Belton’s lost garden

A painting of the cascade approximately dated 1750, shows a rustic arch in the centre of the cascade and a ruin to the left

The Wilderness Garden fell into decline in the mid-twentieth century with many of the plants and features being lost to time. Over the last five years, the National Trust has begun to uncover some of the mysteries and now plans to reinstate some of the grandeur of the wilderness.

The story of the Wilderness garden is one of evolution, as successive generations and fashions made their mark.  The story at Belton starts in the 1740s. Viscount Tryconnel was the first to create a garden on the riverside site. Clusters of yew trees framed the approach guiding you toward the showpiece, the Gothic Ruin. Completed in 1745, it was Tyrconnel’s crowning achievement in the gardens at Belton. The river had to be diverted, new channels excavated and the rustic arch and ruins constructed. Tryconnel was thrilled with what he’d achieved writing to his nephew and heir;

" Belton never so green and pleasant; a grand rustic arch finished with vast, rough stones over ye cascade of ye river, and two huge artificial rocks on each side. Designed and executed, as I think, in a taste superior to anything that I have seen, either at Lord Gainsborough’s or Lord Cobham’s. "
- Viscount Tryconnel

Following Viscount Tyrconnels death in 1754, developments to the wilderness ceased. It wasn’t until 1807 when Belton is inherited by the first Earl Brownlow that work began again on the Wilderness site.

In the early nineteenth century, a number of visionaries began to promote the idea of picturesque gardens. The leader of the movement was landscape theorist William Gilpin, an accomplished artist known for his realistic depictions of nature. He preferred the natural landscape over the manicured.  He also noted that while classical beauty was associated with the smooth and neat, picturesque beauty had a wilder, untamed quality. The picturesque style also incorporated architectural follies—castles, gothic ruins, rustic cottages—built to add interest and depth to the landscape.

The first Earl dramatically altered the landscape from a flat floodplain to a picturesque countryside, with rolling hills sweeping down to the river. The subtle undulations still visible on the site are entirely artificial to create interest and enhance the planting. Within the river itself, three islands were created and the course of the river altered to add to the designed landscape.

Belton’s gothic ruins were enhanced with additional stonework, a gothic church window and stone, all salvaged from the dismantling of Normanton Church. By the late nineteenth century, the ruins were almost unrecognisable when compared to those depicted in Derby’s painting.

By the 1820’s the Gardenesque style of English garden design had evolved out of the picturesque. In a Gardenesque plan, all trees, shrubs and other plants are positioned and managed in such a way that the character of each plant can be displayed to its full potential. With the spread of botany as a suitable subject of study for the enlightened, the Gardenesque tended to emphasise botanical curiosities and a collector's approach.

New plant material that would have seemed bizarre and alien in earlier gardening found a place in this new style, including pampas grass from Argentina and monkey-puzzle trees from Chile. Winding paths linked scattered plantings. The Gardenesque approach included the creation of small-scale landscapes, dotted with features and vignettes, to promote the beauty of detail, variety and mystery.  Artificial mounds helped to stage groupings of shrubs, and island beds became prominent features.

The first Earl employed William Pontey, an arboriculturalist, to source specimen trees from around the world and create an arboretum in the Wilderness. Some of the trees still exist today; the Corsican Pine, the Wellingtonia and the Californian Pine. More than a dozen specialist Oaks are planted, known as Belton Oaks. These trees grow very tall and very straight, unlike an English Oak.

Remnants of the shrubberies can still be glimpsed in the overgrown box hedging and yew. Sadly, since the deer gained access to the garden most of the planting has been lost.

On two of the three islands, the first Earl constructed features to excite his guests and add to the beauty of the garden. The first of these follies is the Hermitage, designed by Antony Salvin in the 1820s. This rustic retreat was nestled on the largest island and only accessible by bridge from the Wilderness Garden. Abandoned in the mid-twentieth century, the building collapsed and lay forgotten until 2012. An archaeological dig discovered the footings for the structure, and in 2017 a watercolour by Lady Sophia Cust was discovered in the Aylesbury archives showing the detail of this rustic building.

The Hermitage at Belton, watercolour by Sophia Cust
The Hermitage watercolour by Sophia Cust, Lady Tower
The Hermitage at Belton, watercolour by Sophia Cust

A summerhouse was located on the southernmost island. It’s believed the building was of rustic design with a thatched roof to match the hermitage. A knucklebone floor still survives buried.  It’s made of the bones from 900 sheep in a decorative pattern. This would have provided a space for visitors to the Wilderness to sit and think, entering a contemplative state of mind before experiencing the garden itself.

The last building constructed in the Wilderness is the Boathouse. The most tantalising evidence we have for its original appearance is a watercolour by Lady Sophia Cust. This shows a highly decorative rustic building. Constructed of yew with a fish-scale slate roof and two gilded weathervanes, this building was designed to be noticed. 

It’s now believed that the Boathouse was designed as an entrance to the Wilderness, the family would punt upstream to the summerhouse, alighting on the southern island then walking through the Wilderness Garden stopping at the Hermitage and finishing with the impressive Gothic Ruin. When looking at the garden from this perspective, the vistas open up and the planting is shown off.

Over the next year, we plan to restore a small section of the Wilderness, the area surrounding the northern island and the Boathouse. The restoration of the Boathouse will enable visitors to experience the Wilderness from the water once again as punting is reintroduced.

Watercolour of Belton's Boathouse in the Wilderness garden

Help save Belton's 19th century boathouse 

The boathouse is an intrinsic part of Belton’s wilderness and historic garden design.