and at Boughton there was never quite enough. The river Ilse, wandering through the park, had to be persuaded rather carefully to become the Broadwater, lying in a great formal rectangle below the west front of the house and the canals either side of it.

Ralph's successor continued working on the formal landscape at Boughton until it stretched over 100 acres of the park, the lake even bigger, the avenues of trees even longer and more magnificent than they had been before. With the spoil left over from digging out the lake, he made a mound, like a pyramid with its top chopped off, a huge earthwork 60 yards square at the base, which fits neatly beside the Broadwater (the spoil didn't have to be carted far) with a canal in front of it and another canal, the Boat Reach, on its third side.

Then Boughton went to sleep. Through a series of clever marriages, the family found itself with so many houses, they didn't need their Northamptonshire place any more. And that's why, when the present Duke's father first started work on the park, scooping centuries of silt out of one of the canals, all that early work was still there, though often difficult to see. The powerful, sculpted silhouette of the mount was disguised by self-sown saplings grown into trees. An understorey of brambles and elder confused the picture even more. The canals had become bogs, their once straight edges undermined, overgrown, drifting into the long grass of the surrounding landscape.

I've gone into all this because it's an important part of how Orpheus happened and why it is as it is. The present Duke, who inherited two years ago, was determined to press on with the work of restoring the Boughton landscape, with a detailed map of 1729 as his guide. But the map, a superb bird's eye view of the park showing the house looking over its formal sheets of water, its blocks of woodland and formal rides, had a curious blank square in the space facing the mount. The Duke asked Kim Wilkie to come up with an idea; the most interesting gardens and landscapes never stay still.

"It came instantly," says Wilkie. Standing on top of the mount (cleared in 2007), looking back across the blank square at the house, he suggested the answer was to go down rather than up, making it an impression of the mount, inverted into the earth. To his eternal credit, given the practical difficulties of digging such a huge hole and so deep, the Duke said yes.

So Boughton now embraces and absorbs an earthwork that is unmistakeably of the 21st century but which acknowledges and speaks to all the much older things going on round it. It's a clever trick, and one, I think, that could only have been carried out by someone who understands the "ghosts of occupation", Wilkie's term for the spirit of a place. It's a subtle piece of work but at the same time extraordinarily bold, fitting into the wider scheme at Boughton. When you are with it, it demands your full attention, enclosing you. It's been beautifully made, the edges crisp, the banks smooth, the standard of work a tribute to Lance Goffort-Hall at Boughton who managed the whole project.

From the house, you are scarcely aware of this important new element in the landscape. As it is set down into the earth rather than raised above it, that's hardly surprising. As you approach down a broad grass walk, lined with belts of trees, it's the mount that dominates. Then closer by, you begin to distinguish the brim of Orpheus. Closer still, you are at its very edge, a huge 60 yard square carved out of the ground, steeply banked in grass, with a shallow turfed ramp spiralling down inside to bring you to the dark square of water at its base.

We all bring our own baggage to places, mind baggage I mean, not carrier bags, and I was unprepared for the calm that Orpheus inspired as I shambled slowly down the grass paths to its centre. The mount, so dominant from ground level, gradually disappears as you descend; because the air is so still you hear sound differently; you are slightly disorientated by the sloping lines of the ramps laid out against the straight line of the rim. And then, at the top again, you realise how well it works as a skyscape, a James Turrell in reverse, the dark, still water at the base reflecting the sky and its ever-changing cast of clouds.

Why Orpheus? The immediate link is the sense of descending into a different world, as Orpheus went down into Hades to bring back his beloved Eurydice. Other connections are less easy to pin down. Or talk about. Memory. Loss. A kind of resolution (if you are lucky) between the two. But I hate being told what I'm supposed to be feeling or thinking. Just go, taking an open mind.

From now until 1 May next year, the park and gardens at Boughton House, near Kettering, Northants, are open by special arrangement only. Call 01536 515731 to make an appointment. From 1 May until the end of August 2010, they will be open every afternoon (2-5pm), admission £3.

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
British musician Mark Ronson arrives for the UK premiere of the film 'Mortdecai'
music
Voices
Winston Churchill, then prime minister, outside No 10 in June 1943
voicesA C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
Sport
footballBrighton vs Arsenal match report
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has spoken about the lack of opportunities for black British actors in the UK
film
News
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Day In a Page

Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us