The ‘Restoring the Glory; Revealing the Secrets’ project started in 2017 after securing £2.8 million of funding to restore and repair important elements of the Georgian park and gardens at Cannon Hall, including key (and currently hidden or derelict) features like the ice-house, fairy garden and gardener’s cottage. A quarter of the project has already been completed, and we caught up with Project Manager Sharon Sutton to discover what’s been achieved, and what’s still to do.
It’s thought that the three Georgian lakes in the grounds were originally designed in 1760, and were reformed a few decades later by landscape architect Richard Woods. ‘Richard reformed the lakes to follow the brook that ran through the estate, creating three weirs that we call the cascades now,’ explains Sharon. ‘Each lake had a different purpose for the family; one was used for fishing, one for swimming and one for boating – they were so wealthy they could afford to build their own lake to stock fish.’
These lakes were very much prized by the Spencer-Stanhopes, the family who lived at Cannon Hall for almost 300 years. ‘One of the Spencer-Stanhopes often talked in his letters and diary entries about his “glittering lakes” that could be seen from his library,’ says Sharon.
Unfortunately, over the years the majesty of these three lakes has somewhat degraded and their recreational purpose lost – something the team hope to reverse with the introduction of a jetty and rowing boats on the central lake. ‘Farming methods in the fields above us have changed over the years – rather than grazing sheep and cattle, a lot of the land has gone under the plough,’ explains Sharon. ‘What’s happened is that the soil has filtered down from the fields, through the brook and into the lakes. The top lake in particular had become so full of silt and soil that you could literally walk across it. It was quite comical really, to see the ducks walking across the water – the lake had filled up so much that there was only two or three inches of water left.’
It took four months, but with the help of Ebsford Environmental, they managed to de-silt the lakes and rebuild the banks at the same time. Over the years, the banks of the lakes had been eroded by people and wildlife, so the silt that was drawn out of the lake was used to make the new bank edges.
The next stage of the project is starting in June and involves restoring all the structures around the grounds, as well as landscaping work to open up new vistas in areas where the greenery has become too dense and overgrown. But the team have to be careful what they’re cutting back, as it turns out that Cannon Hall might be home to some of England’s oldest plants.
In order to secure the funding to restore the grounds, the team had to comb through piles of documents and the historical archives of the Spencer-Stanhope family, who were prolific letter-writers and kept diaries throughout their lives. Although this mountain of information was daunting, it is very lucky that the family kept such thorough records.
‘One of the things that was quite heavily featured was lists of plants they were purchasing at the time, and records of the Spencer-Stanhope family’s regular tours of Europe,’ says Sharon. ‘On these tours, it is clear from the records that the family harboured a great passion for plants and were purchasing specimens from abroad for their collection at Cannon Hall. What I’d also noticed was that, during the rhododendron flowering period, the plants all bloomed at different times and were lots of different colours, so I thought it would be a good idea to get someone in who knew what they were looking for.’
The expert they called in was Michael Lear from Lear Associates, and the his findings were very interesting indeed. Although the information still needs to be verified, it seems Cannon Hall is home to some very old specimens of rhododendrons, as well as a manna ash and magnolia of significant historical interest.
‘It’s difficult to ascertain the age of a tree without cutting it down to count the rings – and obviously we don’t want to do that,’ laughs Sharon. ‘We have to go by the diaries, so we’ve got our history group going through the family’s records to try to nail down some of the things we believe to be correct. Michael believes the manna ash and the magnolia to be one of the earliest – if not the earliest – specimens to be brought to the UK, but we just need to find the evidence, a bill or a diary entry, to be able to categorically prove this.’
More research is needed to verify the age of the trees, but the magnolia is believed to date back to the mid-18th century (which Michael estimated by counting 135 rings on a basal shoot which is half the girth of the main trunk), while the manna ash is thought to be a survivor of the original Pleasure Garden, planted around the mid-18th century too.
Cannon Hall are also very proud of their 200-year-old vine and historic pear collection, and they’ve teamed up with the Northern Fruit Group to establish the names of those fruits they can’t currently identify.
While they’re hoping to preserve these relics of the past, the team at Cannon Hall are also looking to the future as they begin restoring the garden structures. Two of the three cottages on the grounds will be transformed into residential lets for families, while the third, the gardener’s cottage, will be turned into a hub for the many volunteers involved with Cannon Hall.
‘As little pieces are done bit by bit, it still looks a bit disjointed,’ says Sharon. ‘But hopefully, in the next few months, all the pieces will start coming together.’ As the project is ‘revealing the secrets’ of the grounds, there’s obviously a lot of effort going in to make inaccessible and hidden areas more open to visitors, but they’re also dedicated to providing more elements for families with young children to enjoy, restoring the grounds to their former recreational glory. It is hoped that the work will be finished by this time next year.