Duck islands return to Westbury Court after 300 years

A view from above Westbury

It’s been three centuries since ducks nested on the canal at Westbury Court garden in Gloucestershire, but that’s all about to change with the reinstatement of two new duck islands.

In the early 1700s, Gloucestershire alone had more than twenty water gardens but very few of these survived to the end of the century. The fashion for naturalistic landscape gardens took hold and swept most of them away.

Westbury Court is the only 17th-century English interpretation of a Dutch-style water garden to survive in the UK. Totally derelict when given to the National Trust in 1967, it was the first major garden restoration project of its kind.  Almost fifty years later, elements of the original garden are still being reinstated.

Piecing the puzzle together

Back in 1707, Johannes Kip, a Dutch draftsman and engraver who specialised in producing bird’s-eye views of great country houses and gardens, included duck islands in his detailed engraving of Westbury Court. You can even make out ducks swimming around them.

Part of Johannes Kip's engraving showing the house and canal, complete with duck islands to the left of the image
Westbury Court Engraving by Johannes Kip 1707
Part of Johannes Kip's engraving showing the house and canal, complete with duck islands to the left of the image

Putting the islands back is another piece in the restoration jigsaw of this extremely rare garden. Head Gardener, Jerry Green, explains, ‘The original islands would probably have been made by driving wooden stakes into the clay and infilling with stone and soil. For our replacements, we chose to have floating islands that are anchored by weights; these will be less invasive, and more easily revisable and removable.'

Eight mesh baskets, set inside the circular islands, have been filled with flag iris and marsh marigolds which will mature over time and provide cover for the ducks.

Formal yet functional

Westbury Court was originally laid out by Maynard Colchester, a member of the local gentry, between 1696 and 1705. With William III (William of Orange) and Mary II on the throne, the Dutch style of gardening - with its topiary, elaborate parterres, canals and surrounding walls -  was highly fashionable. Colchester may also have been influenced by his close neighbour, Catherine Bovery of Flaxley Abbey. The daughter of an Amsterdam merchant, she was busy constructing her own Dutch garden in the early 1690s.

Despite its decorative formality, the garden was also very productive, not just in fruit and vegetables but with animals kept for the kitchen. As well as a rabbit warren, now restored, the canals were filled with fish. Although the islands would have provided a safe place for the ducks to nest, their ultimate destination was the dinner table. Fortunately, their 21st century counterparts won’t be dealt the same fate.