Extract from Water Log, p 328, a book by the late Roger Deakin of a swimmer’s journey through Britain.


Starting with Capability Brown’s contract to produce a plan for landscaping the Heveningham estate, Deakin moves to an account of the present state of the park and his swim through the newly created water feature down the Blyth to Walpole.

‘But six months after he submitted his plans, Brown died, and although the park was created, the new lake was never dug. By the First World War, one of the two original lakes had become known as `the Dead Lake' because it had silted up. It later reverted to a marsh, with alder trees and sallow growing in it.

It was in this condition that Heveningham Hall was eventually purchased two or three years ago by its present owners, Mr and Mrs Hunt. The house was in a sorry state, having been sold on behalf of the nation by Michael Heseltine to a man from Dubai, during whose tenure some dreadful things happened to the exquisite original interiors designed by James Wyatt. The Wyatt library was all but destroyed in a fire which raged through the east wing, some Wyatt fireplaces were mysteriously stolen, and the owner failed to keep up the mortgage repayments to his Swiss bank. He then died bankrupt, so that this treasure of English Palladian architecture fell into the hands of the official receiver.

Fortunately, the new owners resolved to revive the noble Vanneck tradition of sparing no expense. They set out to restore the house to its former glory, and complete Capability Brown's unfinished grand plan by creating the extended lake as he had designed it two hundred years earlier. It was an enormous project. The old lake was drained and the contractors bought the conveyor belt that had been used to build the Channel Tunnel to carry away the earth and silt as they dug it out. In a classic builder's cock-up, ten men originally spent three weeks assembling the immense machine on site, only to discover it was back to front, and although it might carry mud into the lake, it would not carry it out. They then spent two more weeks dismantling and reassembling it the right way round. The resulting lake stretches very nearly to Walpole. The intention is to excavate the remaining leg to the village in the near future.

I hummed `The Bold Navigator' to myself as I swam, an old navvies' song, imagining Capability Brown in silk breeches sketching his plans, and the immense cost in human toil of digging lakes like this at Holkham, Blickling, Blenheim or Chatsworth, or even excavating the original fish ponds here by hand. The navvies camping out in shanties, the armies of wheelbarrows and spades, wheelbarrow-bridges and viaducts over bottomless puddles of mud, the men dragged scampering after their barrows, locked between the shafts, along sprung, precarious planks. The excavated silt had been banked and planted with sapling parkland trees in the way Brown indicated on his plan. Here was a unique insight into the way great estates must have looked in the eighteenth century before reaching the maturity we see today.

I had to use the empty shell of a freshwater mussel plucked from the mud to cut open the try-your-strength plastic wrapping of a `Power Bat' I had bought in the bike shop and tucked into my wetsuit boot. Refuelled, I swam on, plunging my face into the sweet-tasting water, my rhythmic exhalations reverberating noisily below like off-key whalesong, as though the whole lake were a sounding board. As I neared Walpole in the final stretch, submerged skyscrapers of waterweed loomed up and pale green fingers frisked me as I swam through and landed.

Deakin, R. (1999) Waterlog, Vintage Books