The lost gardens of Otterhead

The ‘lost’ gardens, walled gardens and pleasure grounds of the former Otterhead House were developed over 1700 acres between 1817 and 1864. Although the lost gardens of Otterhead House are now in Somerset, most of the gardens as well as Otterhead House were in Devon until a county boundary change in 1897.

flower borders, house lake and house terrace

Due to the steep sided nature of the Otter River valley, the gardens and paths were largely terraced. Otterhead House was situated on the bank of what is now the top lake and was set admist lawns, flower borders, gardens and tennis courts. The gardens were designed by Wiiliam Beadon who orginally lived at Gotton House, near Hestercombe and it is thought that the designed landscape and the water features at Hestercombe were the inspiration for Otterhead. These formal gardens have now been largely lost under years of lake dredgings and the landscaping of the picnic area in the 1970’sand the tennis courts have reverted to woodlands.

Otterhead main drive and cherry laurel hedge

The cherry laurel hedge along the main track from the car park can still be seen today and is at least 100 years old. The Victorian designed landscape at Otterhead was listed by Parks and Gardens UK in March 2012:

The Otterhead Gardeners were as follows Lee c1864, Clarke c1899, Peters c1904, W. Sanders c1918, W. Fennell c1922 - 1926 (Died in service following an accident), W. Rowsell 1932, S. Hessey c1928 - c1935 (Became gardener at Cothelstone House c1937 – 1939), C. Dunbar -  1938 (Became gardener at Sheafhayne)

Rhododendron maximum roseum

The many species of rhododendrons that were planted here in the gardens still survive but plants such as azaleas, lillies, paeonies, phlox and roses no longer survive. The Otterhead Estate Trust is recording, conserving and, where possible, restoring elements of the gardens history including the surviving varieties of rhododendron. Most of the rhododendrons at Otterhead are of asiatic origin including Rhodoendron ponticum, which has unfortunately, become very invasive. Rhododendron maximum, the state flower of West virginia was imported into the UK in the 1700’s and many of its cultivars can still be found at Otterhead.

First Edition Ordnance Survey Map 1890

Walled gardens

The borders of 2 walled gardens lie just to the left of the main path down from the car park but can be viewed from the path above.

The Ordnance Survey had a policy of not showing most private garden paths on later maps, so the map shown to the right is the only one known to depict the path layout in the walled gardens.

The glasshouses, a glazed frame and two potting and storage buildings are shown on later maps. A 121ft long glasshouse for fruit (apricots, figs, nectarines, peaches and pineapples) ran along the wall from the northern corner of the walled gardens.

ventilator of former glass house

The other glasshouses close to the eastern corner included a 48 ft long vinery. The flights of steps shown still lead from the drive, between the two gardens and up to the top level where the largest glasshouse and a terraced walkway were sited.

All the glasshouses had largely collapsed by the late 1980’s. Vegetation has been cut back around the walls in recent years to enable the condition of the walls to be assessed and a safety fence has been installed in places.

Unfortunately both of the walled gardens are closed at present due to the poor condition of the walls but the Otterhead Estate Trust are investigating funding opportunities in the hope of eventually restoring them. Some of the ash trees growing within the walled gardens have now become infected with the fungus causing ash dieback and will also need to be felled where they pose a safety risk.

House Lake

Water Features

As its name suggests, Otterhead is all about water. The top lake above the bridge (House Lake) may have existed originally as a mill pond but at its height as a landscaped pleasure garden, there was a series of 7 lakes fed and linked together by the River Otter, which rises less than a mile to the north of the site. Rhododendron islands were also created in the House Lake. Since the 1970’s only 2 lakes have survived – the House Lake and the lower lake named Royston Water. As you walk along the lower path between the 2 existing lakes, the remains of dams and sluices of the former lakes are still visible.

Higher cascades

At the bottom of the House lake are the Higher and Lower Cascades, which are seen at their best after heavy rain. A sluice gate is situated under the bridge to prevent silting of the lake. Adjacent to the cascades were fish breeding ponds and the site of a hydraulic ram, a water powered pump that conveyed water to the walled gardens.Two artificial waterways called leats (House leat and Bypass leat) were also created within the gardens alongside the river. The Bypass leat was used to prevent storm water from entering and silting up the lakes and the House leat was also used to convey water to the original mill that predated the Estate. The Otterhead Estate Trust is planning to restore this leat to feed a micro hydro-electric generator to provide power to the Coach House.

© Otterhead Estate Trust Ltd 2021