The first wilderness garden on this site was created by Viscount Tryconnel in the 1740s when it was fashionable to create outdoor places for quiet contemplation. The 1st Earl who inherited the estate in 1807 enhanced it further, adding interest, colour and character with the introduction of an arboretum, shrubberies, islands, a boathouse and the hermitage.
The walk passes through ancient woodland which retains evidence of many of its original features, including a cascade, gothic ruin and 19th century boathouse. The 7th Baron introduced an adventure playground into this area in 1978. So as you follow the Wilderness Walk, be prepared to encounter the sight and sounds of happy children!
Belton House main car park, grid ref: SK928391
The route can be accessed from both ends of the wilderness. This guide begins at the southern end closest to the car park. As you exit the Visitor Reception Building, go left between it and the information point. Cross the road taking care to look out for cars on your left and head to the wooden footbridge. Once across the first bridge stop at the brick foundations on your left.
The remains of the hermitage, designed by Antony Salvin in the 19th century, were discovered in 2013. It originally sat on an island, approached over an ornate bridge across the river. Entering the island through a rustic gateway, the visitor was encouraged to experience it as a place of solitude for quiet contemplation.
Cross over the second wooden bridge into the woodland and take the path to the left in front of the level crossing and beyond the play equipment until you come to a wooden boardwalk. As you cross it you will see a tree on your left surrounded by a circular wooden picket fence.
Belton's Muddle Tree
The unusual tree within the fence, known as the muddle tree at Belton, is a hornbeam with oak shaped leaves, Carpinus betula quercifoliahas. It was the result of a failed experiment at a nursery in Hamburg called Loddies and Booth. Over time the oak shaped leaves have begun reverting back to the natural hornbeam shape.
Continue along the path through the woodland until you reach the far end of the train track. Just beyond this there’s a wooden fence across the end of the woodland, with a ditch known as a ha-ha in front of it and fields beyond.
View across to Manthorpe
Originally, there wouldn’t have been a fence along this boundary between the wilderness and the open fields beyond. The boundary would have just been a ditch, deeper than the one there now. A natural, vertical boundary, livestock are unable to cross or climb up it, preserving an uninterrupted view of Manthorpe Church and the landscape beyond.
Retrace your steps back along the path and looking straight ahead you will notice some large trees with dramatic ‘drooping’ branches. The best place to spot them from is where the path is closest to the track.
Weeping Beech Trees
What may not be immediately clear is that these weeping beech trees are planted in a horseshoe shape. Originally there were nine trees grouped around a grassy glade but now there are only seven. These wondrous trees which rustle in the breeze, creating marvellous dappled shade, are a showpiece of the garden.
Continue following the path back to the level crossing and cross the train track. At the kiosk follow the path to the right. When you reach the large play tower on your right, take a closer look at the large Wellingtonia tree stump with carved greyhounds on top. Greyhounds are significant at Belton, and have a frequent presence in the mansion. Continue over the boardwalk and through the trees.
Landscape architect William Ponty was commissioned to carry out extensive tree planting in 1814, creating an arboretum with specimens from around the world. An eye-catching mix of species, it includes a variety of oak tree unique to Belton which grows distinctly tall and straight. Enormous Wellingtonias were also a feature.
Continue walking, through the yew avenue. As you approach the end of the playground look right and you will see, and possibly hear, the most dramatic highlight of the wilderness garden.
Built in 1745 this folly was built as a gothic ruin, with an arch in the centre of a cascade. Its centrepiece is a window from Normanton Church, Lincolnshire. Tryconnel was thrilled with what he achieved, writing to his nephew and heir John Cust, ‘Belton never so green and pleasant; a grand rustic arch finished with vast rough stones over ye cascade of ye river and two artificial rocks on each side’.
Follow the path over the bridge across the river, with additional views of the cascade, until you reach a building.
The pump house, and water wheel within it, were constructed in 1820 to supply water around the estate including the fountain in the Italian Garden. Its creator John Braithwaite estimated that the pump could deliver 14 gallons of water in one minute. The pump is now in the Science Museum. The water wheel was restored in 2011 and whilst it no longer powers the water supply, it’s in working order.
The path continues through an avenue of yew trees. On your right adjacent to the river is the boathouse.
Built in the 1830’s, this intricate structure is one of only two buildings of its type in the country. Originally constructed with walls of criss-crossed yew branches supported by oak pillars, it had a slate roof with decorative gilded weathervanes on top. The structure is currently being restored with the aid of period watercolour paintings by Sophia Cust, using traditional skills and materials.
Looking upstream from the boathouse, imagine what it would have been like to board a punt and head upstream to the start of the walk you've just experienced.
Punting at Belton
The Brownlow family would have used the boathouse to store punts, narrow flat bottomed boats propelled by a single pole. They would punt upstream to the summerhouse, alight on the southern island and walk back through the garden. Punting would open up vistas not seen on foot, showing off the wilderness features and planting to best effect.
Belton House main car park, grid ref: SK928391
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