The hidden engineering behind Gibside's garden

A hidden culvert at Gibside

Gibside is known for its Palladian chapel and landscaped grounds that form a grand Georgian estate, home to one of the most powerful families in England, the Bowes.

What many don’t know is that there is an extensive network of culverts underground, controlling water as part of the original Georgian garden experience. Which no one ever sees.  

A culvert is a large, stone drainage channel and coal czar George Bowes, who owned Gibside in the 1700s, used the skills of his coal miner workforce to build them and channel water into designed areas of the gardens for specific purposes. 

Water was incredibly important to the running of the estate but was intentionally kept out of sight, an example of how the garden’s creator had the power to control nature. 

So where are the culverts?

At the time, labour was so cheap that the culverts weren’t even recorded in the 1700’s. They would simply be dug and built, and then re-dug and built, as and when needed. 

Or when a new garden idea was implemented, and with George’s wealth and power he was determined to control nature as much as possible to ensure the best looking landscape designed garden. 

To help, there are culverts feeding a small reservoir in one of the pasture meadows, which is screened from view with trees, this feeds the water troughs for the prize live-stock. George is credited with the creation of the foundation herd of the Durham Short Horn cattle breed. A breed that has been brought back to Gibside in partnership with the tenant farmer.

On the river side of the Avenue is a cascade, again fed by invisible, but huge, man-made stone culverts.

There would have been two ways of viewing this cascade, one was a substantial path bridging a stream created by the water flow, that Georgian female family and guests would opt for (partially as they wore large high fashion dresses so needed wide paths to walk on).

Then there would have been a swing brige that the dashing Georgian gentlemen would use to demonstrate their wealth to the ladies.  

This cascade was designed to optimise the water run-off down the valley to bring drama into the garden experience, for the privileged few only, of course.

Further down this dene are the ruins of the bath house which are also fed by the water culverts. The bath house was a real den of debauchery with gambling, alcohol and it is suggested, visits by ‘ladies of the night’.  

Water was also channelled by culverts into the Hall itself, as well as a small paper mill on the river side, the ornamental mirror pond and octagon pond - the latter of which also has a pumped water feature operated by a sluice gate to build water pressure and then releasing it for more dramatic effect.  

The walled garden also took a water feed from the culverts to maintain the D-shaped pond, which was stocked with fish as part of the food production purpose of the walled garden.  

The culverts have lasted over 300 years with the help of various repairs made with plastic and clay underground pipes.  

We are taking inspiration from the Georgian strategy of ultimate water control, mixed with more modern options that last longer without the maintenance need that weren’t ever considered as important.

A group of volunteers having a break

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