Urban gardener: Sleeping beauty

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The Independent Online

It's curious how, when looking for stories to fuel these pages, some of the best happen right on my doorstep. This one concerns our local Bushy Park, once the hunting grounds of King Henry VIII and often referred to as the "Sleeping Beauty" of the Royal Parks.

Regular readers will know that the Urban Gardener is no stranger to it, and I'll make no apology for mentioning it again as another secret, a Baroque water garden no less, is about to emerge from its slumber. I popped in recently after getting a call from the Park Manager, Ray Brodie. "You're going to love it!" he blurted, unable to restrain himself. Ray had shown me the site two years ago when it was derelict and, more recently, I joined a group from Friends of Bushy and Home Park (FBHP) to see how things were progressing.

Lying just over the fence from our allotment, the water garden was made during the first decade of the 18th century when Charles Montagu, the 1st Earl of Halifax, saw how the River Longford (an artificial watercourse built to supply water supply to Hampton Court Palace) could be used to enhance the park. When the land was leased to the Ministry of Defence in 1946, access was restricted and over the years it fell into disrepair. It wasn't until the early 1990s when Peter Foster, of the Admiralty Research Laboratory based within the park, wrote an article about the potential existence of the water gardens that ears pricked up.

Kathy White, then Chairman of the FBHP, whose dialogue with Peter Foster was the catalyst for getting the project off the ground, is understandably delighted with the progress made. She describes how, when the Ministry of Defence relinquished its lease of the Upper Lodge to the Crown Estate in 1995, the FBHP stepped up pressure to get a grant for a restoration plan. "Publicity from the research brought to light a painting by Jacob Bogdani," she explains. "It showed the water garden in the background but didn't give a huge amount of detail." But when (in 1999) Sir Roy Strong identified another more detailed painting in the Royal Collection at Hampton Court (pictured above) it exceeded all expectations. "The discovery coincided with archaeological excavations of the site," says Kathy. "We celebrated like we'd won the World Cup!"

Partnership funding eventually came from the Heritage Lottery Fund (the Crown Estate also contributed) and the contractors, English Landscapes, began work in February 2007. The change from when Ray first showed me the site two years ago is spectacular. An octagonal holding pool is finished, so too is the water cascade and a lower pool. A combination of original and new brickwork has been used on the retaining walls and the once tufa-faced grottos (soft, porous that would have housed temporary trompe-l'oeil paintings) either side of the cascade. Not ideal but, with today's sustainability issues, the original soft, porous tufa façade would be difficult to source and, therefore, justify. The landscape round would have been simply grass to accentuate the convex-concave design. Views beyond would also have been relatively clear so as not to impinge on the vista (originally 950m long) – but Ray has had to consider today's concern for the removal of trees.

"We're not going to rush this," he says as a ripple of water breaks the surface of the top pool. "We can always add to the cosmetics later. The main thing is to get the structure, the engineering and the landscaping sorted before we open early next summer."

The sleeping beauty is awake and will, come the summer, be sparkling in the limelight..........