What is a water garden?

The Tall Pavilion and Long Canal at Westbury Court Garden, Gloucestershire

A ‘water garden’ is a broad term that can be applied to any garden that makes use of water for ornamental effect, be that a series of cascades or a decorative canal.

European influence

Water gardens could be found on the Continent since the Renaissance, such as at the Villa d’Este in Italy, but it was the construction of Louis XIV’s elaborate waterworks in the gardens of Versailles during the latter part of the seventeenth century that led to water gardens becoming increasingly admired in Britain.

The fashion for canals and fountains could be seen in the great gardens of royal palaces as well as gentlemen’s country seats.

Growing popularity

Important contributors to the development of water gardens in Britain included the landscape designer Stephen Switzer (1682-1745) who in 1729 published his Introduction to a General System of Hydrostaticks and Hydraulicks which detailed ‘the most reasonable and advantageous methods of raising and conducting water for the watering noblemen’s and gentlemen’s seats, buildings, gardens, etc.’

Changes in style

As wider gardening tastes changed, so did the nature of water gardens. For example, the 1720s saw the creation of the formal Octagon Lake at Stowe in Buckinghamshire. As more naturalistic gardening became more fashionable later in the century, the shape of the Octagon Lake was softened and altered between the 1750s and 1820s until it became today’s irregular body of water.

Other outmoded water gardens were simply allowed to deteriorate such as the elaborate water features of Dyrham Park in Gloucestershire, constructed for the politician William Blathwayt around 1700. Described in 1779 as ‘much neglected and going to decay’, surviving traces of this lost water garden include a statue of the god Neptune.

Water gardens today

The legacy of historic water gardens, many of which do not survive, can be seen in ornamental water features in today’s back gardens and public parks. Those historic gardens that do survive are invaluable evidence of the development of the water garden in British garden history.

Our celebrated water gardens

The oriental inspired Water Garden at Cliveden, Buckinghamshire


The oriental water garden at Cliveden was created at the beginning of the twentieth century by the American-born William Waldorf Astor, who acquired Cliveden in 1893. The centrepiece of the garden is a six-sided Chinese pagoda brought by Astor from France in 1900.

Dyrham Park's garden has echoes of the past

Dyrham Park 

Dyrham Park was once home to a grand 17th-century Dutch water garden. Since then it has undergone several transformations, the most significant of which saw the East garden become open parkland for the herd of 180 wild fallow deer that graze there today.

Westbury canal

Westbury Court Garden 

This Dutch-style water garden was initially laid out between 1696 and 1705 by a member of the local gentry, Maynard Colchester. Westbury Court is a rare survival of a formal garden from this period, others of which were altered or destroyed as tastes changed later in the eighteenth century.

Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal from Surprise View

Studley Royal Water Garden 

The great Georgian water garden at Studley Royal was developed over the course of the eighteenth century by John Aislabie, Chancellor of the Exchequer 1718-1721, and his son William. The Aislabies created stunning water features, garden buildings, and vistas, and the water garden survives now much as it was on William Aislabie’s death in 1781.

A view across a lake with bright sky reflections of clouds in the water to golden style temples at Stowe


Stowe's lake was originally designed as a formal octagon, but its edges were later softened to create the more naturalistic feature we see today.