University of Cambridge Museums

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Dredging the Archive

The lake here at the Botanic Garden is currently undergoing much needed dredging. It occurs to me that this methodical process of collecting and sifting is actually pretty similar to the approach we take to research in our library and archive collections. Inspired, I’ve been doing some dredging of my own, sifting through the archive for references to the lake, piecing together the history of this much loved Garden feature.

Lake detail from Murray map 1840s

Lake detail from Murray map 1840s

There is evidence from several sources that a pond (or “canal”, as it was then referred to) was a feature of the University’s original Botanic Garden, and it is clear from surviving plans that a lake was always part of the design for the new (current) much larger Garden, the creation of which was deemed necessary for growing the specimens essential for botanical research and teaching. In 1830 Edward Lapidge, a London architect, was invited to draw up a plan for the intended new Garden. His design included a large lake surrounding an island accessible by bridges. After a decade long hiatus, planning for the Garden was revived in the early 1840s and a new plan was drawn up by Andrew Murray, appointed as the Garden’s Curator. This plan retained many of the features proposed by Lapidge, including a lake, albeit scaled down and (roughly) horseshoe shaped.

Planting began at the new Garden in 1846, but an 1856 plan of the Garden’s principle features shows no sign of a lake. Looking for clues in the minutes of meetings of the Garden’s Syndicate (its governing body), we find the first mention of the lake, or “pond” as it was then known, in that same year. A plan had been devised to supply water by “diverting the course by which the waste water from Hobson’s watercourse runs into Vicar’s Brook so as to make it pass first thro the pond in the Botanic Garden”. This was no easy task, either physically or administratively. The Syndicate meeting minutes attest to much to-ing, fro-ing and consultation, culminating in a formal request by the University’s Vice Chancellor to the Mayor of Cambridge, asking him to bring the scheme before the Council for approval, which was granted in May 1857. The Curator was immediately authorised to employ labourers to dig the pond and, a little later, the new watercourse. Finally, in the minutes of a meeting in June 1858, we read of the Curator’s report that “the pond” had been completed, for the princely sum of £152!

The lake and its raised promontory have been a striking feature of the Garden ever since, providing variation in landscape and vegetation, an important habitat for wildlife, and picturesque views. Our photographic archive testifies to the continuing change and interest provided by this fabulous feature which, thanks to the current works, will carry on thrilling and delighting us for years to come.

Jenny Sargent, Cory Library Manager, Cambridge University Botanic Garden

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This entry was posted on December 21, 2016 by in Behind the Scenes, Culture, Goal 1, News, Research and tagged , , .
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