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In 1590, Elizabeth I installed, at Hampton Court, ‘a splendid high and massy fountain with an ingenious water-work, by which you can, if you like, make the water play on the ladies and others who are standing by, and give them a thorough wetting’.

For 2,000 years, since the Romans introduced the idea of directing and channelling it, water has been a quintessential part of British garden design. It has served practical functions, of course, for irrigation and for fish. Largely, however, it has been used for aesthetic purposes, to soothe and to entertain. It is in this way that we’ve used it at Dream Acres.

To the north of our house, in front of the entrance, is a reflecting pool, edged in stone and ringed by pleached lime trees. To the south, below the terrace, a stream snakes its way through grassy banks and widens into a natural pond teeming with wildlife. Visitors to the kitchen garden and stables are greeted by the musical sound of splashing water falling into a stone trough.

Gardening with water is every bit as tricky as gardening with plants. From a management perspective, one has to guard against there being too much or too little of it, as well as the considerable difficulties that arise if it becomes stagnant or polluted. A wrongly conceived water feature whether it be a small fountain or a huge lake can detract from an other-wise glorious garden or landscape.

The pool

A simple, well-designed pool adds a great deal to a garden. On a calm day, the surface is a mirror (as in the reflective pool opposite), reflecting the sky and any trees or buildings nearby. On a breezy day, it’s a kaleidoscope, swept this way and that by an ever-changing pattern of tiny waves. When sunny, it sparkles and dances. When dull, it seems deeper and darker. When rainy, it’s all ripples and movement.

Thus, by turns, a pool can evoke an atmosphere of stillness, activity, excitement, interest and contemplation. It brings structure and order, too, giving the space it occupies a certain importance. You may or may not notice other garden features, but you will always notice a pool.

Arabella’s pool at Dream Acres commands attention, whether you’re arriving at the entrance courtyard from the drive or observing it from the house. In terms of size, it’s not enormous, a mere 10ft by 20ft. Nor is it ornate. The edging consists of a wide stone trim that overhangs the water, thus creating a sense of infinite depth. If it contains fish or plants, they aren’t obvious. What makes this pond dramatic is the way in which it has been sited. Depending on where you stand, you see a reflection not only of the sky, but also of the pleached lime trees or the house or, of course, all three.

Arabella’s advice for a perfect pool

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Pools need to be appropriate for the space they occupy. In a formal garden, you should design a formal pool, with the edges clearly defined using stone, brick or well-clipped grass. Suitable shapes are likely to be geometric, such as a square, a rectangle, a circle or a hexagon.

In an informal garden, the shape can be more relaxed, as informal pools should sit naturally in the landscape. Choose a location where it would not be surprising to see a pond at  a low point of the garden, for example, rather than on high ground.

When a pool becomes cloudy and stagnant, it is usually because of decaying vegetation (such as leaves). The decaying process uses up the oxygen in the water and releases carbon dioxide, which, in turn, can lead to algae. One option is to incorporate a filter. A more natural solution is to introduce plants such as Elodea canadensis and Potamogeton crispus in late spring. Fish can increase the likelihood of pollution, but, again, the right filter or water plants will provide the solution.

Bridges

British Garden bridges often have a rather whimsical feel to them. Take Vanbrugh’s 400ft Grand Bridge at Blenheim, Oxfordshire, with its 33 rooms, or the wooden ‘Chinese’ bridge at Painshill in Surrey; the folly bridge at Kenwood House in London isn’t a bridge at all, but was designed to make the lake look larger. The Dream Acres bridges have a whimsical feel to them, too, albeit on a smaller scale. Made from wood and smothered with wisteria and climbing roses, they provide charming focal points to the garden, as does that at Gresgarth Hall.

Fountains

Perhaps you fancy a fountain along the lines of the one described in The Leopard: ‘The waters came spurting in minute jets, blown from shells of Tritons and Naiads, from noses of marine monsters, spattering and pattering on the greenish surface, bouncing and bubbling, wavering and
quivering, dissolving into laughing little gurgles; from the whole fountain, the tepid water, the stones covered with velvety moss, emanated a promise of pleasure that would never turn to pain’?

Or perhaps you prefer something more simple, such as that suggested by 13th-century saint Albert Magnus: ‘A clear fountain of water in a stone basin should be in the midst, for its purity gives much pleasure.’

Wildlife ponds

One of the great pleasures of a garden is that it attracts wildlife, and there is no better way to achieve this than to create a ‘natural pond with shallow edges. This can be done by damming a stream (as we have at Dream Acres) or by more artificial means (such as waterproof pond-lining membrane, or, on heavy clay soils, the traditional method of compacting or ‘puddling’ the clay floor which must be done thoroughly to avoid leaks).  Whichever way you create your pond, the result will be a richer, more diverse eco-system in your garden.

Streams

A garden ‘happily situated as to be bless’d with small Rivulets and purling Streams of clear Water’, as Batty Langley put it, offers endless opportunities, each as delightful as the next. If the topography is favourable, the water can be captured and used to make a cascade, perhaps formal (for example, the one at Holker Hall in Cumbria), or informal (such as that at Groombridge Place in Kent). If the current is weak, it can be channelled into a formal rill, much as Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll did at Hestercombe in Somerset. If there is a sufficient volume of water, the banks can be widened to create an elegant lake in the 18th-century manner, as numerous parks by ‘Capability’ Brown a master of the art of designing with water still testify.  

At Dream Acres, the mown lawn on the south side of the house slopes gently downwards to the stream. East and west of the lawn, the grass has been sown with wildflowers to create a meadow, and this naturalistic treatment has been continued with the casually meandering stream itself. The banks are grassy and planted with large drifts of flowering plants. To the west, out of sight of the house, the stream has been widened to create a small wildlife pond.

* For more Dream Acres and to find out how to create your own Dream Acres please see our microsite which explains  how to create your perfect landscape, gardens and outdoor spaces

What is your dream water feature? Email countrylife_letters@ipcmedia.com

Arabella’s advice for streams

In any design that uses flowing water, thought needs to be given to the speed of the flow. Decide whether the lie of the land allows for waterfalls and if the stream should flow at a gentle trickle or in an energetic rush: a major consideration if the water is to be pumped, as it will determine the size of pump needed.

The path of a stream must always go downhill; an obvious point, perhaps, but sometimes overlooked. For a bridge, consider all the options, from a simple slab of stone to a large structure across a greater volume of water.

A bridge should reflect a garden’s character. In a rugged land-scape, design a sturdy bridge. Or hide the supports to make the structure appear more delicate. A painted bridge adds welcome colour to a setting especially in winter.


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