234 Belvoir lakes

The lakes at Belvoir Castle, drawn by Nick Haycock; outlines added by the editor.

An unexpected but nonetheless welcome slew of fresh post has washed across the breakfast table, leaving in its receding tide the wrack of those questions that arise unbroken and yet entangled in the miasmic effusions of that Zeno of mystery, the lake-maker Capability Brown.

The most prominent amongst them was captured a fortnight ago by Mr R of Islington, who has not been alone in asking: if Brown made his lakes by damming up a valley, how much did he have to excavate? We have tried a half dozen ways of tackling the issue at the Tatler’s Waste-bin and I have rendered our lucubrations in several notes already, however I overruled the reluctance of my companions to return to the subject, for I had come to the Snug armed with the latest that LiDAR technology can offer, synthesised into a single drawing by Nick Haycock of HEC.

On this Nick showed that if Brown had built his dam where he proposed at Belvoir Castle, opposite the village of Woolsthorpe, and if there had been no attendant earth-moving, not only would he have had to build the biggest of all his dams – not impossible – but without very considerable earthworking the shape of the lake would have been very different both from what Brown intended, and from what was actually done when the lakes were built in the 1820s. Nick’s drawing shows as a blue shape the lake that would have resulted without earthworking, if it were to reach as far south as Brown intended.

I had seen fit to add to the drawing an outline in brown of the shape of the lake proposed by Brown, so as to compare the two.

Captain Ken held that this was all nonsense as Brown did not have the surveying skills to predict the levels or shape of the lake when he drew up his proposal. However I found Mr Honey more persuasive, when he pointed out that Brown’s lake could have worked for, if we judge his proposal to have been accurately drawn, then he planned to move the water course of the River Devon to the east. This would have entailed an enormous amount of earth to be cut out from that side, plenty enough to build up the west and smooth out the line of the west bank. Mr H went on to point out that by so doing, Brown planned to bring a touch of the serpentine into a river that for all its minor meanders was essentially straight; and then knocked the Captain to the floor I fear with his comment that the south end of the lake as built in the 1820s (which I have added to the plan as a red outline) was very close indeed to what Brown had proposed. Finally, for he was not yet finished, Mr H commented that had Brown’s design been completed it would have made a damn fine view from his bridge at the south end of the lake, along the whole length of the water and out to the Vale of Belvoir beyond with the water-washed village of Woolsthorpe on the right, and the Castle on the left.

Now the great lesson, which I submit here to Mr R, is that the addition of a dam to obstruct a river valley will not automatically create anything like a Brownian lake. The effortless appearance of an irresistible great river must be hand carved throughout its passage through the landscape.

This truth is evident at Chatsworth, where the old water-course that Brown replaced runs up to a hundred yards or more from his mighty Derwent. Indeed it may often be easier to cut a separate new course for the water, so that the workings will not be flooded during construction.

Surely it is this process that is referred to in Brown’s contract for Trentham (1759)? There he undertook to ‘make the whole Water in Shape and Size according to the Stakes put in for that Purpose, forming its Edges quite round and making them correspond with the Ground on each side’. The stakes put in, and the ground corresponding – these speak of formidable earth-working.