Like Upper Lake, now in the hotel grounds, Lower Lake was constructed from a former hammer pond, but we are not sure when. ‘Hammer’ ponds are not natural lakes but dammed streams and rivers, crucial to the Tudor and Stuart iron industry. The water was necessary to cool the iron, and dammed lakes and ponds were used to create a head of water to drive water wheels, and eventually power furnace bellows and steam hammers. Robinson dredged his newly acquired lake and re-shaped the banks in 1885 and 1887, and the brick and concrete dam wall at the north end of the lake was extensively repaired by Robinson in 1889 (and again in 1904). In 1892 he dredged the lake again, netted all the carp to stop them eating the trout, and left a fringe of silt around the edges to enable planting of flag irises, bulrushes and other waterside plants, the descendants of which can still be seen today. He also planted the lake with water lilies, mostly sourced in England at this stage. William Robinson eventually had one of the world’s finest collections of waterlilies on the lakes, many bred by a French friend Monsieur Latour-Marliac in his nursery near Bordeaux, the same man who inspired Monet’s fascination with water lilies at Giverny. He also developed an extensive collection of clematis, an enthusiasm shared by his head gardener Ernest Markham, and Robinson enjoyed wreathing shrubs, trees and hedgerows with this varied climber, many of which were bred at Gravetye. Clematis macropetala ‘Markham’s Pink’ and Clematis texensis ‘Graveye Beauty’ are still popular today. Robinson planted willows near the water’s edge, carefully choosing varieties with colourful winter stems, or interesting summer foliage, and carefully placed trees and shrubs with a good autumn colour throughout the landscape.
In 1893 he created the stone bridge over the stream which connects both lakes, and added a gate to what is today the hotel grounds so that it was possible to walk from the area below the house, and adjacent to Upper Lake, around the whole of Lower Lake. His friend Gertrude Jekyll sent him sacks of bulbs, and in 1896 100,000 daffodils and narcissi were planted around the lake, and a further 80,000 in 1897, again around the lake but also in the woods and in the hedgerows. He also experimented with planting the seeds of trees, shrubs and wildflowers directly into the soil – with very mixed success.
In 1898 he planted a bamboo garden at the head of Lower Lake and further improved the little bridge and surrounding stone structures mentioned above. He chose bamboo to complement the willows.
In Robinson’s day the Lower Lake was much more open and the planting new and low level. Today it is a beautiful tranquil place completely fringed with trees, including a selection of mature exotics and groups of conifers surviving from Robinson’s time. Over the years much of what Robinson planted has disappeared or become overgrown, and we understand more about the behaviour of some plants, like invasive bamboo, than he did when these were new and exciting to him.
William Robinson Gravetye Charity now manages the estate. As part of our mission to share William Robinson’s legacy, the Charity is committed to restoring the area around the lake as funds become available, starting with the creation of a woodland garden in the woody dell next to the High Weald Landscape Trail, at the start of the Lower Lake walk. In the autumn we hope to start this project by improving the soil and replanting the area. We aim to increase biodiversity at the same time as bringing colour, fragrance and texture to this leafy dell. It is not an easy area to plant as it is in a frost pocket, has little depth of soil in some places, and part of the area floods. However, in this first stage we plan to include many of the plants beloved by Robinson. Of the plants which bear his name or that of Gravetye the Summer Snowflake is probably the best known. In 1924, William Robinson gave the name ‘Gravetye Giant’ to an especially robust, tall and floriferous form of Leucojum aestivum which he first noticed among bulbs he had scattered in the woods. This cultivar remains widely available and it’s unbeatable. Being tall and tough it copes well with competitors in woodland. Geranium himalayense ‘Gravetye’ is another as is Anemone nemorosa ‘Robinsoniana’. This beautiful blue wood anemone can be seen growing in spring beside the path around Lower Lake as it would have done in Robinson’s time.